“I don’t think it’s really a secret. You need to acquire, develop, and keep controllable young talent.”
Those words, uttered by David Stearns during his introductory press conference as GM of the Milwaukee Brewers last September, have become the mantra of the great Brewers’ rebuild. Taking a step back and building more intensively from within is how the goal was described by owner Mark Attanasio, and Stearns has gone to work bringing talent into the organization through just about every avenue possible: trades, free agency, the waiver wire, and within the next couple of weeks he’ll take part in his first draft with the Brewers. In conjunction with manager Craig Counsell, the club set up meetings with coaches from every level throughout the organization to make sure that the same approach was being preached by everyone, a sort of “Brewers’ Way.”
With such an organizational focus of developing and building around young talent, why aren’t the Brewers doing everything they can to ensure that those players have every competitive advantage to succeed?
I recently had the opportunity to discuss the difficulties of life in the minor leagues with two players who painted an equally distressing picture: low pay and lack of a quality diet are a significant stressors among minor leaguers. Players lose money on a monthly basis and are often times forced into living in cramped apartments and sharing bedrooms to cut down on housing costs. They maintain poor diets because fast food is cheap and they lack in choices of the restaurants that are open following the completion of their games. Some are forced to work other jobs in the offseason to make ends meet.
Major League Baseball is in the midst of an unprecedented economic windfall. According to Statista.com, the league generated a record-high $8.39 billion last season, up from $6.14 billion in 2010 and $3.58 billion in 2001. The Brewers themselves enjoyed revenue of $234 million last season despite the team’s awful performance. They brought in $226 million in 2014 and have topped $170 million in each season since 2008.
Big leaguers have enjoyed their piece of this revenue pie, seeing their average salary increase to $4.38 million in 2016. The major league minimum salary is currently $507,500 and has increased by nearly 40% since 2005. In the minor leagues, where players aren’t eligible for union membership and protection, the annual player salary averages about $6,000 according to a recent post at The Hardball Times. That’s roughly one percent of the big league minimum salary, and 0.14% of what the average major league player is earning this season.
The problem of low minor league pay causes other problems.
In all honesty, it shouldn’t therefore be surprising that players are tempted to turn to performance enhancing drugs in order to gain a competitive edge. The system is one that is stacked against them not only by ownership groups, but also the big league players who won’t allow them to unionize or fight for better working conditions down on the farm. There is little recourse for minor leaguers who are forced to live on incomes near poverty level while they chase the major leagues. Making it to The Show even for a few weeks can be life changing financially for these players. The minimum big league salary comes out to over $2,500 per day, or more than most of these guys make in a month. Not to mention qualifying for a lifetime of health insurance after just one day in the bigs and vesting in the pension program after 43 days. It’s hard to argue that whatever shame a player may have to endure for testing positive for PEDs and being labeled a “cheater” isn’t worth the financial benefits of making to the MLB for a player and his family. This temptation might be mitigated if minor leaguers actually made enough money to survive.
In the grand scheme of things, it wouldn’t take an altogether significant investment for Milwaukee or any club to pay their minor leaguers a living wage. Let’s say that an organization employs roughly 250 minor league players in a given season, or about 30 at each level from AAA through the Dominican Summer League plus 40 draft picks that are added during June. If each of these players earn an average of $6,000 annually, the organization is spending $1,500,000 annually on their salaries. Now, if we pay these players a living wage (assuming they are single and without children) of $21,500 before taxes, that number increases to $5,375,000. A marked growth to be sure, but that number itself is still only a shade more than the average salary of one major league player (or roughly 2% of the Brewers’ revenue).
By giving these players more financial peace of mind, an organization can allow them to focus solely on their development as ballplayers. According to a major leaguer I spoke with, the biggest difference once a player gets to the big leagues is the impact that having a steady and nutritious diet has on performance. A minor league player told me that he and his teammates argue with the training staff in regards to the inability to sustain a balanced diet. With increased salaries, minor league players would be able to afford to do actual grocery shopping for more healthy foods. They wouldn’t be forced to share bedrooms in cramped apartments during the season. They wouldn’t have to get second jobs in the offseason to make ends meet, and could dedicate their focus on training and improving for the upcoming season.
In this, year one of the rebuild, Milwaukee’s payroll is just a tad over $64 million, a drop of roughly $40 million from the start of 2015 and the lowest total in Major League Baseball. Obviously some of that surplus is negated by a loss of ticket revenue and merchandise sales and is being invested in things like the international free agent market. But given their revenue in recent years, I find it hard to believe that it would be difficult for the club to find another $4 million (or so) to augment their minor league wages. Reinvesting that money into the young, controllable players that the club itself has been so adamant about building around is something that the public would have no trouble throwing their support behind.
The game is richer today that it has ever been before. New television contracts and other revenue streams have been a windfall for major league owners, and we’re seeing larger and larger free agent contracts signed by players with each passing winter. For a smaller market team like our local nine, who doesn’t have the same ability to offer $200+ million to free agents on the open market like others do, having a strong player development pipeline is essential to fielding a competitive club.
According to the players themselves, their development process can be greatly improved through a small raise in pay and ensuring proper nutrition. Paying minor leaguers the suggested wage of $21,500 a year may not seem like much, but it would make a significant difference in their quality of life, giving the players the peace of mind of not having to paycheck-to-paycheck and being able to focus solely on their development. Having a more productive minor league pipeline would then help clubs like Milwaukee save money by filling personnel needs from within their own organization, rather than having to pay market value for free agents.
So what’s taking so long to address this issue?