(LOS ANGELES) - Players in minor-league baseball are paid by their parent clubs, rather than the individual minor-league teams, and they typically make very little, with a minimum of $1,100 per month that’s limited to in-season play, with nothing for spring training.
Even as they make their way up through the ranks of organized ball, they still don’t have an opportunity to make very much, and their wages haven’t increased nearly enough over the years to keep up with inflation, as major-league salaries have. Players often struggle to make ends meet, rooming with people who volunteer their spare bedrooms in minor-league towns and having difficulty putting food on the table outside the paltry spreads that they get on game days.
In December of 1999, one of the few protections in place for minor-league baseball players put left-hander Johan Santana on the Minnesota Twins. Santana, at that point, had never pitched above Class A ball, but had been in the Astros’ system long enough to be subject to the Rule 5 Draft, which exists to prevent clubs from stashing Major League-ready players in their farm systems for too long.
The rebuilding Twins saw something they liked in Santana — in retrospect, it’s not hard to figure out what — and scooped him up (with an assist from the Marlins) on the day of that draft.
Players selected in the Rule 5 Draft must remain on the 25-man roster of their new teams for an entire season or be returned to their original organizations, so the Twins held on to Santana even though he was outright terrible in 2000.
Johan Santana did not become Johan Santana — the Johan Santana, the two-time Cy Young Award winner and one of the best pitchers of his era — until after a stint in Class AAA ball in 2002 spent developing his changeup. In the minors, where the results matter far less than the process, Santana was able to gain confidence in the pitch by throwing it in situations and sequences he never would have dared use it under the big-league lights.
Buried nearly 2,000 pages deep into the $1.3 trillion spending bill that Congress passed early Friday morning is an amendment that exempts Major League Baseball from terms of the Fair Labor Standards Act, ensuring that teams do not have to pay minor leaguers for spring training, for offseason workouts, or for overtime during the season.
While Major League salaries have grown, on average, by about 10,000% since the dawn of free agency in the mid-1970s, the minor league payscale has not increased enough to even cover inflation over that same period.
Santana perfected his changeup, undoubtedly, through hard work and dedication and incredible natural ability. But he did so also with the help of a bunch of Pacific Coast League hitters who would hardly sniff the Majors, and many who’d never get there at all.
Click around that league’s 2002 rosters and you’ll find a handful of future or former big-league regulars but a whole lot more names you’ve never heard before and will likely never hear again. Class AAA ball afforded Santana an opportunity to hone his craft against some of the best baseball players in the world and helped him go on to make over $160 million in his career.
Major League Baseball eclipsed $10 billion in revenue in 2017, and the average big-league player’s salary exceeded $4 million. But the league and the industry at large continue to prevent any of that wealth from trickling into the hands of the minor leaguers that create its backbone. Major League Baseball maintains a political action committee that spends millions on lobbying and campaign donations.
This graph shows the amount MLB has spent on lobbying through the Commissioner’s Office. Note the increases the past two years as they lobbied to get exemption for MiLB players in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.
Those unsympathetic to the minor leaguers’ plight will point out, accurately, that many top-flight domestic and international prospects receive large signing bonuses. And that’s true: Players taken as late as the 10th round of the sport’s annual amateur draft typically get six figures when they ink their pro contracts. But the draft lasts 40 rounds, bonus pools are capped, and those contracts tie players to their organizations — and the monthly pittances that constitute their salaries — for up to seven seasons.
Major League Baseball front offices do not keep nine farm clubs and some 250 minor league players in their organizations due to goodness in their corporate hearts, or because they want more young men to have the opportunity to pursue their dreams. C’mon. Determining which athletic 18-year-old will someday become a viable Major League contributor is really hard, and you need the chaff to distinguish the wheat.
These dudes earning what amounts to less than minimum wage to get chewed up and spit out by the sport do so in its service. Every time some 25-year-old organizational soldier swings at a burgeoning stud’s breaking ball, he is playing a part in improving a Major League Baseball team — and Major League Baseball itself. When a millionaire MLB veteran rehabbing an injury spends a week hitting in Class AA to get his timing right, there’s an extraordinarily talented young pitcher on the other side shouldering the physical toil.
Baseball needs these guys.
And some might argue that the young players in question are pursuing one of the best and unlikeliest and most lucrative careers, and working in the minors amounts to paying their dues just like rock stars and actors and comedians do. But there are many paths to success in music and show business, and aspiring entertainers get to pick and choose their gigs and have the time and flexibility to work side jobs while they do so. If you’re playing minor league baseball from April through September — not to mention your unpaid but mandatory time in spring training — you can’t exactly wait tables on the side.
And minor league baseball is really the only path to playing Major League Baseball, and if you’re a domestic prospect, the team that drafts you is the only one you can sign with. It’s just not like other jobs.
Many Major League clubs slashed payrolls this offseason as a slew of veteran free-agents resorted to signing low-cost, one-year deals, in part due to the league-wide emphasis on player development. But none of those savings will be passed along to the minor-league cannon fodder assisting in the development of future big-league stars. A team could viably give a $30,000 raise to every single minor leaguer in its organization for roughly the annual cost of a decent free-agent setup reliever.
That’s baseball. The government may determine that it remains that way, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a travesty.