Yesterday, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred discussed the long-simmering issue of pay to minor-league players, as Evan Drellich of The Athletic reports (subscription link). Manfred’s office recently launched negotiations with the minor-league governing body known as the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues.
MLB has fought tooth and nail to secure legal advantages against minor-league ballplayers, who remain without a union. While it battles to preserve its freedom of action, the league is also not unaware of the many problems posed by the current system, in which most minor-league players are dimly compensated for their labor. There’s always a risk of a reversal of legislative or court victories. And a concerted PR strategy from the players’ side could yet turn the tide.
While the ongoing talks with the NAPBL are voluntary, Manfred recognizes the practical need to address the matter. “The game’s about young players right now,” says the commissioner. Proper development of key player-assets requires a “positive environment,” which in turn means “you’ve got to have good facilities” and “you’ve got to pay correctly, and make sure you got the right people teaching.”
The imperative to “pay correctly” — an exceedingly interesting turn of phrase for the commish to introduce — is of chief interest to minor-league players. But there’s quite a bit more going on here. As Drellich well puts it, “Lurking in the background, and as a point of leverage, is the possibility that MLB seeks to cull some teams or otherwise reshape some aspects of the minors.” Hence the engagement with the NAPBL, which does not represent players but does have power over all other pertinent business matters that its big brother does not govern directly.
Manfred left little doubt that MLB owners aren’t just planning to open their pocketbooks. He cited a need “to look at the efficiency of the system” — for its own sake, perhaps, but also to “create some economic flexibility” that can be put to use in addressing the ballplayer salary issue. Beyond that, it seems mostly a question of whose profit margin will take the hit. As Manfred says, “Whether we pay or they pay, that’s a negotiation, right?”
Having won the early lobbying battle, organized baseball has earned itself time and space to structure a solution — albeit one that can still be subject to challenge. It’s still not clear what the league thinks it means to “pay correctly,” but the present approach seems unlikely to define that in the first instance by reference to concepts of fairness. Rather, what we are seeing now is an ownership effort (at both the major and minor-league levels) to arrive at an economically efficient solution that maximizes organizations’ investments in young players, staves off labor disruption, and assures the paying and voting public that all is well. Of course, the players will still have opportunities to influence the outcome, whether or not through the MLBPA or formal bargaining. It seems promising that MLB recognizes the need for change, even if the process isn’t ideal for labor. Whether the resulting system will be a fair one for pre-MLB ballplayers remains to be seen.