Major League Baseball has proposed a radical restructuring of the lower level of the minor leagues that could eliminate or change the nature and affiliations of as many as 40 teams across the country.
One plan that has been discussed, according to two people familiar with the negotiations who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter, would convert some teams from the lower-level minor leagues — short-season, rookie ball and lower Class A — into a so-called Dream League of undrafted players looking to break into professional baseball. Teams in that league would be co-owned and operated by M.L.B. and Minor League Baseball — a departure from the current system, in which the vast majority of teams are independently owned and operated. Part of the proposal could include a plan to cut Baseball’s amateur draft in half, to 20 rounds, which would reduce the player pool by 600 and subsequently eliminate the need for roughly 20 teams.
The proposal, and others, including converting some teams into a college wood-bat league similar to the Cape Cod League, met stiff resistance from the Minor League Baseball and some rearful owners are seeking legal advice for ways to deter M.L.B from making any unilateral moves.
The president of Minor League Baseball, Pat O’Conner, recently sent a letter to member teams, which was obtained by The New York Times, warning of significant impending changes and advising teams not to make any financial commitments, new lease agreements or schedules beyond 2020.
The current operating agreement between the big league clubs and their 160 affiliated minor league teams does not expire until Sept. 15, 2020.
“We are in discussions with the owners of the Minor League teams to reorganize elements of the system with the goal of improving the working conditions of minor league players,” M.L.B. said in a statement, “including upgrading the facilities to Major League standards, increasing player compensation, reducing travel time between affiliates for road games, improving transportation and hotel accommodations, increasing the number of off days, and providing better geographical affiliations between the M.L.B. Clubs and affiliates.”
For some minor league teams, the proposal could mean losing their affiliation with M.L.B. clubs. The most vulnerable teams are those in the Appalachian League, Northwest League and New York-Penn League. Other short-season teams, like the Brooklyn Cyclones, the Mets’ short-season team in the New York-Penn League, could be converted to full-season teams, perhaps even in higher levels like Class AA.
But M.L.B. is committed to a significant change because officials feel that about one-fourth of the minor league teams are not operating at a high-enough standard for modern athletes. M.L.B. wants to increase player compensation — they have been sued over that issue — and upgrade facilities at several minor league ballparks with substandard training rooms and nutrition.
Minor league owners claim they do not have the money to make capitol improvements and that municipalities are reluctant to contribute. But M.L.B. has proposed a revenue-sharing plan — or a tax — in which the more profitable minor league clubs would contribute to the teams with less finanacial health.
But most minor league owners prefer to keep the status quo, in which they provide the facilities and the parent clubs pay for the players and the coaching staffs.
“What they are proposing is draconian, to say the least,” said one minor league owner, who asked not to be identified because he was not permitted to speak on behalf of the organization as a whole.
M.L.B. is also worried about the long distances that many teams travel, often on buses, to play their games, and wants to reorganize the leagues in a way that makes more sense geographically.
Some teams, like Billings Mustangs,an affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds in Montana, are several hours by bus to their nearest competitor, and some major league clubs have had affiliates thousands of miles away, like when the Mets Class AAA club was in Las Vegas.