Brewers Farm Update

MLBPA and Minor League Pay

How much would Brewers prospect Lewis Brinson earn on the open market right now? Baseball Prospectus ranked Brinson as a 70 Overall Future Potential (OFP) All-Star center fielder, with a realistic 60 OFP grade (“above-average everyday center fielder”). Certainly, there are risks in the youngster’s profile, specifically centering around the development of the hit tool at the MLB level, and a swing that will carry many whiffs. Still, the grade stands because of Brinson’s relative proximity to the MLB (he’s already cracked the big league roster once) and the convergence of additional tools in what could yield “Mike Cameron potential” even if everything does not come together.

Yet, for all this, Lewis Brinson will not earn more than the league minimum MLB salary in 2018, if he reaches the MLB once again. Moreover, despite being a player that many analysts and fans feel is so central to the roster building efforts of Milwaukee’s front office that they opposed nearly any (or every) trade scenario involving Brinson, the Brewers’ top prospect has no recourse to extract additional salary from the Brewers. Milwaukee reserves his contractual rights for at least six more years, during which Brinson’s best chance to earn additional cash is after his third year of service (when the CF will enter salary arbitration).

What is problematic about this is that Brinson does indeed provide the Brewers with their best odds at a 4.6+ WARP player; surveying history through Baseball Prospectus CSV  defines 4.63 WARP as the threshold for an elite season, with 2.28 percent of all MLB seasons resulting in such production. Yet, surveying a sample of one particular prospect class suggests that a Top 300 Organizational prospect has closer to 6.35 percent odds of producing such an elite season. Using these surveys, Brinson’s Bayesian odds of producing one 4.6+ WARP season price out at $2.6 million value for the Brewers (Silver, 2015 [2012], Chapter 8). Unfortunately for Brinson, he will be lucky to earn one fifth of that amount in 2017.

Lewis Brinson is an extremely underpaid player even before he delivers on his five-tool potential.

This is the lifeblood of MLB ownership at the moment: for the Brewers, keeping Brinson in center field is one reason the club does not need to sign an elite free agent like Lorenzo Cain. The slow offseason received fine treatment by Yahoo! Sports’ Jeff Passan, whose feature seeking answers about potential collusion regarding the free agency markets is a must read. Passan does not stop with MLB owners, but also surveys agents, front office trends, and MLB Players Association practices, ultimately drawing conclusions about how many trends within the Collective Bargaining landscape have produced the current market for free agents. Passan’s reporting work supplants Kiley McDaniel’s recent reflection on front office culture from a first person perspective, and both features outline an industry that is reeling due to extremely similar valuation systems across MLB front offices, little pressure to win from ownership groups (or “Tank Hungry” fans!), and a general sea change in attitudes about free agency (from both players and front offices).

For players working two generations into Marvin Miller’s landscape, Passon notes that there is little urgency to fight for every dollar any longer, as players recently saw workplace amenities to be more crucial than bottom line fights. For General Managers working within the era of institutionalized analytics, those free agency contracts for players in their 30s are off limits. And anyway, why spring for a stopgap in their 30s for millions of dollars when you can hunt for the next Jonathan Villar?

Veteran righty Brandon McCarthy provided a fantastic summary of the free agency contract culture, and the significance of the current offseason’s impasse:

Absent from the forefront of this debate are the criminally underpaid MLB minor leaguers. These underpaid professional baseball players are becoming ever more important in the industry, as front offices seek to gamble on returns of quantity via trade, since their rival GMs have such similar valuation systems (cf. McDaniel), and as front offices turn away from players in their 30s in order to gamble on younger production at the MLB level. This practice by MLB front offices has the convenient outcome of inverting the relationship that Brandon McCarthy discusses, basically shredding the social contract that recognizes professional players are underpaid for the first decade (or more) of their careers and therefore seek service-based compensation through the free agency market.

Of course, minor league players are also underpaid because the MLBPA has become a union that is more concerned with protecting a small, elite group of MLB players, rather than a large group of all professional baseball players working within affiliated ball. The MLBPA will happily sell minor leaguers down the river with promises of huge rewards once those players reach the big leagues; yet, what is problematic here is that the sliver of minor leaguers reaching the MLB is slim (most minor league careers end after two seasons), and that the MLBPA really is not delivering on the just compensation aspect (as MLB players must endure six-to-seven seasons of underpaid production in the hopes that clubs will shell out cash once free agency occurs. This current offseason suggests this is no longer part of the bargain).

Many commentators are suggesting that the MLBPA will require a huge battle, potentially involving a work stoppage in 2022, in order to solve this current free agency dilemma. Ironically, the MLBPA is losing leverage with MLB owners because their pool of members represents such a small portion of professional baseball. If the MLBPA is negotiating solely for those players that reach the MLB (or MLB 40-man rosters, at least), MLB owners and front offices are now simply plucking younger talent from the minor leagues and gambling on their production in lieu of paying veterans their Collectively Bargained reward.

The easiest way forward for the MLBPA to win a battle with MLB ownership groups is to begin representing every single professional baseball player working in affiliated baseball from the draft (or International signing) onward. Such a scenario is the only manner in which the MLBPA will be able to realign the compensation system to alleviate the problem that McCarthy discusses: if players are underpaid when they reach the MLB, and for their first decade of overall professional service (in the majors and minors), that is because that talent sits unprotected by the game’s labor agreement until the moment they touch an MLB 40-man roster (or MLB Active roster). If rookies like Lewis Brinson stand a chance to earn anything close to their probable production value, they must be represented while they are playing in places like Colorado Springs, Frisco, Hickory, Myrtle Beach, and the Arizona Rookie league (these are Brinson’s stops en route to the MLB). Even in the advanced minor leagues, a player like Brinson is not only criminally underpaid in the MLB’s current labor climate, he is also underpaid based on his surplus value provided to the organization (60/70 center fielders don’t grow on trees).

What is the additional leverage provided by these players? If an MLB strike includes minor leaguers as well as established veterans, and the full institution of professional baseball is shutdown because of such a stoppage, MLB owners and front offices will no longer simply be able to rely on the promise of advancing supremely underpaid talent to the MLB, sneaking those players beneath labor battles solely involving established MLB players. Moreover, forcing a wholesale improvement of compensation throughout the professional ladder will be one of the most effective ways to reorient MLB reserve, arbitration, and free agency compensation to solve the underpaid-then-overpaid dilemma.

Fortunately for the MLBPA, a new compensation system need not be rocket science once every professional ball player is represented. Simple mechanisms such as annual Salary Arbitration for every player in affiliated baseball, and free agency after two years of minor league play, would quickly cause players and front offices to form multiyear development agreements from the draft or International signing (for example, what should the Brewers pay to keep Keston Hiura in the system after 2018? What is his contract reserve worth to the Brewers in 2018?). In this case, six or seven years of club contractual reserve would not correspond to six or seven years of underpaid production, as players would already have contractual histories reaching back to the minors, and there would be a chance to recalibrate contracts through arbitration on a regular basis. These contractual rituals could be repeated for excellent rookie campaigns, and would mitigate some of the compensation uncertainties that leave impasses between players like Jonathan Villar and GMs like David Stearns (Villar was correct to spit on Stearns’s lowball extension offer after 2016 in the sense of seeking his justified contractual value); had Villar possessed the ability to head to salary arbitration after 2016, it is quite likely that a deal with the Brewers would have looked quite different (perhaps it would have been a two-year, $10 million deal, instead of forcing either side to price out a longer multiyear gamble).

The same type of system would help players such as Lewis Brinson, who are apparently so valuable as to be untouchable in trade negotiations for productive starting pitchers, receive just compensation immediately upon entering the MLB: rephrasing the initial question, if the Brewers did not trade Brinson midseason 2017 or during this current offseason to improve the pitching rotation, what would the center fielder have been worth in arbitration negotiations? History and probability might suggest (at worst) a three-year, $8 million deal due to the starting center fielder. The best route toward that contract will be expanding MLBPA ranks to include every professional ballplayer, in order to leverage all players against MLB front offices and ownership; if this strategy works, hopefully Milwaukee will be paying someone like Tristen Lutz or Caden Lemons $3 million in 2022.


 

Baseball Prospectus. Individual Stats – Season Totals (Batting and Pitching, All Years). CSV. Retrieved January 13, 2018 from Baseball Prospectus.

Silver, Nate. The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — but Some Don’t. New York: Penguin Books, 2015 [2012].

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