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Latest On MLB’s Minor League Restructuring Initiative

Major League Baseball has embarked on a strategic overhaul of the minor league system in the past year. MLB and the commissioner’s office has brought the entire development system under the MLB umbrella, presuming that with streamlined efforts, more coherent operations, and synergistic organizational strategies, MLB can better leverage the vast network of affiliates to grow interest in the game – and thereby, of course, grow revenue(s).

Rather than have each affiliated team function as an independent entity, signing contracts with Major League clubs on a contract-by-contract basis, MLB has finished its restructuring so that each ML franchise now has four affiliates – one each for the Triple-A, Double-A, High-A, and Low-A levels – totaling 120 minor league teams, as laid out by J.J. Cooper of Baseball America.

A standardized system makes a certain amount of sense. Baseball’s expansive development network, after all, sets it apart from other major North American sports, and this new strategy allows MLB to better leverage that network to build popularity and grab eyeballs.

The draft, for example, has long been a source of consternation for some, as the event draws significant viewership in basketball and football, while baseball’s equivalent event pales in comparison. The NFL and NBA, of course, have much shorter timetables for promoting those players to the top league. It takes many years for most recent draftees to reach the Show. And yet, the popularity of college sports, drafts, and the rising prevalence of prospect knowledge in baseball suggest there is genuine interest in following players before they reach the summit.

Thus, MLB recently announced their newly formed MLB Draft League, which simultaneously looks to create some of that buzz for the players in the draft, while keeping organized baseball in some of the minor league cities shut out by the restructuring. It will be a 6-team league in the Mid-Atlantic with a 68-game schedule to showcase the talent available in the July draft (formerly in June).

While that sounds well and good, the owners of minor league franchises aren’t particularly pleased with their new arrangement, writes the Athletic’s Evan Drellich. It’s not hard to see why. With the standardization of the minor league system came the elimination of 43 franchises from their ranks. MLB is also shortening the season and moving many clubs from one league to another as they see fit, as noted in this piece by the Athletic’s Jen McCaffrey and Chad Jennings.

Drellich provides specifics that showcase further the effect to which MLB is using its considerable influence to shepherd these minor league franchises exactly where they want them. Per Drellich, MLB has sent out a 56-page Professional Development License that amounts to a preview of the 10-year contract they’re being asked to sign. From Drellich:

To move forward, MLB requires minor league owners to sign two things in the next week and a half: a non-disclosure agreement and an indemnification of MLB. To emphasize: Minor league owners at this point are not formally agreeing to be MLB’s partner. That comes once the actual PDL is reviewed. So the decision those teams face now, then, seems simple: if they’re considering a lawsuit against MLB, they’d be signing away those rights in order to review the full PDL.

Clubs have different concerns, and with the MiLB essentially dissolving, there’s less and less cohesion, making it difficult for these clubs to form opposition. Minor League Baseball’s Board of Trustees still exists, notes Drellich, and they’re one potential leader in an organizing effort, but they’re not the only potential path. Ultimately, the more options, the more roadblocks, especially since these clubs are being asked to sign the PDL by December 18th. MLB, for its part, is planning a leadership council as part of the conditions of the PDL, but the commissioner’s office will maintain unilateral control.

Drellich lays out many more details of the proposed plan, and his piece is a must-read. Lawsuits are likely to follow in some form or fashion – this saga isn’t done yet. That said, MLB’s influence is overwhelming. And to their credit, not to suggest they are “pure of heart” or purpose, but MLB does ultimately want to make more money for and with these franchises, which at the very least, is an objective they share with minor league owners. From that perspective, MLB’s decision to “join forces” with MiLB seems sound.

Only, MiLB doesn’t really exist anymore, and MLB is actually dealing with independent business owners. Agency is no small sticking point, and minor league clubs are being pushed to sign away theirs in order to remain a part of the MLB superstructure. Their response – individually and collectively – is the next step in the process.

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