The San Diego Padres could enter the abbreviated 2020 season with a starting rotation of right-handers Chris Paddack, Dinelson Lamet, Garrett Richards and Zach Davies, along with left-hander Joey Lucchesi, and nobody would truly blame them. Then again, everyone knows the Padres can do better and, in what should be a memorable sprint to the finish, it seems like a franchise that last tasted postseason play when George W. Bush was president would do whatever it could to contend.
Lefty prospect MacKenzie Gore, 21, has yet to ply his trade in Triple-A, but that opportunity cannot come in 2020 anyway, because there is no minor league baseball. A year ago, the Padres aggressively promoted shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. from Double-A to the majors and, injuries aside, he thrived. The Padres still lost a lot more games than they won but that was over a six-month stretch. This will be just two-plus months. Flags, as they say, still fly forever. Most any club can thrive for a 60-game window. So, win now, Padres. Promote the fellow who could be your top pitcher right now. Fantasy managers are sure watching.
Rockies GM supports Ian Desmond’s decision to skip 2020 season
DENVER — Colorado Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich said he supports Ian Desmond‘s decision to sit out the 2020 season to focus on his young family and help rejuvenate youth baseball in his hometown in Florida.
Bridich said he had a pair of recent conversations with the 34-year-old outfielder, who announced his decision in a lengthy and heartfelt Instagram post Monday night.
Desmond wrote that the “COVID-19 pandemic has made this baseball season one that is a risk I am not comfortable taking.” The slugger, who is biracial, also mentioned a myriad of issues within baseball, including sexism, homophobia and socioeconomic concerns, as well as the racial reckoning that emerged after George Floyd’s death while in police custody in Minneapolis sparked protests around the world.
“The conversations with Ian felt the exact same that his written words feel to me,” Bridich said, “which is from the heart and honest. … I did not know that he was going to write something as thoughtful and as comprehensive as (he did), but I’m not surprised.”
Desmond, who hit .255 with 20 homers in 140 games last season, had been due $5,555,556 for the prorated share of his $15 million salary, part of a $70 million, five-year contract. He is owed $8 million next year, and his deal includes a $15 million team option for 2022 with a $2 million buyout.
Opting out this summer doesn’t affect his 2021 status, nor does it affect his relationship with Bridich.
“Ian is extremely thoughtful in what he does, he’s thoughtful in how he prepares as a professional athlete, he’s thoughtful as a husband and a father … he’s thoughtful about things that are bigger than him,” Bridich said. “And to this point, the reference has been the team or the clubhouse or the locker room, or things that affect the organization, his charity work, passion projects of his outside of the game of baseball.
“He’s willing to devote a lot of time and energy and thought to all of the things that he does. And so when you have somebody like that who is a professional athlete who is in the thick of it every day and trying to do the very best that he can to hold up his end of the bargain as an athlete, a teammate, a performer, and then he’s always willing to think about other people on the team, in the organization and outside the organization, it’s easy to gravitate to people like that.”
Desmond complained about a lack of diversity in baseball and criticized the clubhouse atmosphere, saying it includes racism, sexism and homophobia. Bridich said Desmond didn’t complain specifically about the Rockies’ clubhouse, but Bridich did acknowledge the organization could be more diverse.
In his Instagram post, Desmond said he has been sharing more of his thoughts and experiences as a biracial man since Floyd’s death on May 25. Floyd, a Black man in handcuffs, died after a white police officer held his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.
Desmond said his mind started racing during a recent visit to the Sarasota baseball fields that he played on as a kid. He wrote how they looked run down and neglected, and how important youth baseball was for him growing up.
Desmond said he wants to help Sarasota Youth Baseball get back on track.
Although Desmond’s decision is a big loss for Colorado, the Rockies on Tuesday agreed to a minor league deal with veteran Matt Kemp, who owns a .327 batting average with 21 home runs and 77 RBIs over 86 career games at Denver’s downtown ballpark.
“Yeah, we’re well aware of the damage that he’s done against us,” Bridich said.
Kemp, who is expected in Denver by Thursday, will have to earn his way onto the roster, and he’ll benefit from the National League using the designated hitter when pro baseball attempts to start the coronavirus-delayed season in late July.
“The DH is an obvious benefit in terms of his potential place on our major league roster,” Bridich said. “That was going to be the case whether Ian opted in or opted out, and so again, it’s a right-handed power bat. He’s got a sense of the strike zone, we’ve seen it for how many years? And he’s very motivated to get back on the field and continue his career and play well. Whether that’s in the outfield or only at DH, we have to let some weeks pass before we can make any decisions like that.”
Barry Bonds, Alex Bregman voted to ESPN’s greatest all-time college baseball team
The first college baseball game was played on July 1, 1859, when Amherst College defeated William College 73-32, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. In the 162 years since then, there have been nearly as many legendary college baseball players as there were runs scored in that contest.
But who is the best of the best? We decided to take that debate to the fans of college baseball while they were stuck at home in June without a College World Series to watch. The votes are in, and the roster is set. Here’s who made the team and the stories that got them there.
Quick, make a list of people who have a song written about them. Johnny B. Goode, Runaround Sue, Sweet Caroline … and Buster Posey. That’s how great he was at Florida State.
“Oh, yeah, man, they had a whole song they would sing when he came to the plate,” Mike Martin, Posey’s coach and the winningest head coach in college baseball history, said. “They’d go, ‘Bus-ter Po-see! He’ll hit a home run! He’ll throw you out, too!'”
Gerald Dempster Posey III could have landed on this roster at any position on the field. In fact, he seemed destined to make this list as a shortstop. That’s where he started his career at Florida State, hitting .346 and earning freshman All-American honors. But the following fall, Martin needed a catcher, so he and associate head coach Jamey Shoupe suggesting trying Buster behind the plate.
“I thought they were pulling my leg,” Buster said. “But we set up the pitching machine, and I took some pitches, and I’ve been behind the plate ever since.”
Posey spent that winter studying Jorge Posada and Joe Mauer, and the next season, he hit .362, threw out 41% of potential base stealers and became the youngest finalist named for the Johnny Bench Catcher of the Year Award. His final year, he won that award, along with the Dick Howser Trophy and the Golden Spikes Award, after hitting .463 with 26 homers and 93 RBIs, barely missing college baseball’s second Triple Crown. On May 12, 2008, against Savannah State, Posey played all nine positions in one game, striking out the only two batters he faced. Then he led FSU to its first College World Series berth in eight years.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you get songs written in your honor.
First base: Will Clark, Mississippi State
“Oh, lawd, that swing.” That’s the reaction of anyone who saw Will Clark doing work at The Dude, even now, 35 years after his last game in a Mississippi State uniform. He was the first half of what is likely the greatest 1-2 punch in college baseball history: the “Thunder and Lightning” combo with future big league teammate Rafael Palmeiro.
The ’85 Bulldogs are widely considered the best team to not win a College World Series title, as a team with four future MLB All-Stars (including Jeff Brantley and Bobby Thigpen) was forced to settle for third in Omaha, Nebraska. But that took little away from Clark’s Golden Spikes season. In ’85, Will the Thrill hit .425 with 25 dingers, 77 RBIs and 75 runs scored. He left Starkville as a two-time All-American with a .391 career batting average. He still ranks in the top 10 of nearly every major run-producing category in whatever college record book you can find.
“We were on the U.S. Olympic team together in ’84 in Los Angeles, and pretty much everyone on that team ended up playing in the major leagues,” former UNC Tar Heel and 18-year big leaguer B.J. Surhoff said. “Will was the one guy that we would all stop what we were doing to watch him take batting practice.”
Because, oh lawd, that swing.
Will Clark: 29.50%
Frank Thomas: 26.09%
Lance Berkman: 15.52%
Andrew Vaughn: 7.99%
Dustin Ackley: 6.07%
Dave Magadan: 5.91%
Tim Wallach: 4.58%
Eddy Furniss: 4.34%
Second base: Todd Walker, LSU
Identifying the best player of the Skip Bertman era at LSU is like trying to decide which diamond is the shiniest rock in the jewelry store. But ask the Tigers, and they all point to No. 12, the second bagger out of Airline High School in Bossier City, Louisiana. However, if they’re being honest, none of them was pointing toward him when he arrived on campus in 1991. He was the third-string second baseman, and many thought he should have taken his 51st draft pick money ($60,000) from the Texas Rangers and skipped college altogether. But he chose to come to The Box and fight for a spot in the lineup.
“That first fall practice, no one could strike him out, and we had a couple of future major league arms on that team,” Bertman said. “I’d never seen someone so dug in at the plate, so I decided we’d start him as a freshman and see if he’d stick. I’d say he did.”
Over three years, Walker hit .396 with 246 RBIs, 52 homers and 51 stolen bases. In the ’93 College World Series, he drove in the ninth-inning run that put LSU in the title game. In that title game against Wichita State, he homered in the first inning to spark an 8-0 blowout. He was named Most Outstanding Player, with a CWS stat line of .390/3/12. So, yeah, he stuck.
When Alex Bregman arrived in Baton Rouge in 2012, he requested to wear jersey No. 30. Why? Because he was still angry at the 30 big league teams that passed on selecting him during the first round of that year’s MLB draft.
Relive some highlights from Alex Bregman’s time at LSU that led him to become the second overall selection by the Astros in the 2015 MLB draft.
Over the next three years, he played like a man fueled by revenge. In 2013, he earned All-American honors, the Brooks Wallace Award for the nation’s best shortstop and a trip to the College World Series, all as a freshman. In 2015, he powered the top-ranked Tigers back to Omaha and was one of four finalists for the Golden Spikes Award. His final LSU stats: .337 with 153 runs scored, 56 doubles, 66 stolen bases and 583 assists vs. 36 errors, with only nine in his final season.
In the 2015 MLB draft, only one team passed on Bregman, as he went second overall to the Houston Astros.
Third base: Robin Ventura, Oklahoma State
There was never a question as to whether Robin Ventura was going to be on this team. It was only a question of whether the team might be named the Fightin’ Venturas. The Hot Corner slugger who found his way from Santa Monica, California, to Stillwater, Oklahoma, is the best hitter in college baseball history, and it’s hardly debatable. He walked onto campus swinging, hitting an OSU-record .469 as a freshman and being named a First Team All-American, an honor he earned in each of his three seasons.
By the time those three seasons ended, he hit .429 with 329 hits and 300 runs, all still program records. He was named The Sporting News Player of the Year twice and won the Golden Spikes Award in 1988.
In ’87, he captured the imagination of the sports world when he arrived in Omaha for the College World Series carrying a hitting streak that matched the magical number of Joe DiMaggio’s 56. Ventura broke that mark in the opening game of the Series and reached 58 before an infield grounder was ruled an error by legendary CWS scorekeeper Lou Spry.
To this day, Cowboys supporters are angry about that decision. But in 2006, when Ventura was elected to the inaugural class of the College Baseball Hall of Fame, Spry approached Ventura with a photo of the controversial play. Ventura smiled and signed it: “To Lou, Great Call! Best Wishes, Robin Ventura.”
Left field: Barry Bonds, Arizona State
At Arizona State, Barry Bonds was so good. But at Arizona State, Barry Bonds was also so bad. In three years in Tempe, the second-generation slugger hit better than .360 in two of those seasons and slugged 45 home runs, a huge number ahead of the Gorilla Ball era that was still years away.
The future MLB career homers leader powered the Sun Devils to a pair of College World Series appearances in 1983 and ’84, making the all-tournament team both times and tying a CWS record with eight consecutive hits.
In recent years, Bonds’ relationship with his alma mater has improved. In 2017, he was all smiles as his No. 24 was retired. But in 1992, when ASU’s legendary head coach, Jim Brock, was asked about the Bonds era, he said, “No one on the team liked him. That was his fault. But I sure liked him in my lineup. That was his fault, too.”
Barry Bonds: 25.10%
Pete Incaviglia: 22.33%
Darin Erstad: 18.64%
Rafael Palmeiro: 12.83
Michael Conforto: 11.27%
Terry Francona: 5.04%
Mike Fiore: 2.92%
Tom Paciorek: 1.87%
Center field: J.D. Drew, Florida State
They called them Circus Tent Shots, and from 1995 to ’97 everyone in attendance at the Florida State ballpark, be it for a game or for batting practice, stopped whatever they were doing whenever J.D. Drew stepped to the plate, hoping to see a Circus Tent Shot. The FSU Flying High Circus Big Top, where Seminoles students can learn the circus biz, is located beyond the right-field wall of Dick Howser Stadium. Way beyond.
“J.D. isn’t the only guy to bounce a homer off that tent,” said Mike Martin, Drew’s head coach. “But he was the only guy to bounce one off of every square inch of it — the front, the back, the very tip top. The circus folks probably thought they were under attack for three years.”
That’s certainly how everyone in college baseball felt. In 1997, the pride of Hahira, Georgia, produced the greatest offensive season in college baseball history. He hit .455 with 100 RBIs and 110 runs scored. His 31 homers and 32 steals made him the first member of the 30-30 club. He’s still the only member of that club and one of only three players to produce 100 runs, RBIs and hits in one season.
In 1997, Drew won the Golden Spikes Award, the Dick Howser Trophy and Player of the Year by The Sporting News, Baseball America and the ACC. Those awards went with his ’95 honors as a freshman All-American and CWS all-tournament team and his ’96 first-team All-American and member of Team USA. Perhaps he should build his own big top to house all of those trophies.
Right field: Joe Carter, Wichita State
When Wichita State revived its baseball program in 1978, head coach Gene Stephenson knew he needed a special brand of superstar talent to spark the resurrected hardball Shockers. He found that hero in Oklahoma City’s Joseph Chris Carter, Stephenson’s first signee.
When Carter left for the big leagues three years later, he was a three-time All-American, two-time Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year and holder of 10 season and 11 career Wichita State records. He still owns many of those marks nearly four decades after his last game and even after Stephenson’s program became precisely the powerhouse he hoped Carter’s recruitment would kickstart.
In fact, today’s Shockers go to work each day in the Joe Carter Players’ Locker Room, and today’s Missouri Valley POYs are given an award named for Carter.
“Joe’s last year, he hit .411,” Stephenson recalled in 2017. “For any other player, that’s a career season. But his freshman year, he hit .450, and his sophomore season, he hit near the same. I told him, ‘Joe, I think these pitchers are figuring you out.’ They weren’t.”
Joe Carter 38.01%
JJ Bleday: 15.03%
Kyle Russell: 12.18%
Trevor Larnach: 10.89%
Kellen Kulbacki: 8.67%
Seth Beer: 7.07%
Casey Close: 4.86%
Mickey Sullivan: 3.29%
Two-way player: John Olerud, Washington State
There is no shortage of two-way players on this all-time team. Heck, Ben McDonald played some of his non-pitching days in the outfield and also played basketball. Dave Winfield, the most glaring absence from this roster, was drafted by the NBA, the NFL and MLB and nearly won the 1973 College World Series by himself, at the plate and on the mound.
However, no one had a more monstrous crossover career than the Cougars’ soft-spoken first baseman and pitcher from Seattle. John Olerud hit .434 in three seasons while hurling a record of 26-4. His 1988 season might be the best ever produced, as he hit .464 with 23 homers while going 15-0 on the mound, still the only time a college baseball player has topped 15 wins and 20 homers in a season. Oh, and he also overcame a life-threatening aneurysm and brain surgery that stole the first half of his final season.
But hey, why try to explain all of this here when you can read this recently posted feature on Olerud, penned by a really handsome ESPN senior writer.
John Olerud: 31.59%
Dave Winfield: 22.11%
Brendan McKay: 14.22%
Brooks Kieshnick: 10.32%
Todd Helton: 8.63%
Tim Hudson: 6.82%
Brad Wilkerson: 3.21%
A.J. Reed: 327 3.10%
Left-handed pitcher: Greg Swindell, Texas
In spring 1984, the always intense college baseball fans of Austin, Texas, were tempering their legendarily high expectations. The Longhorns had just won the College World Series with one of the all-time great lineups, featuring Roger Clemens, Calvin Schiraldi, Kirk Killingsworth and Mike Capel. But those players had all been drafted into the big leagues, and a letdown was imminent, right? Wrong.
“Greg Swindell came in there from Houston, and he immediately started showing some of the best control anyone had ever seen,” former Texas head coach Cliff Gustafson recalled in 2015. “His first month as a freshman, I don’t think he lost a game. He struck out everyone he faced, and he even earned a couple of saves. Everyone realized we were going to be OK.”
They were better than OK. The Horns reached the CWS finals in ’84 and ’85 as Swindell spent three seasons posting a record of 43-8 with 13 saves and a 1.92 ERA. The three-time All-American also threw a pair of no-hitters and still owns a pair of Texas career pitching records, with 501 strikeouts and 14 shutouts.
Greg Swindell: 28.45%
David Price: 25.07%
Jim Abbott: 13.94%
Floyd Bannister: 7.48%
Frank Viola: 7.38%
Barry Zito: 6.26%
Eddie Bane: 5.73%
Andrew Miller: 5.69%
Right-handed pitcher: Ben McDonald, LSU
In 70 years of College World Series games played in Omaha, there is no player more beloved by the locals than Ben McDonald. And he never won a game there. In fact, he holds the record for most losses by a starting pitcher, going 0-for-4 during two trips in 1987 and ’89. Why is he remembered so fondly, still earning screams and hugs every summer when he returns to cover the CWS for ESPN and the SEC Network?
“Because he’s the most down-to-earth human being you could possibly meet,” said his former head coach, Skip Bertman. “No one has ever faced more pressure in Omaha, and he handled it all with grace, even when it didn’t go like we wanted it to.”
Big Ben posted a record of 29-14, with 18 complete games, as an LSU starter. He was a two-time All-American, and in 1989, he won the Golden Spikes Award thanks to 202 strikeouts and 44 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings over 152 1/3 innings pitched. His 373 career K’s are still a school best, even as the school became an MLB talent machine. McDonald won an Olympic gold medal in 1988, and in ’89, he was the No. 1 overall MLB draft pick, which happened the night before one of those CWS losses.
“I put too much on him,” Bertman admitted in 2008. “But the way he sat there and thanked the people of Omaha after his losses, the way he handled it all, how he promised to keep coming back to Omaha because he loved it so much, they have never forgotten that. That’s all you need to know about Ben. That’s who he is.”
Ben McDonald: 29.97%
Roger Clemens: 22.89%
Stephen Strasburg: 22.77%
Burt Hooton: 9.91%
Mark Prior: 7.50%
Kirk Dressendorfer: 2.77%
Don Heinkel: 2.77%
Steve Arlin: 1.42%
Relief pitcher: Huston Street, Texas
Huston Street was born not on a street in Houston but, rather, on an avenue in Austin. He was a legacy Longhorn, son of James, the 1969 Cotton Bowl MVP as a quarterback and pitching ace of three College World Series teams. Huston was also a double threat, spending time at third and jogging in from the hot corner to nail down victories as Augie Garrido’s go-to closer. From 2002 to ’04, he earned All-American honors all three years, thanks to what are still some of the greatest shutdown statistics in college baseball history. He racked up a school-record 41 saves with a 1.31 ERA (second best), and opponents hit him for a paltry .172 average.
But Street did his best work in Omaha, where the Longhorns played in all three of his seasons. In 2002, his freshman year, he made four appearances on the mound at Rosenblatt Stadium, earning a CWS-record four saves, and he was named Most Outstanding Player. He was so dominant and so beloved among the Omaha locals that in 2010, they voted him onto the NCAA College World Series Legends Team.
Huston Street: 32.40%
Darren Dreifort: 16.59%
Matt Price: 16.39%
Gregg Olson: 14.35%
David Berg: 8.08%
Danny Graves: 5.77%
Matt Anderson: 3.61%
Blair Erickson: 2.80%
Key questions as minor league baseball officially cancels 2020 season
In news that was entirely unsurprising, minor league baseball president Pat O’Conner announced Tuesday that this year’s minor league season has been canceled.
“These are unprecedented times for our country and our organization as this is the first time in our history that we’ve had a summer without minor-league baseball played,” O’Conner said in a statement. “While this is a sad day for many, this announcement removes the uncertainty surrounding the 2020 season and allows our teams to begin planning for an exciting 2021 season of affordable family entertainment.”
While the news was expected, that didn’t lessen the general fear and uncertainty about the immediate future of professional baseball swelling below the level of Major League Baseball. The reason for the cancellation — the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that has gripped the globe for most of 2020 — is beyond the control of officials at any level of the game. But as unfortunate as those circumstances would be even in normal times, for MiLB teams, the timing is especially fraught.
The Professional Baseball Agreement, the document that governs the relationship between MLB and its affiliates, expires in September. Last fall, in advance of baseball’s annual winter meetings, news leaked of baseball’s plan to cut the total number of affiliated teams in the minors from 160 to 120. That news kicked off a fiery volley of rhetoric between the respective league offices as both sides positioned themselves on the public relations and political fronts.
That building fight screeched to a halt when the coronavirus stole the spotlight, putting everything into months of limbo. Teams throughout the minors waited out the combative talks between MLB and the MLBPA regarding the season at the sport’s highest level, all while holding out hope of salvaging at least part of a campaign of their own. Those hopes were abandoned with Tuesday’s announcement.
The fallout from the minors’ lost season will take months to untangle, even as the mostly dormant talks regarding a new PBA invariably resume. Still, let’s try to take a snapshot of the current landscape of the minor leagues after Tuesday’s sad news.
1. Why did this happen?
The pandemic was the reason, of course. From a more technical standpoint, however, it was this: To play baseball, you need to have players. Minor league teams weren’t going to get them and were officially informed as such this week.
The structural foundation of the PBA is that minor league organizations provide the infrastructure — the cities, teams, stadiums, leagues, umpires, etc. — with which their Major League Baseball overlords can develop their future players. Thus big league clubs supply players to their affiliates and pick up the vast majority of the associated labor cost.
However, when MLB announced its own return last week, it was not a full resumption of operations. Teams have been announcing player pools of up to 60 players for the truncated big league season, but that’s it. Players not on the active roster, which starts off at 30 players per team and decreases as the season progresses, are assigned to a taxi squad. The taxi squad players will include a number of high-level prospects who will receive some developmental work. However, this will be done through practice, simulated games and workouts as opposed to the normal competition of minor league games.
Simply put: Big league teams will not be assigning players to their affiliates. Thus minor league teams could not have conducted a season even if they wanted to.
2. What happens to the players?
As mentioned, many of the top prospects are being included in their organization’s player pool, even if there are no plans to have them see big league competition this season. Those players will receive some much needed developmental repetitions. Some of those players, and other lesser prospects who would otherwise qualify as organizational depth, will indeed see action in the majors as teams try to navigate this unusual, 60-game season. The situation for those players is straightforward.
For others, it’s also straightforward, but in a less encouraging way. Teams released scores of minor leaguers in recent weeks in advance of the season-resumption announcement. Many of those players would have been released at the end of spring training anyway, but according to Baseball America, the number of players released during that wave of transactions appears to outnumber similar moves in recent seasons.
However, there are also numerous players caught in between. They remain on their organization’s reserved list but haven’t been added to the 60-player-per-team pool. But with Tuesday’s announcement, they have no place to play. On Monday, Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper reported that if a player in this large class gains consent from his organization, he would be allowed to seek a spot in one of the independent minor leagues this summer. Some independent leagues, such as the American Association, plan to play in a reduced form. Others, such as the Frontier League, have already canceled their season.
Continued pay for minor leaguers has been a hot-button issue since the shutdown began, with each team’s policy being scrutinized. There is still no uniform approach. Some teams, such as the Kansas City Royals, have pledged to pay players until the end of what would have been the regular minor league season. Others, such as Oakland and Washington, reversed initial decisions to stop paying their minor leaguers. As of Tuesday, every team was pledged to pay players a $400 weekly stipend at least through the end of June. Most teams have extended that at least through July.
One silver lining is that minor league players will receive service time credit even with the season being canceled. The minor league version of service time is crucial for the class of players beyond the top-prospect lists. It determines what level they can be assigned to, with the higher levels receiving higher pay. More importantly, it determines when they will be eligible for the Rule 5 draft, which forces their organization to either place them on the 40-man big league roster or expose them for selection by another club.
Rule 5 eligibility is a crucial benchmark in the career of a minor leaguer from both a competitive and financial standpoint. Luckily, for any minor leaguer who does not play this season but would otherwise have been Rule 5-eligible this winter, that will still be the case.
3. Will minor league teams survive this?
Teams at the Double-A and Triple-A level will survive, even though many have had to lay off or furlough staff in recent months. One thing that nearly all teams at those levels have is the certainty of being a high-level affiliate of a big league club next season and beyond, however the negotiations for a new PBA are resolved. They reside in larger municipalities than lower-level clubs and thus have more corporate support and a larger season-ticket base. Nevertheless, even for those clubs, the loss of an entire season is a major setback.
Unlike MLB, which has massive revenue streams from its broadcast and digital partners, nearly the entire revenue model of minor league baseball revolves around staging games in front of fans. Even most of their corporate sponsorships and merchandising endeavors are built around this dynamic. Teams have pivoted to creating as many new revenue streams as they can. One team turned its ballpark into an Airbnb. Others have screened movies, drive-in style.
Several Texas-based organizations joined a college wood-bat summer league, planning to stage those games in front of limited-capacity gatherings. While the full list of alternate-site locations for MLB taxi squads has not yet emerged, many of those sites will be those of nearby affiliates. While the taxi squads won’t participate in games in front of fans, presumably MLB teams will have to compensate minor league clubs for the use of their facilities.
Still, even as minor league teams scramble to recover as much revenue as they can, the receipts will invariably be a drop in the bucket of a normal season’s income. Last week, fifteen minor league teams filed a federal lawsuit against five insurance companies, claiming “action and inaction by federal and state governments” contributed to “catastrophic financial losses” for ballclubs.
This means that some clubs in the lower levels of the minors, many of which have been mentioned in conjunction with MLB’s contraction proposal and thus lack certainty about future marketing efforts, will struggle to survive.
Compounding the issue, teams will have to reach out to season-ticket holders and corporate partners about contingency plans for monies already collected and, in most cases, already spent. Options could include simply rolling the commitment over to next season, or converting 2020 expenditures into gift cards, which would help teams preserve cash flow. Invariably, as many industries beyond baseball have struggled in recent months, some fans and companies will seek refunds, and it’s possible that a few cash-strapped teams will not have the funds to make them.
All of this will be sorted out in the weeks to come, now that the season has been definitely called off.
4. How does this impact negotiations for a new Professional Baseball Agreement?
Recent talks between MLB and MiLB have been sporadic, as big league owners had their own season to worry about. Those talks should resume in earnest soon. When they do, MLB negotiators will proceed with the knowledge that many minor league clubs are operating in precarious terrain. That was true before the minor league season was called off, but now that it has been, MiLB’s worst-case scenario has become reality.
To put it succinctly: Nearly every avenue minor league owners had to create leverage in their effort to stave off contraction has been blocked.
5. What will minor league baseball look like when it returns?
Before the pandemic, there was considerable public and political pressure building on MLB negotiators to reach an accord with MiLB that did not involve contraction. Jobs could be lost. Economic activity could be curtailed. But the coronavirus turned the heads of the politicians, who had to concern themselves with similar issues on a much larger scale.
Now, some of the clubs believed to be on the cut list might go out of business anyway, and MiLB owners everywhere are looking for any life raft they can grab. MLB negotiators hold all the cards. Its trump card is that if no agreement is reached, then MLB can simply walk away and create their own feeder system from scratch.
That’s not likely to happen. Mostly, that’s because of the expense that would come with setting up an entirely new minor league system. New teams, new venues, a new infrastructure and what would likely be a whole slew of litigation by MiLB owners and municipalities of contracted teams. Of course, the litigation could occur anyway unless MLB insists on that option being waived in the final PBA agreement.
The most likely outcome is that a new PBA will be agreed to, and it will be on MLB’s terms. Given the terrain, desperate MiLB owners will latch onto pretty much anything that comes their way. Thus expect to see a reduced list of affiliated teams next season, a shuffling of affiliations, and a restructuring of the leagues themselves as Major League clubs seek greater geographic efficiency.
When the minor league season ended last summer, business was good, perhaps as good as it had ever been. Most teams were profitable, with more than 40 million fans clicking the turnstiles of minor league parks across the nation. When we next see affiliated baseball at the minor league level, we don’t exactly know what the landscape will look like. We don’t, in fact, know if we will even be able to recognize that landscape at all.
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