Bill DeWitt Jr. on Minor League Baseball Team Reductions

photo: Bill DeWitt, Jr. (Brian Walton/The Cardinal Nation)

Bill DeWitt Jr. is highly respected as a second-generation owner in Major League Baseball. His leadership of the St. Louis Cardinals has brought the franchise to great heights both on and off the field since 1996.

During Monday’s media briefing at Cardinals Winter Warm-Up in St. Louis, I asked Mr. DeWitt about MLB’s proposal (reportedly agreed-to by all 30 organizations) to remove their affiliation from 42 minor league clubs. This includes two teams in the Cardinals system, located in Johnson City, Tennessee and State College, Pennsylvania.

My hope was that Mr. DeWitt would reflect on the rich history of minor league baseball and importance of small-town America to build interest in the future of the game at all levels, including the highest one, which generates the big revenues.

Realistically, I did not actually expect such a reply, especially while MLB is locked in a battle with Minor League Baseball and its affected team owners, 42 communities across the country, and a Congressional committee, among others in opposition.

Here is what Mr. DeWitt said, with the audio clip and my comments following.

BW: What is your view on contracting the minor league system, to eliminate teams?

BDW: “The issue there is there are a lot of teams that are playing in facilities that are not first rate and not that well maintained, and… frankly, don’t necessarily draw a lot of people. If we consolidate to the areas where the better facilities (are), we could pay the minor league players more.

“It is a struggle unless you get a high-bonus player going there for them to get a living wage. And you know, because those teams just don’t gross a lot of money.

“So, it is not a sense of contracting the minor leagues so much as maybe having a different model and focus on the cities and towns who are willing to invest in the team and in the facilities.

“And I think the concept, which is a good one, in my view, is to provide opportunities for players that maybe don’t profile as potential prospects. But you never know. One can develop and if a certain number of leagues at the lower levels can provide opportunity and let them play, maybe a few of those players rise and ultimately get to the major leagues. That would be a nice thing.

“But it has got to be on a, I think, an economic sound basis, where the owners of those teams invest in the product.

“I am hopeful that everyone will agree on a program to get that done.”

Brian Walton’s take

Mr. DeWitt’s remarks seem to confirm a suspected direct correlation between MLB teams reducing the number of minor league players it pays and increasing salaries for those who remain. MLB seems to be cutting back on its own developmental pipeline, while passing expense to minor league team owners.

MLB wants the minor league owners in these de-selected cities to fund their own players (via the proposed non-affiliated Dream League), even though these teams apparently do not gross a lot of money. This is clearly not a problem for MLB, which generated a reported $10.8 billion in revenues last year.

Minor league teams paying for players (and coaches) would be a major change from today, as MLB organizations cover these expenses currently. Under the proposal, MLB affiliates would remain in larger cities, and those players may be paid more in the future, apparently from the savings gained from the reductions.

The question of using supposed substandard facilities to decide which teams are in and which are out is highly debatable, as a number of the 42 to-be-contracted teams play in current, modern ballparks. And ones that may be in need of – and willing to make – changes have learned it may be too late. How could they invest in upgrades with their teams already on the chopping block in just one season from now?

The definition of an “economic sound basis” is another nebulous matter. Sound to whom?

Despite what was suggested above, there is no connection today between a minor league team’s revenues and player pay.

MLB has chosen to couple long-overdue player salary increases with taking organized baseball away from 42 communities. This is a choice they are making, and not a requirement. The former could and should occur, whether the latter is implemented fully, partially or not at all.

There appears to be a long and uncertain road ahead before this can be resolved. Those on the Minor League Baseball side of the discussion will not be encouraged by Mr. DeWitt’s Monday comments.

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