By Tammy Rainey
Last month, as with every week for the last 60+ weeks (if not more), the news was filled with so much existentially disturbing news that it was difficult to draw much attention to an issue which was, however ugly, not a threat to our civilization. In the midst of the chaos Congress patched together a shepherd's pie of spending and called it a budget and, as they always do they plugged in a plethora of riders that really have nothing to do with a spending bill but which had been paid for by wealthy interests seeking to improve their ability to get still more wealthy.
One of those provisions did get a fair amount of attention relative to others of a similar nature, but only within the realm of the professional baseball universe and even then only among those writers, fans, and players who are invested not just in the highly paid major leaguers but also the young men who barely survive toiling for over 200 teams in pursuit of the major league dream. Within that world a good deal has been written on the subject of the very appropriately acronymed S.A.P. Act and I would not presume to fully dissect all the finer points of the subject. But for context let me very briefly give you an overview.
There’s a lawsuit which asks the court to require the major leagues to pay their minor league farm hands in a manner consistent with the fair labor laws. The defendants, along with the minor league ownership, argue that such players are “seasonal” workers who are effectively apprentices which is on its face a ridiculous defense and so they managed to find some Congressperson (we still aren’t sure yet exactly who) to negotiate a provision into the Omnibus Budget Bill which excepted minor league players from certain provisions related to the minimum wage and overtime pay. This new law doesn’t completely crush the suit, particularly because there will likely be state law provisions which apply regardless, but it is a significant setback.
Rather than go deeply into the many layers of this subject, again which has been done quite well by other writers already, I want to kind of zoom in on a ground level view of an aspect that can’t be emphasized enough: just how very little, in relative terms, it would cost MLB to do right by these guys. Here too, others have run the numbers and written out the conclusions of their calculations. Camden Depot has an interesting piece which helped informed this one which addresses the subject from a businesslike approach more complex than the one I’ve chosen. I recommend it.
But here’s what I want to do. I want to postulate a given minor league guy. Not a star with a big shiny signing bonus, but also not organization filler that will play 2.5 seasons and retire. I want to walk through the system with that guy and postulate a rate of pay for him that is at least decent. Mind you, one can certainly argue that MLB is so awash in billions of dollars (and growing) that these guys ought to be pretty well paid relative to other labor 20-something year old men might be engaged in but I’m not even postulating that. I’m just talking about basic, reasonable, dare I say humane compensation for the men you employee. For the purpose of putting a face on this journey, I’ve selected Blue Jays LHP Tim Mayza.
While it’s very difficult to find an example of a guy who moved through the whole system pretty much station to station, spending most of a season playing for at least five if not six different levels, Mayza comes fairly close, close enough for this example. Mayza was a 12th round pick in the 2013 draft. Not a big-bonus steal or anything, as draftees go he was just a guy and he opened his career appearing three times in the GCL before playing most of that draft year season at Bluefield.
Here’s a couple of caveats before I begin: first, I’m going to lay aside signing bonuses because the question I’m attempting to answer is “how much more would a MLB have to spend to do this?” and the bonuses would not necessarily change because of this proposal. Likewise, I’ll ignore minor league free-agent signings since those negotiated salaries also are not part of my proposal and also operate independently of the base pay structure. Now, let’s ride along with Mayza and see how the journey might have been different.
Per the figures at Camden Depot (there’s a variety of figures reported from different sources, but all in the same range) these are the pay rates at the various farm team levels which presumably much like what Mayza got paid so far in his career.
I cannot find the current Minor League Baseball agreement, but the numbers communicated to me are these:
Dominican Summer League: $300
Rookie League: $950
Short Season A: $1150
Low A: $1300
Hi A: $1500
Players are not paid by the club for spring training or instructional leagues. Short season payment covers two to three months. Full season payment covers five months. This means the yearly expected salary for minor leaguers at various steps would be:
Yearly Salary on Level
Short A: $3450
Low A: $6500
Hi A: $7500
If a player repeats a level, he is usually entitled to a raise of about $50 a month. If you are in the minors and score a 40 man roster spot, your pay increases to $88,000.
If you’d like a bit more detail there’s a Pitch Talks video on Youtube featuring then Jays’ minor league broadcasters Jesse Goldberg-Strassler and Ben Wagner (since promoted to the big league broadcast team) and they answer a question about minor league pay starting about 25 minutes in. Wagner expands on the variance in pay once a player reaches the top levels of the system. But again these are not things which address the point of this article.
From 2013 through 2016 Mayza spent most of each season at one pay level. In the last of those years he spent six weeks out of that season at AA but for simplicity I’m going to “round off” each season to the level where he played the bulk of the year. Last year he climbed from AA to the majors which if I was really talking about Mayza I’d need to break down but for the purpose of example I’ll pretend he spent all year in AA and was looking at a full season in AAA this year before hitting the majors in 2019 for good. In such a career his total minor league earnings would then be $40,800. For six years of his life. For comparison that total is less than the median income for one year in the U.S. If one worked at the federal minimum wage for 40 hours a week for three years you’d make almost $5,000 more than that. My argument is that such a reality is basically criminally abusive and ought to be a badge of shame on the entire MLB industry. But what might the alternative look like?
Let’s go back then to 2013. In a player’s draft year, he’s drafted in June and signed within a month or so of the draft and finds himself assigned to a short season team. The best of them, usually college draftees, will go to the highest of those teams in Vancouver but most spend a little time in the GCL and sort out who gets to go to Bluefield. All in all those short seasons last just less than three months. Our guy spent that 2013 season at this pay level. I’m going to leave the existing pay rate for this level alone (as I did for the DSL which has so dramatically different an economic environment that the pay there is probably fairly generous). This is a players first summer out of school and it’s not the time when anyone expects to be highly paid, or support a family, or anything of that sort. So per the above figures from Camden Depot (sources vary) he’s collected about $2,850 for his summer of roughly 12 weeks work. Or about $220 a week. Equivalent to about 30 hours of minimum wage. McDonalds pay.
However, that pay ends at the end of the season while almost all of these guys report to Florida for a month or more of Instructional leagues which are unpaid, then they are expected to be back in mid-March for spring training - unpaid. So I propose that pay continue for six weeks after the season.That still leaves the players who are coming back with five months in between instructionals and spring training where they are on their own. Again, these are generally guys who are still very young and a lot of them won’t progress much further and it’s not criminal to let them find temp work in the first off-season. I’m not advocating for the least option here just describing a reasonable minimum. He’s made $4,170 so far as a professional baseball player.
Now it’s 2014 and our player is assigned to Vancouver. A lot of prospects only play one season in short season ball but many pitchers, particularly relievers, spend two or more at the level. He’s making, according to the above pay schedule, slightly more per month here than he did at the rookie level, but the additional $200 a month likely is less than the difference in rent between Bluefield WV and Vancouver BC. But those who come back for a second season are now embarked on a career, with obligations and responsibilities and no longer just doing the equivalent of a summer job. You showed up in Florida at least by mid-March to work - somehow - without pay for three months before the season actually starts (short season players literally spend more days at spring training than they do during the regular season playing games that count. I think here is where the teams ought to really diverge from what they are doing now.
Let’s suggest a pay “year” that begins when you report to ST, and that at this level “Mayza” gets paid $300 a week during spring training and I propose a salary of $500 per week for the 12 weeks of the minor league regular season. If the player goes back to instructs then another six weeks at the same rate of pay he made in the spring. So that’s 20 weeks at $300 and 12 weeks at $500 for a total of $12,000 for the period from mid-March to mid-October, basically $1,700 per month. Now Mayza is looking at another five month window where whatever he does to be ready for next year goes unpaid. This isn’t right either but again, we’re looking at the most basic level here.
March 2015, our man arrives in Florida for another session of unpaid labor. However since you are not looking at a full season assignment it’s only about four weeks. I propose no less than $500 a week for this. Early in April he’s assigned to Lansing for his first full-season gig which will last for five months. As things stand, remember, he’s looking at $1,300 a month which is $300 a week which is basically dead on (the federal) minimum wage for 40 hours. Let’s take a moment and note that players arrive at the park no later than 3 PM and are there until after they finish the game, shower and change and so forth - at least seven hours at least six and often seven days a week and that’s only thinking of home games. On the road there are countless hours of travel time which by any reasonable standard they are “on the clock.” This assumes they don’t show up early for any extra BP, or medical treatment, or any other effort towards being a productive quality player, which, let’s be real, happens much much more often than it doesn’t. So, yeah, 40 hours is not a thing. (for subscribers to The Athletic, Eno Sarris has a full breakdown of what a player’s day looks like here)
Let’s double that.. If you’ve made it to full-season ball you are at least considered good organization filler at this point. So you should make $2,600 a month at least (which is more than is reported for base pay at AAA). That works out to about $600 a week. No instructs (unless you are rehabbing) by now so around weeks in all and “Mayza” has been paid $15,000 so far in this calendar year. By now, in my opinion, we’re to a point where the team owes players an offseason “retainer” to compensate them for the work they do to be a productive player and help insure them against financial ruin. So let’s give such a player 50% of that weekly rate of the level where they ended the previous season for the 27 or so weeks until he reports again in the spring and account it towards the 2015 total for an additional $8,100 which adds up to a yearly salary from one mid-March to the next of $23,100. Our guy isn’t exactly getting rich is he?
So Spring Training 2016 arrives and if all goes well (it does) “Mayza” is going to break camp with Dunedin. This year we’ll stick with the ST salary structure from last year and pay him about $2,000 for the four weeks of work before the season starts. But Hi-A in season pay under my proposal is $4,000 per month, that’s $20,000 for the season. The off-season retainer jumps to $500 per week (which is only fair, not many guys are still in the system at this point) for an additional $13,500 and a “baseball year” total of $35,500.
Same pattern at AA but let’s give the man a 20% raise for ST. That’s $2,400 pre-season. Raise it to $5,000 a month during the season (a total of $25,000) and a 20% raise in the off-season retainer ($16,200) for a yearly total of $43,600 which is right around the median income in the U.S.
At AAA, we’ll retain the above spring rates and raise the monthly pay in-season to $6,000 per month. For comparison, that’s about what an hourly-wage worker would make if they made $20 an hour and put in 20 hours of overtime in a week. After this year our guy, assuming he’s still in the organization but not on the 40 man roster yet would be a minor league free agent after the season. He will have made $32,400 by the final game of this year. In this postulated career our “Mayza” has accumulated at least $150,770 in pay for employment that runs from late June 2013 to early September 2018 or roughly 63 months. That works out to on average a rate equivalent to $28,718 per year. Or $13.80 er hour for 40 hours a week all year. To repeat myself, we’re not talking about lavish income here and the pay is still quite modest until you get to Hi-A ball.It never exceeds the median income for the country (until you are added to the 40 man, which is a rate set by the major league CBA, or you become a free agent).
So now we’ve come to the question - how much would such an increase cost your favorite major league team? Well depending on the figures you use, what they are spending now puts them between $1.3 million and $1.4 million for the entire system (again, FA signings excepted). That’s less than Devon Travis alone will make in 2018. For around 240 players. This assumes 40 players being paid at each short season level and 30 each at every full season stop. Under my proposal (which honestly is just an example for discussion purposes) that same team would need to spend $4,887,600 for a net increase of approximately $3.5 million. For the Jays, who are in the middle third of projected payrolls, that works out to around 2.25% of what they are spending on the major league roster. Put another way, for the lowest revenue team in baseball in 2016 that would have been 1.7% of total revenue. For the Jays, right in the middle of the pack that year, 1.25%. For the Yankees, a miniscule .67%
That’s what we’re talking about here. That’s the amount this multi-billion dollar industry is being stingy with. Over 7,000 young men and, sometimes, their family, draw less than poverty level wages so that billionaires can cling to an amount that won’t generally buy them even one starter at any position on the free agent market. A total of $105 million which, if you think that sounds like a lot consider this: attendance across all of MLB has averaged over 74 million per year since at least 2000. If every ticket cost $1.50 more than it does now, that would be enough to pay the players on the farm in the manner in which I’ve proposed. Would you be willing to pay that much more for your ticket? Literally less than two pennies per minor league player in your team’s organization on each ticket? I’m going to go out on a limb and say pretty much every fan would say yes. The question is, if you did so would the billionaires pass it along to the players, or put it in their already deep pockets?
There’s much more that could be said here. For example, ask a minor league player whats provided for them to eat in the clubhouse. You’d think a major league organization would pay handsomely to be sure their best prospects got the best nutrition to maximize their abilities. Not so much. Or take housing. If a given short season team has 40 players under contract and they share occupancy two to a unit, the team could build a 20 unit dorm complex in (sticking with the Blue Jays example) Dunedin, Bluefield, and Vancouver for a reasonably small investment and provide housing for their players. Fifteen units maybe in Lansing. At the upper levels guys are better able to afford rent. There’s a capital investment there certainly, and one a corporate owner might not see the value in but the point is that it’s financially possible if short term profit gives way to the concept of actually investing in your players. But don’t hold your breath.
Tammy Rainey is a contributing writer for Baseball Prospectus Toronto and a trans-activist. You can follow her on Twitter @Tammy_Beth.