Interim Pay for Minor Leaguers Extended, but What Will Their Season Be?

photo: Gary LaRocque and campers (Brian Walton/The Cardinal Nation)

Updated on April 1 and April 3

Major League Baseball press release

Major League Baseball announced today (Tuesday, March 31) that it has extended the league-wide initiative of financial support for Minor League players through May 31st or until the beginning of the minor league season – whichever occurs first.  MLB is taking this additional step to continue assistance for Minor League players and their families during the unexpected postponement to the start of the season.  All players will continue to receive medical benefits and may continue to use any balance they have in the College Scholarship Plan or Continuing Education Program.  This follows MLB’s March 19th announcement that provided interim support to Minor League players through April 8th, which covered the period until the originally scheduled start of the minor league season.

The exceptions to this plan are players who are signed to Major League contracts; players who are already receiving housing, food or other services from Clubs; and players on the Restricted, Voluntary Retired, Disqualified or Ineligible Lists.  In addition, each Club will make its own arrangements to provide support to players on Dominican Summer League rosters during the same period.

As a procedural matter, Major League Baseball has informed Minor League Baseball that Major League Clubs are unable to supply their Minor League affiliates with players as a result of the national health emergency.  All MLB Clubs are now in the process of informing Minor League players of the suspension of their Uniform Player Contracts.  Today’s announcement provides funds for impacted eligible players during the delay.

For the last two weeks, MLB has been engaged in a variety of discussions with stakeholders to identify ways to blunt the wide-ranging impact of the national emergency resulting from the global coronavirus pandemic.  MLB has announced a joint $1 million MLB-MLBPA fund to speed food assistance to those impacted by the crisis and a 30-Club, $30 million effort to support ballpark workers.  MLB partnered with Fanatics to manufacture masks and hospital gowns at the factory and from materials usually used to make MLB jerseys.  The much-needed supplies will first be sent to support healthcare workers and emergency personnel in Pennsylvania, where the factory is located, with the intention of expanding.  Individual Clubs will continue to announce more details surrounding support for their local communities, and players are coming together to urge fans to take this crisis seriously.

We will continue to monitor ongoing events and undertake the precautions and best practices recommended by public health experts, and urge all baseball fans to follow suit.  MLB extends its best wishes to all the individuals and communities who have been impacted by the coronavirus.


Brian Walton’s take

I want to use this opportunity to expand on a number of points discussed with Dan McLaughlin on our Wednesday, April 1 podcast – minor league compensation and how the minor league season may be impacted by the coronavirus shutdown.


On compensation – minor leaguers

Following the comprehensive announcement last Friday between Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association answering several important open questions regarding the game in this unprecedented time, one of the still-open areas regarded minor leaguers and their ongoing compensation.

As a group, minor league players are not represented by the Union, and in fact has no collective bargaining voice with ownership. However, MLB made a welcome announcement on March 19 to help its players, a group who had not received a paycheck since the conclusion of the 2019 season.

Minor leaguers who had been invited to spring training would receive a $400 weekly allowance to help them with their living and training expenses. The original decision only covered these players until the final day before minor league Opening Day, which was to be Thursday, April 9.

The Tuesday, March 31 announcement detailed above is basically an extension of the earlier decision – both in terms of the calendar and number of players covered.

The $400 per week allowance (plus health benefits) will now continue through May 31, only to be interrupted in the (highly unlikely, IMO) case that the season begins sooner.

The quantity of covered players reportedly increases with the inclusion of the additional players who would have been reporting to extended spring training camp this week. This group picks up where regular spring training leaves off, working from early April until the start of June in the Jupiter complex.

Players in extended spring training typically include those from regular spring training who did not make one of the four full-season teams (Memphis, Springfield, Palm Beach and Peoria) along with the other players who finished the prior season on any of the US-based farm clubs. A handful of players from the Dominican academy often are invited, as well.

Just as in regular spring training, those in EST do not receive salary, so this news is very good for them. (As mentioned above, there will be a different program to assist the players in the Dominican academy.)

In addition, last week, pitcher Adam Wainwright’s foundation announced a $250,000 donation to assist Cardinals minor leaguers through this difficult time.  Depending on the details, it could amount to $1,000 or more per player.


Minor league compensation perspective

To help put this into real numbers, the Cardinals had invited 157 players to minor league camp. They were joined (virtually) by eight 40-man roster cuts made since camp was closed. Add to them the 20 non-roster invitees still technically in big league camp and the total number of players covered by this new announcement grows to at least 185. And that does not include any incremental players to have been invited to EST who were not in regular spring training.

For players at the Double-A level on down, the interim $400 per week for all levels may represent a raise over their regular season pay, which is received for five months or just two and a half months annually, depending on whether they are assigned to a full season or short-season league.

Triple-A players will take an interim salary hit, as the normal minimum pay at that level is $502 per week. However, the minimums at Double-A ($350) and Class-A and Rookie short-season ($290) are lower than the temporary blanket $400.

Of course, not all players make the minimum, but one should come away from this feeling that the $400 pay looks to be fair.

Let’s come back to clarify the distinction between the players who remain in MLB camp and the ones who are not.


On compensation – 40-man roster players

I will start with the 40-man roster players. The eight players most recently optioned out in two waves included basically all 40-man players who did not appear to be on track to make the St. Louis roster for Opening Day. They are pitchers Alex Reyes, Jake Woodford, Genesis Cabrera and Junior Fernandez, catcher Andrew Knizner, infielder Edmundo Sosa, plus outfielders Justin Williams and Austin Dean.

Other 40-man players preceded them, with 29 remaining in St. Louis camp currently (including 60-day injured list assignee Jordan Hicks). (Details are always available on the Roster Matrix, free here at The Cardinal Nation.)

The less experienced players typically have a split contract that pays them a major league salary if in the bigs and a minor league salary if assigned to the minors. The March 27 MLB agreement includes a $170 million salary advance provision for major leaguers covering the same period as the later minor league agreement – April and May.

The rate of interim pay for the 40-man roster players who have not yet reached arbitration eligibility (just under three years of MLB service time) also differs greatly from the more experienced major leaguers. There are three tiers that range from $275 per day (not week), to $500 per day to a peak of $1,000 per day. In comparison, the MLB veterans will receive $5,000 per day in April and May.

If the season resumes, these payments will be factored into their regular paychecks. If the season is not held, the money does not have to be returned. If play has not resumed by June 1, a new agreement will be required.


On compensation – non-roster invitees

Now, we have the 20 non-roster invitees. Many wondered why these players remain in big league camp even after all the non-competing 40-man players were sent down. The simple reason is that there was no financial motivation to move them. They are not on major league contracts, so they are not covered by the $170 million advance program.

The NRIs are on minor league contracts and therefore included in the $400 per week (not day) minor league provision extended on Tuesday. For that reason, there was no need to reassign these players to the minors. Their compensation would be the same, either way.

Update

On Friday, April 3, the MLB Players Association announced a new program to assist non-roster invitees in MLB camps on March 13 or later. The MLBPA Financial Assistance Program is available via application and is limited to those who have at least one day of major league service.

In other words, it is targeted for veteran players who took minor league make-good contracts this spring, hoping to earn a 40-man roster spot in camp. A Cardinals example of this is was catcher Matt Wieters in 2018.

This is the scale:

1 day-1 year MLB service: $5,000
1-2 years: $7,500
2-3 years: $15,000
3-5 years: $25,000
6+ years: $50,000

Payments will reportedly be made in two installments. The time frame is not clear, but is likely to cover the same period as the other agreements – April and May.

Of the reported 300 players eligible across the 30 organizations., the only Cardinals NRI to who this new program applies is Oscar Hernandez. The catcher has one year, 27 days of MLB service. The other 19 Cardinals’ NRIs have not yet reached the majors, so are ineligible, instead covered by the standard $400 weekly payment.


Only a partial moratorium on transactions

Speaking of assignments to the minors, part of the March 27 MLB agreement was a moratorium on player transactions. For example, not only could current players not be released or optioned out, free agents cannot be signed until further notice.

Apparently, that only applies to major leaguers. Just prior to the Tuesday minor league announcement, a number of organizations released players. According to at least one player agent, this includes the Cardinals (yet to be confirmed by the organization).

The timing of letting players go when there is no action going on to evaluate them creates the optics that they are being sacrificed to reduce the number of players who will receive the interim $400 per week payments for the next two months. This is not a good look.

Perhaps the other side of the matter is the very real possibility that fewer players will be needed in 2020. With a dramatically shortened and delayed draft (from 40 rounds reduced to as few as five, which may not occur until July 20), and a much-lowered bonus maximum of $20,000 each for non-drafted players to be signed, the traditional short-season teams will be severely impacted. These leagues normally begin play in the second half of June, but will not have their normal pipeline of fresh recruits. Further, the new additions to the organization they do receive may not be available until August.

This plays into MLB’s controversial plan to drop affiliation with as many as 42 minor league teams in 2021, reportedly including Cardinals affiliates in State College and Johnson City. The leagues that would end operation in that proposal include the very ones fed by the new draftees.

April 3 update

The count of Cardinals minor league players released is 10. The organization plans no further reduction of minor league players during this interim period.

Full details of John Mozeliak’s comments and profiles of all affected players is available to TCN members here.

St. Louis Cardinals Release 10 Minor Leaguers

April 1 update

Baseball America ran a very informative article on Wednesday, covering the MiLB negotiations with MLB for 2021 and beyond.

The comments about 2020 suggest short-season teams will play because the 30 organizations are contracted to provide players. However, an unstated assumption is that the coronavirus threat will pass soon enough to enable baseball to be played this summer in 160 different minor league cities across the US.

Today, on April 1, that feels optimistic to me.

Speaking of 2020 play…


What might the 2020 minor league seasons look like?

We simply don’t know.

My feeling, though, is that between the releases, the many fewer players to be drafted and signed as free agents ahead and the reality of the impact of the virus threat on the calendar, short-season ball will be effected. It could be truncated and perhaps even limited to the back fields, such as the Gulf Coast League, or maybe just informal camp games. Depending on implementation, this could raise further compensation questions.

The highest levels of play – Triple-A and Double-A – are necessary feeders of fresh players to keep the major league roster full. My guess is those seasons could theoretically actually be extended as much as two months beyond the traditional Labor Day conclusion to parallel a reconfigured MLB regular season that could run through October. Like with the majors, where and when games are eventually held is a matter that may not fully be under the control of MLB.

The need for these high level minor league players late in the season may well prove to be greater in 2020 due to an unrelated prior change that only two active players can be added to big league rosters for the final month (from 26 to 28), compared to a maximum of 15 in prior seasons. A source of backfills for September, October and even November injuries will be required.

An alternative to playing a shortened Triple-A and Double-A schedule could be for MLB teams to run with greatly expanded rosters, such that injury replacements could be absorbed internally. The most extreme example would be to bring up the entire 40-man roster with a taxi squad and/or healthy scratches daily. However, this has salary and service time implications that owners may not find palatable.

The view of where and how long play will be in 2020 for the High-A and Class A leagues – which follow the same April through August schedule as Triple-A and Double-A – get cloudier the longer the virus threat remains.

I want to be clear that the above is my speculation and there have been no announcements whatsoever about minor league schedules. But this is my current reading of the tea leaves. I can only hope that future events will prove me wrong.


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Brian Walton can be reached via email at brian@thecardinalnation.com or for fastest turnaround, pose your questions on The Cardinal Nation’s members-only forum. Follow Brian on Twitter.

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