Just as every other baseball fan, I've been keeping a close eye on Rob Manfred's plan to eliminate 42 minor league baseball teams. For the casual fan, the contraction plan would have very little impact, but for those of us who follow baseball all the way down to the depths of the minor leagues and/or enjoy attending small-town baseball games, this move is huge. For the 42 cities that will be losing their minor league affiliation and the economic benefits that come with, it's even bigger.
For those of you who haven't been following this closely, the agreement between the MLB and minor league baseball will expire after the 2020 season. Generally, the negotiations between the two sides go off without a hitch, but this time around, Manfred and the MLB owners are choosing to exploit the leverage they monopolize to force the MiLB into changes that will amount to big cost savings to MLB owners.
Manfred's plan is well-summarized in this article by Bill Madden of New York Daily News. The plan includes the dissolution of 42 minor league teams, a reduction of the entry draft to 20 rounds, and a limit of 150 players in an organization. The Rookie Leagues would be completely dissolved, and the teams within them are factored into the 42 teams mentioned above. The Bristol Pirates would be one of those teams. Since the Rookie Leagues are terminated under this plan, newly-drafted players would report to MLB team facilities to work on specifics of their game.
I'm generally the type that gives change a chance, and will at least listen to, and thoroughly consider plans such as Manfred's before reacting emotionally. At least I like to think that's the case. The elimination of the Rookie League's would be sad, but, I have to admit, the outcome would likely be a better major league product. Putting draftees through a combine to work on the analytics of their game is probably better for their development than playing games and trying to change the tire while driving down the road. So, I kind of get that part of it. I don't like the means, but I see the end. What I can't get down with is the lack of truth coming from Manfred and the owners. If this was a plan to develop a better system to produce an improved MLB product, I would respect their position more. But, it's not about that. It's a cost-saving move. Actually, if they would come right out and express that 'we want to cut costs by eliminating 42 minor league teams,' that position is more respectable. The problem is that that's not what they're doing. They understood that this was going to be a wildly unpopular plan. We are in the midst of an off-season that saw massive deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars given to free agents. So, it's understandable why league owners made the negotiations about things like facilities and player welfare as opposed to the cost-savings that it actually is. If the Nationals can afford to pay Stephen Strasburg $245 million, why can't they afford to keep the Hagerstown Suns around? It's a valid question they are trying to avoid.
If this really is about player welfare and facilities, why is a team like the Erie Seawolves on the list. I grew up an hour outside of Erie, Pennsylvania, and remember going to Jerry Uht Park (now UPMC Park) to see Justin Verlander breeze through batters. At the time, the Seawolves had two pitchers in their rotation, Verlander and Joel Zumaya, who could top 100 mph with their fastball, and the city of Erie knew it. That town was buzzing when either of those guys took the mound. So, confusion as to why they are included on that list is met with sadness at the possibility that Erie will be losing their team.
The reason I am puzzled, and Erie Seawolves' officials are as well, is the point that Manfred made as a key reason for his own frustration during the negotiations. Here is what Manfred said:
Major League Baseball has been and will remain flexible in its negotiating position. I hope that Minor League Baseball, which has taken the position that they’re not willing to discuss anything but the status quo or any changes that would provide for upgrades in adequate facilities, better working conditions for our players. That they move off the take-it-or-leave-it status quo approach and come to the table and try to make a deal.
I can't speak for every minor league affiliate as to the condition of their facilities or the plan to upgrade, but I do know a thing or two about Erie's. Recently, the Seawolves received a $12 million grant to construct massive upgrades their facility. Construction is already underway and the plan is to unveil the improvements for the beginning of the 2020 season. So, problem solved, right Rob? Apparently not.
Remember when I said that I prefer to not react emotionally to issues like this? Welp, the inclusion of the Erie Seawolves on that list made it emotional for me (although I still think it's a great example of the MLB's dishonest manipulation of the narrative). So, it's important to point out that Erie isn't the only example. The MiLB issued a rather lengthy rebuttal to other points raised by Manfred:
I totally get that Major League Baseball is a business and the decisions made by the owners are theirs to make. I just wish there was some honesty that accompanied those decisions. If the MLB feels that they can produce a better big league product at a lower cost, more power to them, but say that. Dragging good baseball towns, like Erie, through the mud by painting a phony picture of stadiums in disrepair is where they lose me.
To make matters worse, the renovations for Erie's UPMC Park were publicly funded, and they aren't the only ones. This is why you are seeing politicians getting involved. The fallout from this proposal, if enacted, will be massive. Baseball will lose some fans. Some young players will lose opportunity as the demand for new talent will shrink with the 150-player limit. I think some fans would be willing to forgive, but it becomes much more difficult when Rob Manfred and the owners won't honestly tell you us what we need to forgive them for.
Follow Jared on Twitter: @a_piratelife