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The effects of uncompetitive minor league salaries

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Andrew McCutchen
Andrew McCutchen
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

We have occasionally discussed the poor rate of pay for minor league players. The topic came into the national conversation when a group of minor leaguers filed suit a couple of years ago. That suit is still pending but the topic is worth addressing again, especially after reading this brilliant article at The Hardball Times by Chris "Fangraphs" Mitchell.

Charlie Drysdale's article back in 2014 made several key points, but these two particularly stand out:

Some players receive significant signing bonuses, which covers their expenses over the next five years or more. However, other players aren't as fortunate on draft day and are constantly scrimping to get by. In this case, they often shack up with teammates who are better off, living on the floors and couches of the apartments of teammates who have better resources.

One player shared with me the problems of being an athlete in these conditions and trying to eat right:

"As for other players who were less fortunate on draft day, I know it was a constant struggle.  You are expected to fuel your body like a big leaguer yet you can only afford lower income foods."

If a player has trouble making bills, or paying rent during the season there are only a few options available to him. While one player praised his organization saying they would help out with financial needs:

"If you were to approach the team with a financial concern, the team will always help you out. Whether you can't pay dues, rent, or afford food, the team will do something to help that individual out."

Another prospect wasn't so fortunate, saying that if a player ran into financial trouble, the only real option was to:

"Quit and get a job."

A great deal apparently depends on which minor league organization you are with.

It would seem to me that treating players well, either through a higher salary or financial assistance for room and board, would be a competitive advantage for a smart organization. Chris Mitchell's new article takes that idea and looks in detail at the financial data and the demographics. Key conclusions:

****Minor league players earn a wage lower than that of fast food workers.

****Even if you set aside moral considerations and look at the issue purely objectively without regard for the human beings involved, poor wages for minor league players may be suppressing or reducing the number of quality athletes entering the game. That's not good for MLB.

****The issue goes beyond minor league pay: amateur baseball itself has become a sport for the upper classes and the wealthy, with the lower middle class and working class priced out of travel leagues for example.

Mitchell concludes:

Higher minor league wages would certainly help make baseball’s talent pool more inclusive. But they wouldn’t be the silver bullet that tears down all of the barriers for low-income amateurs. Another, possibly larger, hurdle for these players is the cost of travel leagues, which often run into the thousands of dollars for a single year of play. Travel leagues give kids the opportunity to challenge themselves against advanced competition and have become a near-necessity for aspiring professionals, but as Andrew McCutchen has observed at the Players’ Tribune, they’re unaffordable for many families. Similarly, amateur showcases are a great way for high-schoolers to gain exposure, but cost as much as $600 a pop.

Still, even if minor league wages are only one part of the problem, the data suggest their effects are significant. In addition to paying poverty-level wages to thousands of players, the current minor league pay structure acts as a barrier to entry for many more. Raising the wage would plug some of the leaks in Major League Baseball’s talent pipeline. This would incentivize more amateur baseball players to pursue careers as professionals, leading to a more inclusive and diverse sport with more talented players on the field.

Mitchell looks at the demographic and economic implications. The whole article is worth a detailed read.