The Waiver Claim Pt. 5—The Minor Leagues
As a kid, the realization that the minor leagues even existed (you mean to tell me there are a couple hundred *more* guys that play for the Mets?) was one of those naïve childhood moments.
As I got older, the realization that there was an opportunity to delve deeper into Minor League Baseball’s structure and deliver unique coverage and untold stories only cemented my desire to work in any capacity that involves this part of the game.
Minor league baseball has a long and complicated history, one that’s too deep to fully dive into on these pages.
Though non-major leagues existed in North America in the late 19th century, the concept of farm systems, where MLB teams fostered relationships with minor league clubs to develop its players, took off with Cardinals (and later Dodgers) general manager Branch Rickey’s vision in the 1930s.
From the mid-20th century through literally a year ago, Minor League Baseball existed as its own entity that held a relationship with Major League Baseball through the Professional Baseball Agreement. MiLB had its own commissioner, its own offices, and employees that ran each league at seven levels of the system (more on that later).
When the PBA expired following the 2020 season (which was canceled anyway due to the COVID-19 pandemic), MLB announced sweeping changes to its player development structure, none bigger than the elimination of over 40 affiliated franchises and realignment of the 120 remaining teams. Going forward, those 120 clubs were to be organized throughout four levels of the system, with short-season ball now a thing of the past.
Circuits like the International League and the Florida State League, which had each existed for over 100 years, were shuttered and replaced by the corporate-sounding Triple-A East and Low-A Southeast. Communities across the country, some of which had no other nearby professional baseball teams, felt a jolt to their cultural fabric.
Minor League Baseball has continuously become synonymous with player development in recent years, as smarter teams have figured out ways to leverage the opportunity to give their organizations the best chance at producing future major leaguers. It has created an interesting inflection point in the game’s history, one that is increasingly battling ethical questions as well.
The Minor League Structure
Once a player signs with an MLB organization after being drafted or signed as an amateur free agent, he doesn’t go straight to the Show. Unlike the NBA or NFL, where top draft picks are expected to contribute immediately, if not change the trajectory of their franchises, baseball players need varying levels of development time in the minor leagues.
(It’s insanely rare — it’s only happened three times this century—but there are some examples of players jumping straight to the majors. Hall of Famer Dave Winfield was the most successful.)
Players can be assigned to one of five levels where his team has an affiliate club. Beginning with the furthest from the majors…
Rookie: Players can play in either the Dominican Summer League (DSL), reserved for mostly teenaged international signees, or the complex leagues in Florida and Arizona, where you’ll find newly-drafted players and those who the organization doesn’t have a spot for at the next level. Average age = 18.
Low-A: East, Southeast, and West Leagues. Some drafted players will start their careers here. Average age = 21.
High-A: East, West, Central. Average age = 22.
Double-A: Northeast, Central, South. Average age = 24.
Triple-A: East, West. Average age = 26.
Some players blow through the system and reach the major leagues with a year or two of signing. Others toil in the system for years, reach free agency after their seventh season, and taste their big league dreams but never achieve them.
It’s been well-documented that minor league players get paid an abominably low wage. Players are paid bi-weekly and only during the five-and-a-half-month regular season. Depending on the level, someone could take home anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000 per year, only increasing to a livable number if he is a major league veteran.
These numbers take into account MLB’s plan to raise salaries next season. What it boils down to: players are expected to remain in peak physical condition year-round, which during the offseason requires full-time training. That’s difficult to do if he’s also working a full-time job to make ends meet because his primary employer doesn’t pay him enough to live off of. This is an even more difficult conundrum for the many foreign minor leaguers who come from poor backgrounds and are now living in an unfamiliar country, or domestic players who don’t have families who can financially support them.
One of MLB’s selling points when it uprooted the existing minor league structure was that it would ensure that each affiliate’s facilities would be up to top-grade standards. While strides have been made in that area, there’s still a long way to go, and it doesn’t really make a ton of sense that organizations haven’t made a more concerted effort there. These are their future talents that they’re making investments in, after all. Why not maximize their potential at a truly paltry cost in relation to the exorbitant salaries that their stars are making.
With that, the Waiver Claim is —as Mets radio broadcaster Howie Rose would say—in the books!
I’ve had a blast spilling my thoughts onto these pages over the last month-plus, and I’m sure my brain is relieved to have gotten these words out as well.
As always, thank you for reading and following along. I’d love to keep the conversation going, so be sure to follow me on Twitter at @Jacob_Resnick and engage.
Until next time.