Written by: Estee Rivera (@esteerivera42)
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Make sure you’re up to date on Estee’s Labor Dynamics series by reading Part One!
It only feels right to address this as we start: JJ Cooper from Baseball America recently reported that MLB has negotiated with MiLB to cut the minor leagues from 160 teams to 120 teams. There are still many details to be refined as of now, but at the moment, the loss is substantial. Just a few months ago, cutting 40 teams seemed relatively unlikely. Senator Bernie Sanders met with Commissioner Manfred and seemed to get assurances something like this would not happen. But given the current circumstances that COVID-19 has forced upon the league, sacrifices have to be made. Those sacrifices will come at the expense of MiLB.
It is unclear what the future looks like for the players and owners of these teams. Some ideas are floating around that MLB will attempt to facilitate long term security for owners of some MiLB teams getting the boot (you’ll likely read about the idea of a Dream League), but I remain skeptical that teams that already needed financial support from MLB will continue to stay afloat for a long period of time. This makes me wonder. Even if these teams continue to play competitive baseball, the product on the field will never be the same. There are two key aspects that will be taken away from the environment.
First, these ‘chopping block’ teams will no longer house some of the league’s stud prospects early in their careers. When fans watch these teams, they’ll no longer have the lure that one of their players could be an All-Star one day. Guys like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. or Gleyber Torres won’t be spending any time with these clubs any more. Second, if a Dream League is actually created, players in this league won’t be tied to a specific club. If you read this article, you’re well aware that fans of minor league teams are extremely loyal, often supporting their favorite MLB team by attending games for one of their minor league affiliates. Now, a lot of these teams will be on the outside looking in. They’ll probably mirror an Independent League team (don’t get me wrong, I find myself at Indy League games pretty often) more than a competitive minor league team.
At this point in negotiations, it is too quick to jump to conclusions on how this might affect Latino prospects moving forward. As I said in my last piece on labor dynamics in MLB, half of the players in the minors are Latino. You would hope that this is taken into consideration by MLB and MiLB, although we all know MLB holds most (if not all) of the leverage in negotiations. Slashing these teams without providing an immediate alternative for some players who rely on this income for the livelihoods of their families would be awful. That being said, there are still many details to be worked out and when they are, you’ll hear more about my opinion on it.
I mentioned that a lot of Latino players in the minors are heavily reliant on the wages they make while working as minor league players. That may sound crazy , especially because we’re well aware that minor leaguers are grossly underpaid and have to face circumstances that are completely unnecessary given the fact that they work for companies and ‘bosses’ with billions (yes, billions) in revenue. Let’s put it into perspective.
From Single-A to Triple-A, average salaries are $6,000, $9,350 and $15,000, respectively. Triple-A players are just above the poverty line of a 1-person household in the United States ($12,490), while Single-and Double-A players are well below it. The focus for this piece will be on Dominican players, since they make up most of the Latinos in MiLB and MLB. In the Dominican Republic, about 14% of people live below the poverty threshold of $5.50 per day or a little over $2,000 per year. The GDP per capita was just over $8,000 in 2018.
A career in the minor leagues could provide you a decent well-being in terms of income relative to the average person in the Dominican Republic. For kids from more affluent situations, this is not worth it. Prospects from the United States have high school degrees; most also have college experience, with some even attaining and college degrees. It is safe to say that a large majority have a better chance of making a fine living if they forego a career in the minors and instead pursue work in the US labor force.
This is not the case for Latino players who come from countries where there is significantly less opportunity to make a wage high enough to secure proper lives for their families. That poverty line I mentioned ($5.50 per day) is for a 1-person household. If you have a family, the line increases on a per person scale. This might complicate things for Latino players who have to care for themselves and their families with only their minor leagues earnings. When a player, or any worker, sends money from one country to their home country, it is called a remittance. Remittances are a key source of foreign exchange in the Dominican Republic. Families are reliant on it to maintain their livelihood. Even if a player does not truly believe in his chances of making the majors, he has incentive to try and grow within the minor leagues because his wages will continue to grow, and he will have more cash flow for his family at home.
Life as a minor leaguer is not the greatest route to take for a person who is trying to support a family, but some players do not have a choice. There are stories of players sending home almost the entirety of their salaries, leaving little to nothing left for themselves. The minor leagues are physically strenuous. On top of playing the game every day, these guys have to travel endlessly (mostly on buses), feed themselves, and do everything else that goes into being a professional athlete. After sending home remittances, your financial limitations grow and life in the minors becomes even harder. Despite the harsh conditions and little to no pay, Latino players continue on because they have families to care for. Perhaps this is why we see such a demographic imbalance in the minor leagues. In any Economics 101 course you would learn about opportunity cost. That is, the cost of forgoing consuming any other activities or goods. For players who grow up in the U.S., the opportunity cost is often too high to pursue a minor league career.
Yet, MLB still lobbied Congress to make sure that their minor league players are exempt from the minimum wage laws of the United States. Thanks to the Save America’s Pastime Act signed in 2018 by the federal government, minor league players are exempt from the minimum wage laws of the USA. In 2016 and 2017, the league spent $1.32 million on lobbying in each season. Specifically, they paid $400,000 in each year to a firm to deal with the handling of this bill. The league can certainly afford to pay their players minimum wage (or even 50% more than what they make now) and be fiscally viable, but instead they are paying to do the exact opposite. It is possible that cutting 40 teams will help in the fight to increasing minor league pay, but that it is quite the sacrifice to make it happen.
Just a couple days ago, we received a taste of what Nolan Arenado has been up to during the shutdown. He walked us through his routine during the season, what he has done as a substitute for playing and other daily activities he does to keep in shape. Arenado stressed how he needs to eat healthy while remaining ‘light’ while he is playing. Imagine instead of some smoothies, eggs and vegetables he was eating fast-food, PB&Js, or whatever other cheap junk you could think of. He also discussed his lifting routine and physical body maintenance which keeps him ready to play every day. All of these things become a lot harder when you’re on a bus all the time, eating whatever you can afford, and getting little sleep. These are conditions all players face, but if you are sending the majority of your pay checks home, your options become even slimmer.
If you were lucky enough to play with Vlad Guerrero Sr. or Vlad Jr. throughout the minor leagues, you reaped the benefits of some great Dominican cooking. Throughout every level of the minors and majors, Vlad Sr.’s mother, Alvino, lived with and cooked every meal for Vlad. This tradition continued on when Vlad Jr. entered the minors. Alvino has done the same for her grandchild, sometimes cooking for the entire team as well. Eating in the minors can seem impossible at points, but if Alvino was in town, even players on the opposing side received the opportunity to enjoy her cooking. Guys like Ketel Marte, Luis Severino and Rafael Devers have all opined about her cooking and what she means to them. The Dominican community is tightly knit in baseball. They take care of one another because they know how hard it is to get through the minors and majors on your own. Remember that a lot of players spend time in their organizations’ baseball academies. They learn valuable life skills, but cooking in the minor leagues is not one of them.
A few years before Luis Arraez on the MLB scene, he discussed some of the hardships that he and others faced in the minors. Outside of the typical struggles minor leaguers face, Latinos need to learn English. This may not seem like a big deal because the game is the same no matter where you go. But in the minors, players have to care for themselves and have much less support than they would get in the majors. Not everybody has an Alvino to make arroz con pollo or chivo guisado. Everyday tasks like ordering food and hanging out with your teammates outside of the field become a lot harder when you are trying to grasp a new language. Teams often provide their players with classes to learn English, but it’s certainly a challenging task as you attempt to balance becoming bilingual with being a professional athlete.
All of these things considered, it makes sense that when a Latino player does reach the big leagues, he is inclined to jump on the first big contract offer he gets. After years of suppressed wages in the minors and coming from underprivileged backgrounds, saying no to millions seems silly. And if you read the first entry of this series, you know that international prospects do not have access to the same signing bonuses that players in the draft do. Smaller signing bonuses plus suppressed wages make these players even hungrier for big contracts.
I mean, you’ve seen it! Acuña, Márquez, Moncada, Altuve, and several others signed extensions before they hit free agency. Curaçao natives Andrelton Simmons and Ozzie Albies fall into the pre-free agency extension boat as well. This has become a popular route for Latino and other international players. I cannot tell you if GMs are actively seeking out the biggest bang for their buck from Latino players specifically, but I can tell you teams have more information on their own players than ever, and we would be naïve to think they don’t use it to their advantage. The Atlanta Braves are saving millions, probably a few hundred million, on their extension with Ronald Acuña Jr. This will give them flexibility to sign even more talent in free agency or offer other players extensions. Teams are surplus obsessive. After all, this is a business. Minor league pay and players like Mookie Betts getting traded from would-be contenders because of self-imposed financial limitations remind us of it constantly.
It’s difficult to quantify or prove that Latino players are exploited for their talents. What we can do is see if Latino players earn what they should in comparison to other, mainly American players, when controlling for all types of performance statistics, and other personal characteristics. That means WAR, OBP, and all the other ways we can define player performance. I have done this, and the results are interesting, but that will come in the next, and final installment of this series.
Follow P365 Staff Writer Estee Rivera on Twitter! @esteerivera42
Follow us on Twitter! @Prospects365
Featured image courtesy of photographer Mark Blinch and Getty Images