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Proposed Roster Changes Would Be Yet Another Blow For Minor Leaguers

Pablo Reyes is on the big league radar because of his September performance in 2018. If the new roster changes were in effect, he might not have had that chance. Photo by AP.

After an offseason full of rumors of drastic changes to the game, it looks like one is coming to fruition. According to the Associated Press, Major League Baseball and the players’ union (MLBPA) are nearing a deal that would expand the roster to 26 players. As a trade-off, each team would be limited to just two additional September call-ups rather than having access to their full 40-man roster. While purists may scoff at changing the roster size, it wouldn ?t be the first time it has happened.

The 25-man roster was first established over 100 years ago, but that number hasn ?t been set in stone. The most notable change was the collusion era in the late 80s, where some clubs ran 24 man teams. Roster sizes were decreased during World War I, went back to 25 afterwards, and then slashed again during the Great Depression and World War II. However, starting in 1931, those roster cuts only applied from mid-May through August. For the first and final month, teams expanded rosters to give younger players a chance against major leaguers. The early tryout period was done away with in 1968, but September call-ups have been a staple ever since.

Hundreds of players get a chance at the majors because of expanded rosters. This includes people who were recalled from AAA, had their contract selected to the 40-man and then promoted, and waiver wire claims in the month of September. But September baseball isn ?t always the best product. More players means more substitutions, meaning longer games. Pace of play is already an issue, so it ?s easy to see why Commissioner Rob Manfred would want to cut September rosters. As for the players, they are creating 30 more guaranteed jobs, but at what cost?

There are 172 days in a year of service time. If they ?re on the roster for 173 days or more, it counts as 172. Assuming each team will promote their two extra players at the beginning of September, then teams will be adding 232 extra days of service time compared to if they just ran a 25 man roster the entire year. (This number could increase a couple days if the season went into October or decrease if it ended in September.) Last year, there were 6,247 service days accrued by a total of 241 players who were on a major league roster because of the expanded rosters. That averages out to 8 call-ups and 208.2 days of MLB service time per team. Here ?s how that September service time was distributed:

Service time calculated from MLB team transaction pages. Click to enlarge. Team player promotion totals here.

Under this proposal, each team could add an average about three and half weeks of service time for players. The margins are thin, but this seems like a win for the MLBPA. It does come at the cost of the minor leaguer, though. There may be 24 more days more service time created, but the average number of call-ups goes from eight players to two.

In case you haven ?t heard, minor league players are being screwed. Major League Baseball lobbied the ?Save America ?s Pastime Act ? into law last year, exempting players from minimum wage laws. Baseball has written another law to exploit Arizona labor further, too. It ?s nearly impossible to live off of this money without a large nest egg signing bonus. Some don ?t get a paycheck at all. Former minor leaguer Jeremy Wolf played six days a week for three and a half months for the St. Louis Cardinals, but since he was never ?officially ? on a roster, they didn ?t need to pay him. They didn’t.

Unfortunately, it looks like things are going to keep getting worse for minor leaguers before they get better. A union would help the players, but it ?s unlikely one will ever be established. Said Marvin Miller in a 2012 interview for Slate:

?The appeal of unionizing every pro baseball player, though, was always outweighed by a lack of resources, the geographic decentralization of the minors, and the dreamy idealism of the players. The notion that these very young, inexperienced people were going to defy the owners, when they had stars in their eyes about making it to the Major Leagues ? it ?s just not going to happen. ?

Minor league life is hard and unfair, which makes spending just a day in the majors even more valuable. In 2017, the Pirates were in Miami and needed an emergency catcher at the last minute. AAA Indianapolis was too far away to get a player to the stadium in time, so they promoted a backstop from A-ball Bradenton named John Bormann instead. Bormann struck out in the blowout loss and was promptly demoted, but it was worth the trip. By playing in a game, he and his family have access to the union’s healthcare plan.

For a September story, there ?s Guilder Rodriguez. The 31 year old father of two played over 1,000 games in the minors before finally being promoted in 2014. It ?s a great story, and he ?s not the only minor league lifer who was rewarded with a big league cameo to get health insurance or into the pension plan, but that opportunity only exists because teams have plenty of ?use ?em or lose ?em ? roster spots to fill. If this proposal was in effect, Rodriguez would have stayed in the minors.

Then there is Pablo Reyes. Few were talking about him before he reached the majors, but he turned some heads last September with his play and hustle. The Pirates have plenty of young middle infield prospects, and he wasn ?t on the 40-man until his promotion, so he easily could have been lost in the shuffle. If the Pirates were only permitted to promote two guys in the final month last year, he probably wouldn ?t have been selected. Instead, he got a chance and his career — and the Pirates — are better for it. Reyes should be the poster child for why September call-ups matter.

The MLBPA could help minor leaguers now, though they are not obligated to do so. They have a history of letting the MLB do its bidding to the farm systems, and it ?s unlikely union president Tony Clark would stand up to Manfred on this when there are so many pressing issues for major leaguers. If they won ?t help, the least they could do is not make the situation worse.

This roster proposal would make life a little better for young major leaguers and older veterans. That’s good, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of minor leaguers. Many young players are already chasing a carrot on a stick that they ?ll never reach, but keep going because they know even a nibble could make it all worth it. This roster proposal will make it even harder to get that bite.

Alex is a Pirates and Duquesne basketball contributor to The Point of Pittsburgh. He graduated from Point Park University with a degree in Journalism and Mass Comm. and a minor in English in 2014. Everything can be explained with numbers. If you want to keep up to date on both teams or have a story idea, you can follow or reach him @AlexJStumpf.

14 Comments on Proposed Roster Changes Would Be Yet Another Blow For Minor Leaguers

  1. I get sick of hearing about the plight of minor league players. How many people in other lines of Work accept lower wages in pursuit of what they enjoy. Artists? Musicians? Restaurant workers? These players are not indentured slaves. If the wages of conditions aren’t satisfactory, change careers.

    • Kevin Creagh // March 11, 2019 at 12:04 PM //

      None of the industries that you mentioned are multi-billion dollar industries that also rely on creating a talent pool to draw from. Minor league players are paid a pittance and many have families to support. There’s a middle ground between ‘pay them so much that they never want to quit minor league ball’ and ‘I have to quit because I need money to pay rent and eat’.

      Artists, musicians, restaurant workers sometimes work multiple jobs during a week to support themselves. That’s impossible for a baseball player in-season.

      I’m not sure you fully grasp how little minor league players make.

      • Really? Restuarants, Music, and Art are not multi billion $ industries? Olive Garden, McDonalds and many more. The record labels, Amazon, Apple. In essence, everyone in the industries that I noted is working for or hoping to have a contract with a major company using their talents to get there. It has nothing to do with what the minor league player makes. That is the available market, and they have choices. They can pursue other permenant full time employment outside of professional baseball. If the demand for talent outpaces the talent available wages increase. If they need to quit to pay rent and eat, they aren’t viable MLB players in most cases and should pursue another career. Market based economics is a problem if you don’t have the sense to pursue a career that pays your bills. Otherwise, it provides the best chance for financial independence of any economic system. I don’t feel sorry for anyone that wont pursue money to support their family so that they can “live their dream.” Selfish, childish, immature behavior. We all have dreams, and we work to achieve them. Many of us have worked 2-3 jobs to do so and others of us have done that to feed our family and pay the rent.

        • Kevin Creagh // March 11, 2019 at 3:06 PM //

          You missed the point. Restaurants, Music, Art wait for people to come to them for work. Baseball, again, a multi-billion business, has intentionally created a system and then DRAFTED players into said system to work for them in hopes of developing into useable talent. Talent that they then control for 6 minor league seasons and 6 major league seasons (typically and if lucky to make it). And yes, they signed up for it, but it is a form of indentured servitude.

          An A-ball player makes $1100/month. It only marginally increases from there. That’s just from April to September. If they are in extended ST or have to wait until short-season starts, they don’t get paid. They have to pay taxes, clubhouse fees. The food pre and post-game is a joke for them. They have to pay rent and buy their own food outside of the clubhouse.

          We are in a time where it is fashionable to “eat the rich”. If this article would have been about imploring the cheap Pirates to spend more on ML talent, I’m guessing your attitude would have been different. But since it is about paying ‘labor’ a fair wage, the response was different.

          • Tony Ventimgilio // March 11, 2019 at 3:40 PM //

            I would argue that you miss the point. They are not slaves. They can work elsewhere. The draft is nothing more than a screening process for qualifications, exactly like the hiring process in industries. And no, I don’t think the Pirates or any business should pay more than the believe is feasible for their business model. Like all things, the market will dictate. Right now, the club lacks attendance which may force them to increase spending to attract fans or cut spending to fit their business model. It is their choice, just like it is a players choice to choose to play baseball. Again, if the payers chose not to play for that $ the system would be fixed immediately to attract them as the teams cant function without them. If they are willing to play for $1100 that is their choice.

  2. What you just briefly touch on here is how dreadful September baseball has become, and how starkly different it is from the game as it is played the other five months of the season. While I know Joe Maddon, Super Genius (TM) loves having 20 pitchers on his roster so he can match up for each batter from the sixth inning on, but that does not make for good baseball–indeed, you can argue that what should be the game’s most exciting time of the year is its most unwatchable. The 40-man roster is a relic from the 60s; teams have considerably more and better data on players now, and you can argue what you glean from those September appearances is of little value, as September baseball is very often the equivalent of “garbage time” in basketball.

    I am not unmindful of what a rough go minor league players have of it, and I am sympathetic to their plight. That said, improving pay and benefits is something which should be addressed in the CBA, or the agreement between MLB and the National Association, not by making the stretch run unwatchable.

    • Kevin Creagh // March 11, 2019 at 12:05 PM //

      The problem is that minor leaguers are not represented by MLBPA, so it will not be addressed correctly in the CBA.

      • That’s true– but it could addressed in the agreement in the MLB-National Association agreement. As has been said here many times, the game is awash in money, and there is nothing that prevents money and benefits issues for minor-league players being addressed contractually.

  3. Ron Ieraci // March 11, 2019 at 12:56 PM //

    Agreed the MLBPA has plenty on the plate w/pre-arb/FA issues. The MiLB players need a graduated pay/benes scale at a minimum, and w/o help in Congress (which isn’t likely) they need a PA to rep them, whether a new org or as a branch of the MLBPA. The gig economy doesn’t work so well for them.

  4. Perhaps Bryce will donate part of his salary to the cause

  5. Anybody who knows anything about baseball, should agree that this is a disservice to fans as well. Every REAL fan, of every team knows of minor leaguers that they hear about all year. They used to look forward to the September call-ups, just to see if the hype is as advertised. Now, it will require an injury or rebuild.

  6. Perhaps Mike will donate part of his salary to the cause

  7. Touchy Touchy

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