MLB Taking Over the Minors Won’t Bode Well for Pirate Fans

We’ve all been through the routine where we call a business, get put on hold, and hear a recording that tells us, repeatedly, “We value your business, yada yada.”  Of course, what the recording is really saying is, “There are more customers where you came from.  We’re not going to spend the money to provide decent customer service, so go ahead and hang up.  We’ll find another customer.”

This is how big business works now.  It’s all about efficiency, in the sense that every dime spent has to produce more than a dime in immediate returns.  Any conception of long-term customer loyalty — good will, it’s often called — has been replaced by the notion that good marketing can replace dissatisfied customers with other customers without spending the money to ensure that you don’t have dissatisfied customers.

More and more, MLB is taking this approach, too.  They’re specifically doing it in connection with competitive balance.  MLB nearly always tries to justify changes to the game by saying they’re intended to increase competitive balance.  In reality, payroll is increasingly driving success in the sport.  This is no accident.  MLB’s overriding priority at all times is to cut costs.  The need to deal with the MLBPA limits what they can accomplish in cutting payroll, so they’ve focused on spending on the farm system.

Spending on the minor leagues isn’t a major item for MLB teams, but for exactly that reason it does represent an area where lower revenue teams can try, through skill and ingenuity, to make up the gap in major league payroll.  There’s a reason it was lower level teams — most notably the Pirates — that went big in spending well over MLB’s recommended slot values in the draft.  And it’s no coincidence MLB made it a major priority in CBA negotiations to put a stop to that practice.  (Remember when the Rays and Pirates were thought to be gaining an advantage by using shifts, and Rob Manfred started making noises about outlawing them?  You think it’s a coincidence that, now that everybody is shifting, Manfred isn’t making those noises any more?)

Now MLB plans to take over operation of the minor leagues.  Baseball America (sub. req’d) has a lot of the details of MLB’s current proposal.  It primarily concerns the financial end of things, which mostly isn’t too interesting from a baseball perspective.  Much of the purpose appears to be giving MLB more leeway in cutting costs, such as travel.

From the fans’ perspective, the salient feature of  MLB’s plans is the one we already know about:  Eliminating about a quarter of minor league franchises.  There’d be 120 full-season teams, four per MLB team.  The short-season leagues would be eliminated, apart from the “complex leagues” (the Gulf Coast, Arizona and Dominican Summer Leagues).  BA has previously reported that teams’ baseball ops departments are mostly opposed to this change, but the Commissioner’s office has cut them out of the issue in order to remove the pressure that individual owners feel to make maximum efforts to compete.

This is just one part of an effort by MLB to eliminate all individuality from teams’ minor league operations.  MLB years ago tried to push teams into dropping their scouting departments and joining a single combine.  That went nowhere, but now MLB is taking advantage of the pandemic to prohibit scouts from attending games, even though there’s no legitimate health concern with having a few scouts alone in a 50,000-seat venue.  Instead, MLB wants teams to participate in a video-sharing arrangement.  Ten teams, of which the Pirates are not one, have opted out.

This is all about efficiency.  From a corporate standpoint, it’s wasteful to spend $200M on payroll and not make the playoffs.  MLB doesn’t want to see that and, if it can eliminate all the factors beside payroll that distinguish teams from one another, it won’t happen much.  Baseball will be more efficient.  Small market fans may start to lose interest — it’s already happening — but that’s no big deal.  MLB will make up the revenues by selling more Aaron Judge jerseys.

What’s really striking is the absence of any known disagreement among the owners about this approach.  A certain Pittsburgh writer keeps wondering why Bob Nutting isn’t pushing for a salary cap.  Leaving aside the question whether a payroll cap is a good solution, the simplest explanation is always the best:  Nutting likes the current system.  If they’re sold on the MLB web site, he gets a piece of the income from those Aaron Judge jerseys.

MLB’s likely takeover of MiLB isn’t going to be a good thing for the Pirates . . . or, more accurately, for their fans.  The Pirates can only win if the current front office succeeds where Neal Huntington failed, and does a better job with the farm system than most other teams.  MLB doesn’t want that.  And Bob Nutting isn’t going to do anything to frustrate MLB’s plans.  He’s happy running the Washington Generals.

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