Over the last few years, we have dedicated some time to covering issues involving the unfairly low pay of minor league baseball players. Many of them make less than $10,000 per year, forcing them to pick up a job or two during the offseason. Some of them also work during the season when possible.
Pitcher Kaleb Earls was a pitcher in the Brewers’ minor league system, selected in the 13th round of the 2014 draft. He struggled over parts of three seasons and ended up playing for the Gateway Grizzlies of the independent Frontier League last year. On Monday, Earls received his Form W2 and decided to tweet about it:
In the ensuing conversation, Earls noted that his pay wasn’t much better in the minor leagues, which are affiliated with Major League Baseball:
Obviously, independent league teams have much less cash to go around. Although they should still strive to pay their players a living wage, it’s understandable that they’re not as readily able to make that happen. For the affiliated minor league teams, however, it would only cost each team $1.25 million to pay each member of its 25-man roster $50,000 a year. Each team has at least six minor league affiliates between Triple-A and rookie ball, so that would come to at least $7.5 million for each organization. Major League Baseball set a record for industry revenues for a 15th consecutive year in 2017 at more than $10 billion. Even a small-market team like the Rays would be able to afford $7.5 million per year — owner Stuart Sternberg reportedly has a net worth of $800 million despite the Rays’ payroll hovering between $66-77 million over the last few years.
It’s worth noting that while I personally would like to see minor league players make $50,000 or more annually, we can make that hypothetical $30,000 or $40,000 and the numbers become even more reasonable ($750,000-$1 million per 25-man roster). Keeping them below $10,000 is an embarrassment.
It’s not that owners can’t pay minor leaguers a fair wage, it’s that they don’t want to. Minor leaguers aren’t represented by a union, so they don’t have negotiating power. Owners instead spend a relative pittance to influence politicians to introduce favorable legislation. The MLB players’ union hasn’t shown any interest in including their minor league counterparts and has in fact been willing to sell them down the river to make other gains in collective bargaining.
Beyond the moral imperative, though, there’s a very sound reason for team owners to want to pay their players more. It allows them to stay in good health more consistently as they are not as stressed, sleep better, and can eat healthier foods. An athlete performs best — and thus can best create value for his team — when he’s healthy, of course. In 2014, the Red Sox created a “sleep room” for their big league players. In 2016, the Phillies invested roughly $1 million to ensure their minor leaguers have healthier food options. Clearly, some teams are already onto this.
Furthermore, paying minor league players a living wage means they will have more free time since they are not working a second job and stressing about paying bills. With that free time, they can watch tape, work on mechanics, talk with coaches or teammates, and spend some extra time in the gym or on the diamond. This could be the edge a player needs to take his game to the next level instead of becoming a bust, or simply retiring from baseball because he can’t afford it.
Teams are always looking for the next edge, not unlike Billy Beane’s famous “Moneyball” Athletics in the early 2000’s. This is a very clear and obvious edge staring them in the face and it has been for decades. If the moral angle doesn’t strike a chord for those balking at paying minor league players more, then the competitive angle absolutely should.