Major League Baseball is angry with Minor League Baseball for continuing to negotiate a new business agreement in public. The feud escalated Friday to the point that MLB threatened to walk away entirely from its decadeslong partnership with the minors’ governing body.
Was that a real threat, or just a bluff?
MLB attempted a power move shortly after MiLB released a lengthy rebuttal to MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s comments at the Winter Meetings this week about the negotiations.
“If the National Association (which governs the minors) has an interest in an agreement with Major League Baseball, it must address the very significant issues with the current system at the bargaining table,” MLB said in a statement obtained by The Boston Globe. “Otherwise, MLB Clubs will be free to affiliate with any minor league team or potential team in the United States, including independent league teams and cities which are not permitted to compete for an affiliate under the current agreement.”
MLB’s statement was, necessarily, open-ended in the midst of negotiations, so it’s not certain how a new system would look, starting with the number of teams and leagues. MLB’s current proposal calls for cutting ties with 42 of 160 affiliated minor league clubs, most of them at the Single-A and rookie levels, and drastically realigning leagues after the 2020 season.
The proposal also includes adding two independent clubs — the St. Paul Saints of the American Association and the Sugar Land Skeeters of the Atlantic League — to the affiliated ranks.
If MLB issued this threat just to make Single-A and Double-A franchises sweat, then maybe it can gain leverage. There are 46 teams combined in the American Association, Atlantic League, Frontier League and Pecos League — the four primary indy circuits — and a majority of the stadiums in those leagues meet MLB’s requirements for seating capacity in Double-A (6,000) or Single-A (4,000). Less clear is whether those qualified parks would meet MLB’s stringent requirements for stadium construction, amenities and accessibility, a key question as MLB uses the threat of contraction to pressure minor league teams into paying for upgrades.
If, on the other hand, MLB wants to sweat all of MiLB, then the threat looks weaker. No independent parks approach Triple-A status, at least not when it comes to seating capacity. MLB requires at least 10,000 seats for Triple-A stadiums; St. Paul’s CHS Field seats 7,210 (although it officially attracted 8,061 fans per opening in 2019), while Sugar Land’s Constellation Field seats 7,500. Capacities across other indy clubs are similar or smaller.
MLB could work out separate deals with existing Triple-A affiliates for 2021, and maybe those teams would agree to a new partnership to maintain franchise value. If, however, MLB can’t collect 30 Triple-A affiliates from existing clubs, would it subsidize renovations to indy league parks to get them up to snuff? Why not spring for fixes to lower-level parks instead, or does MLB just want 120 affiliates, regardless of sourcing?
Would it call on those “cities which are not permitted to compete for an affiliate” (and what are those cities, anyway? Former minor league towns? Suburbs of MLB cities?) to build 10,000-seat palaces with all the bells and whistles MLB wants? That would take time. Would it house teams in MLB parks in the interim?
Too many questions, and no answers.
MLB will need to put forth details to back up its tough talk about a full separation. Otherwise, this threat will be seen as just a temper tantrum.