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Time to invest in minor leaguers

7/16/2014

On Tuesday night, we celebrated the best players in the game, guys making millions of dollars per year or on their way to doing so.

Or, as somebody tweeted during Monday's Home Run Derby, guys with entourages large enough that one guy carried the player's glove to the field and another carried his bat.

Meanwhile, baseball has created a system where minor leaguers often sleep on floors in cramped apartments and struggle to eat anything other than peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, let alone eat healthy food that would help maximize performance. It's the ultimate survival of the fittest. Talent wins out in the end, baseball believes.

But is it the best system for developing future major league players?

Russell Carleton of Baseball Prospectus wrote an important piece on Tuesday, titled, "Why Are We Playing Hunger Games with Minor Leaguers?" It's behind the pay wall so you can't read the entire piece unless you're a Baseball Prospecuts subscriber, but the article raises questions about minor league pay structures and conditions for players, and how those conditions are employed primarily because it's cheap for teams to do so, not because it's the optimal means for getting the most out of an organization's talent.

Russell writes,

Is this a good system? I don't ask that question as an exercise in moral philosophy with the poor pitiable minor leaguers cast as a vulnerable group in need of protection. I’m asking this from the other side. Is it smart for teams in Major League Baseball to willfully pay their minor leaguers so little? Aside from cost-savings and the moralizing, could teams actually have more success developing players if they opened their wallets a little wider?

Dirk Hayhurst has authored three books that open up the life of a minor leaguer (I highly recommend the books if you haven't read them). Russell's article also links to a piece Dirk wrote back in May. Here's an excerpt from that piece:

In my first year, I was paid a mere $800 a month. After housing, taxes, clubhouse dues and insurance were taken out, that was down to $300.

My minor league brothers and I were oblivious because we were playing the game and chasing our dreams, all suffering from the delusion that we were only weeks from the bigs and escaping the bills and mortgages and mouth-feeding struggles we still had.

But even then, as naive as we were, it was comical. We'd look at our checks and have sad, satirical chuckles, punctuated with the now tongue-in-cheek phrase, "Living the dream!" Over time, however, it became much less funny.

In Low-A ball, I lived without a refrigerator. I had a Styrofoam cooler in which I put milk and bread with ice I took from hotels. I didn't have any means by which to cook raw food—no range, not even a microwave. I lived entirely off of peanut butter and jelly simply because it wouldn't spoil, and it's what I could afford.

During spring training in minor league camp, I bought a glass bowl with a lid and used it to make pasta in the hotel microwave or reheat the food I snuck from the complex.

In spring training, you were given only $120 per week in meal money, no paycheck. That $120 was gone in three nights at a sit-down restaurant—or you could stretch it by eating fatty fast food all week. Ironic, since there are rules about proper diet and being in shape; they go out the window when you're barely paid enough to eat.

As Dirk pointed out, he was fortunate compared to the Latin players. He could get a job in the offseason; he didn't have to send a little spare change back home to a family in the Dominican Republic.

Yet, everyone accepts this system. "We believe these players getting a chance at a chance at a chance to make their dreams come true and have buckets of money dumped on them nightly should be treated like this. 'It's part of paying their dues,'" Hayhurst wrote.

In Carleton's piece, he estimates that full catering services for lunch and dinner across an entire minor league system would cost $1.3 million per year. Wouldn't that be a sound investment, to ensure your prospects are eating as healthy as possible instead of living off fast-food burgers? Housing would be more expensive, but doable if an organization wanted to invest a few more million.

Carleton also suggests that increasing base salaries to $40,000 per year -- an $8.4 million investment -- would be worthwhile. To be fair, most industries don't pay entry-level workers $40,000 per year, and minor leaguers are essentially entry-level workers. U.S. business has also managed to take advantage of its workforce in recent years with an increased use of internships -- many of which are unpaid positions. It's all about getting the experience. Sound familiar?

So maybe the $40,000-per-year model is unrealistic, but certainly small increases in monthly salaries would be beneficial. As Carleton writes,

The model of low wages for minor leaguers, the hunger games if you will, is guilty of one of two things. Maybe both. One is that it misunderstands basic principles of human development. The other is that it assumes that talent will shine through no matter what the circumstances, and that all teams should be concerned about is buying talent. It’s all nature and no nurture.

I'm reminded of meeting Twins super-prospect Miguel Sano last summer. The Twins have a lot invested in Sano (who is out this year after elbow surgery), a kid who has the potential to be a 40-homer guy in the majors. Yet, here he was, speaking very little English, and he's essentially thrown into the fire on his own: Sink or swim. Organizations offer very little guidance or mentorship, even for the best prospects. Survival of the fittest.

(It's one reason the Cubs brought in Manny Ramirez as a player-coach at Triple-A, providing a mentor of sorts for Javier Baez. You can laugh at the idea of Ramirez as mentor, but the idea of investing in the concept is a smart one.)

It's a complicated issue, but I think this will become one of the next big movements in baseball. Smart organizations will start investing more in their minor leaguers, beyond just teaching their prospects how to bunt and hit the cutoff man. And, I believe, will be rewarded with better players.