MLB and minor league salaries: The ugly business side of baseball

MLB has been lobbying for two years to get an exemption from the upcoming spending bill so they can underpay minor league players.

I love the sport of baseball, but the business of professional baseball can be gruesome. As part of the big spending bill (over 2,000 pages) likely to be passed by Congress on Friday, MLB billionaire owners have been lobbying for two years to get an exemption that allows them to pay minor league players a weekly salary well below the federal minimum wage.

The addition to the bill is ludicrously called the “Save America’s Pastime Act.” MLB claims minor league baseball would cease to exist if players were to make the federal minimum wage. This is a lie. Minor league teams don’t pay the players, major league teams do. And major league teams are doing very well financially.

This legislation has been in the making for some time. This article from June of 2016 quotes Garrett Broshuis, a former minor league pitcher who is now a lawyer working with minor leaguers in a lawsuit against MLB. Broshuis said, “It starts with the title. This isn’t about saving America’s pastime. This is about billionaire major league owners working with millionaire minor league owners to keep their pockets fat and keep minor leaguers living in poverty.”

Because players are salaried and not paid hourly, it wouldn’t take much for MLB teams to conform to current law. Rules already exist that exempt salaried employees from overtime pay if they make at least $455 per week. Many minor leaguers don’t make that much.

All MLB would have to do is pay them $455 per week, which comes out to about $500,000 per team each year. That’s nothing to an MLB team, yet they won’t even do that much. Instead, they lobby Congress for an exemption to allow them to continue to underpay minor leaguers vastly.

The minimum salary for minor league players is around $1,100 per month, and they only get paid during the season.

They don’t get paid for spring training and get a pro-rated amount for the postseason. At the Triple-A level, one step below the major leagues, minor league players get $25 per diem for expenses.

Compare this to the AHL, which is the primary developmental league for the National Hockey League. Players in the AHL are unionized and have a minimum salary of $45,000, get a postseason bonus, and $72 per diem.

Paying AHL players a living wage has not resulted in the demise of minor league hockey, which shows how ridiculous it is for MLB to claim that paying minor leaguers a livable wage would result in the demise of the minor leagues.

Major league baseball is a ten billion dollar industry. As pointed out in this article, an MLB team could pay every player in its minor league system $30,000 per year at the cost of $7.5 million, which is what teams pay for one win above replacement on the free agent market. When you think about it, it’s surprising that some teams don’t do this to get a competitive advantage on the competition.

For an investment of $7.5 million per year, an MLB organization could adequately pay their minor leaguers, which would allow those players to eat better, get better housing during the season, and train better in the offseason. If this investment resulted in even one player being worth one more win above replacement than he otherwise would, it would be worth it.

Major league teams should be looking for any edge they can get in a competitive environment. In the recent past, we’ve seen early adopters of the extreme fielding shifts that eventually were used by many other teams. We’ve seen more and more organizations embrace analytics because ignoring them was causing teams to fall behind

More recently, teams that make the best use of Statcast will have an advantage over those who don’t. Maybe adequate pay for minor leaguers should be the next advancement in baseball for a team looking for an edge.