Amid widespread expectations that the 2020 minor league season will not be played, Major League Baseball is considering an expanded version of the annual Arizona Fall League as a means of recouping some critical game reps for prospects throughout the sport, Josh Norris and J.J. Cooper of Baseball America reported earlier this week. MLB is thinking about not only adding additional teams to the traditional AFL format but also mulling the creation of a Florida Fall League, per the report.
While the AFL usually features six teams, each made up of prospects from five MLB clubs, there’s been talk of all 30 organizations being permitted to field their own Fall League club in 2020. There would be added cost for MLB clubs under this scenario, as player are paid for AFL play — albeit at a particularly high level. Cooper and Norris write that AFL prospects generally are paid $2250 per month, plus a $750 housing stipend.
Broadly speaking, that’s an eminently manageable sum for an organization to stomach, even if it’s sending a full roster of players as opposed to just a handful of names. But we’ve also seen even the $400 weekly stipend being paid to most minor leaguers at present be utilized as a cost-saving mechanism by some clubs. The A’s initially stopped the stipend entirely as of June 1, but reversed course yesterday in the wake of widespread criticism from fans and media. Similarly, the Nationals sought to reduce the weekly payment by $100 but reversed the decision after a wave of negative reaction from fans and their own Major League players (who had banded together to cover the would-be losses for the organization’s minor leaguers). A few teams have committed to paying their minor leaguers through the end of August, when minor league seasons would’ve ended, though most have only committed through the end of the current month.
All of that is particularly notable given that the BA report suggests MLB could try to begin Fall League play “within weeks” of kicking off the regular season. (For those keeping score on odd seasonal semantics, that’d put “Spring” Training in June and “Fall” League play in July/August.) It’s not clear whether Fall League pay would be in addition to the ongoing stipend or whether it’d simply replace the stipend; presumably, that’d be left to ownership discretion on a team-by-team basis. Minor league players, after all, aren’t protected by the MLB Players Association.
Even with an expanded two-league format that allows each organization to send one team would leave each organization with close to 200 prospects missing key developmental time. Eno Sarris, Emily Waldon and Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic (subscription required) tackle the matter, floating the possibility that some teams could include at least one top prospect who isn’t big league-ready as part of the proposed 20-player taxi squad that would train and work alongside the Major League roster. This proverbial “50th man” wouldn’t actually play in any MLB games, but would at least get an opportunity to at least somewhat replicate some type of normal developmental environment.
The taxi squad plan will also provide an opportunity for teams to provide work to minor league coaches and instructors who are otherwise hamstrung by the lack of a minor league season. Such coaches, instructors, training staff, etc. will be necessary since the regular Major League coaching staff would naturally be focused on the 26-30 big leaguers on the official roster.
Finding roles for these minor league coaches, coordinators, and other player development personnel is another separate issue altogether. Sarris, Waldon, and Rosenthal note that since many of these employees are furloughed within their organizations, it creates some legal gray area as to whether or not they could potentially look for a job with another team — as the Athletic trio put it, “If you are a furloughed employee on a one-year contract, are you basically a free agent?” That said, Major League Baseball took a firm stance against such “poaching” practices when the suspension of Uniform Employee Contracts was originally announced.