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A deep dive into Minor League Baseball’s new CBA

Minor League Baseball’s new CBA changes the landscape of the sport and the lives of its young players

Rome Braves home opener for the 2019 MiLB season Wayne Cavadi | Talking Chop

In the waning hours of the preseason on March 29th, news broke on a landmark collective bargaining agreement between Major League Baseball and the MLB Players’ Association to address the needs of minor league baseball players. In a fight that has spanned decades, minor league baseball players have been slowly gaining ground in a fight for better conditions, but far too often lived a life of second jobs, fast food, and careers shortened due to the lack of fair pay for the work they do. This CBA was ratified with near unanimous support from players and a unanimous vote from owners, and in getting a chance to talk to players within the Braves system there is a mix of excitement and relief over their new terms of employment.

While minor leaguers have spent decades fighting for better conditions, part of that fight has been to simply be in control of their own careers. With major league baseball often making unilateral decisions to change rules at the lower levels, players have had to adapt often suddenly to a new way to play the sport. All of this while often sleeping six or more players in a one bedroom apartment and having to fend for themselves for meals.

Said one Braves minor leaguer “I think the CBA is the voice that we’ve been looking for for awhile now. The changes we were able to get on such short notice are going to change a lot of lives.”

The minor leagues have been the testing ground for every rule recently seen implemented at the major league level, and players will now have an opportunity to provide feedback to major league baseball.

What these voices most wanted, however, was a rise in pay, and this most recent is the most significant in the history of the sport. Last season pay for the full season levels increased, going from $290 a week in A ball to $500, with the maximum pay being $700 a week at Triple-A. Now, the pay more than doubled at each level, with significant changes in the pay schedule. The sentiment among Braves minor leaguers focused heavily on the pay being extended through the offseason and any time spent at a team complex.

Obviously, the pay is the most noticeable upgrade but for more than just one reason. We can now actually save a decent amount of money per season and get paid year round which is a huge upgrade. This allows a lot of guys to save for wives, girlfriends, etc. while also adding to a financial portfolio for life after baseball.” - JJ Niekro

One mentioned simply the quality of life, and being able to focus on baseball while knowing his finances are in order - “For me, I can start saving some money and putting money aside for whatever reason. It’s not going to feel as if we’re playing to survive, it feels as if we’re going to be able to play baseball and live a regular life. In my opinion I never felt like it was okay that there was that significant of a jump from Triple-A to the major leagues where your life will change in one second. We’re basically doing the same exact work in the minor leagues and not getting the respect we deserve

The pay raise does not extend to the Dominican complexes, but the stateside raises look like this.

Rookie Levels, for the Braves the Florida Complex League, see their pay go up from $4,800 annually to $19,800. This is by far the most significant change, fueled by the fact that the players were previously not paid for offseason work or for their time in spring training or extended spring training. Single-A and High-A (Augusta and Rome for the Braves, respectively) previously were each paid $11,000 per season. Single-A has seen an increase to $26,200 annually and High-A $27,300 annually. Double-A saw their annual salary increase from $13,800 to $30,250 while Triple-A tops the scale with a raise from $17,500 to $35,800. With players now being paid throughout the offseason this should allow them to focus more on training whereas most players in the past had to take second or third jobs just to be able to pay their bills. In addition, players now have full rights to their name and likeness and can leverage that in a way they could not before.

Outside of the pay raise the most significant changes implemented in the CBA are improvements to the housing and transportation setup at every level. Players will receive a bedroom of their own at the uppers levels and a solo or shared bedroom at Low-A and High-A (or the option for a stipend) which will be paid for by the organization. At the complex, Low-A, and High-A players will receive transportation to and from the field, eliminating the burden of many young players who may not have a car or even a license.

The impact on many foreign-born players is even more significant, as Braves prospect Javier Valdes pointed out: “Before, with the little amount of money we made and having to find your own housing it puts a lot of stress on a player that they probably shouldn’t have to go through. These latin players get tossed into the fire. For a lot of them, their paychecks have to be sent right back home, they’re already trying to learn the language, and now you’re expecting them to go off in the middle of Georgia, Mississippi, or whatever the case is and fend for themselves. If we’re eating better we’re going to be able to perform better; if we have better living we’re going to sleep better and perform better so ultimately the changes help the player be a better athlete.”

Many of these players also have families, and trying to manage a spouse and/or children when you could be uprooted to a new affiliate at any time is a challenge. Many would not be able to even see their families during the season, but language was put in place within the CBA to address this. Spouses and children will also be provided accommodations, which one Braves minor leaguer thinks will help many players be able to see their loved ones - “The housing setup, I think, will be an amazing move. I know some of my teammates that have families will benefit greatly from the new living arrangements. It grants that freedom for them to be able to manage the minor league season as well as spending the needed time with their families.”

For players in the past, one of the biggest detriments to their development was the low quality of meals they had to eat. With little money in their pockets and often subpar team-provided meals it was a challenge to maintain the fitness needed to survive a grueling season. With the new CBA, there should be improvements on the horizon. Teams will be providing players meals which will be overseen by a “joint clubhouse nutrition committeewhile also providing a larger per diem to players.

There are many changes on the horizon whose affects may not be as immediately visible, with the most notable being the changes to the reserve list. The biggest will be the overall reduction in the reserve list, which are the players on domestic minor league rosters. The number, previously set at 180 at the start of the 2021 season, is further reduced to 165 beginning in 2024. While this reduction in total roster spots certainly won’t cut out the Braves top prospects, as one points out it could still have an impact on their development:

“Teams are going to be more cut throat and may not want to keep older guys around anymore. You won’t have those vets in the clubhouse that can now teach these young guys how everything works.”

Opportunities for lower level talent like undrafted free agents and low bonus international players will be more limited, but not everyone feels its so black and white.

Said Valdes, “It’s easy for me to say as someone who is already in the system, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing, and I don’t think it’s necessarily a good thing. I think they’re trying to make baseball a little bit more strict. It’s going to put players to the test a lot quicker and I don’t see anything wrong with that. I’m a fan of better baseball and higher quality baseball so if this means we’re going to have to play a better brand of baseball then I’m with it.”

One change that affects players like Valdes is the shortening of the reserve for amateur players signed at age 19 or older. While previously all players were under some level of team control for seven years, players in this category have their reserve reduced to six years allowing them to reach minor league free agency earlier.

The changes beyond these are ancillary, but can still have a major impact on the future of these players just likely with less frequency. Players will have better medical rights and privileges, including the right to seek a second opinion, an extended prior of coverage for medical expenses following injuries, and an extension to their health coverage following contract termination. Players will also have “improved retirement benefits, including a new 401(k) plan. Minor league baseball players will now also be under drug and domestic violence policies. The CBA will run through 2027, during which time minor league baseball will be prevented from facing any further contraction of teams and leagues.

From Niekro— “I’m so thankful for those who have fought for minor-league rights on the CBA. It 100% has lifted the spirits of all of us players and allows us to focus on development and the future instead of worrying about paying bills and living day-to-day. This was a necessary upgrade that generations of minor leaguers before us really deserved. This is my third year with the Braves and they have always treated us extremely well. Before the CBA, our staff did an excellent job of getting us quality housing and making sure our needs were met. It’s well known in baseball that the Braves are a first-class organization and this CBA allows them to treat us even better.”

It’s a new season of minor league baseball, and it feels truly new now that players have seen their lives fundamentally changed. Certainly many will still face struggles, and the path to the major leagues will be no tougher, but removing personal obstacles will undoubtedly help many be able to focus on the sport that we all love. Improving the conditions in the minor leagues will help the league retain talent longer, help them develop talent more effectively, and perhaps help them attract talent that may have otherwise been unable to survive the prior conditions. This is a turning point in the history of this sport and will have an impact on thousands of lives for many years to come.

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