The past four months have not been kind to minor league ballplayers. Early in December 2017 the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a lawsuit accusing MLB owners of colluding to suppress minor league salaries. Then Congress explicitly exempted* minor leaguers from minimum wage laws. As a result, minor league baseball players will continue to – legally – be paid staggeringly low salaries.
This presents an exploitable market inefficiency for the Cubs. Prospects need proper nutrition and rest to improve and develop, yet their salaries are not high enough to afford healthy food or a comfortable bed in a decent apartment. Increasing minor league salaries may be the best investment the Cubs can make today.
The collective bargaining agreement (CBA) grants teams six years of team control over prospects once they reach the majors, the first three of which at league minimum salary. This makes newly drafted talent the most valuable commodity in baseball. For example, Kris Bryant earned the 2016 MVP while being paid $652,000. So the Cubs naturally spend significant amounts of time and money scouting, drafting, and signing players in the hope that they’ll find the next Bryant.
Then they pay those would-be stars $6,500 a year.
I wish that number was a typo. Minor league players are paid between $1150-2150 a month, depending on level, and only for the five months of the regular season (April-August). These salaries are set and paid by the Cubs. Some prospects do receive sizable signing bonuses in the millions of dollars. Most do not. The Cubs’ 9th and 10th round picks in 2017 each signed for only $5,000 and the remaining 30 draftees after them likely received even less. Thus, the vast majority of Cub prospects rely on their meager salaries for living expenses.
These salaries are woefully insufficient. Minor leaguers often live on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and sleep on air mattresses in group houses. Lack of proper nutrition and sleep can affect the ability of the brain’s pre-frontal cortex to learn new athletic skills. In other words, well-rested, well-fed players are more likely to absorb the instruction their coaches are providing. Plus, better nutrition in the form of lean protein and fresh vegetables aids muscular health, increasing performance and decreasing injury risks.
The Cubs recognize this, and therefore significantly improved the quality of their minor league meal program in the past few years. They have not yet addressed nutrition or the possibility of chronic fatigue during the offseason, however.
This provides an opportunity. If the Cubs paid every minor leaguer $40,000 annually, prospects could afford to eat better and sleep more comfortably. As a result, player development might improve. Imagine how much free-agent money the Cubs would save if the farm system produced even one extra major leaguer every year, let alone an All-Star. Even low-round draftees can become stars, as 20th round selection Ryne Sandberg can attest.
And here’s the thing: Promoting all these positive changes would actually cost the Cubs very little. The organization has about 200 minor leaguers spread over eight minor league affiliates (25 roster spots apiece). Twenty or so players have salaries governed by the CBA, so the remaining 180 prospects average around $10,000 in salary. Add $30,000 in raises x 180 players and you get $5.4 million, a mere pittance for a team with $434 million in revenues.
The benefits of increasing minor league pay would extend beyond on-field performance as well. For starters, the Cubs would generate a lot of positive PR, always a valuable commodity. Second, the Cubs would gain an edge in signing draft picks and international free agents. MLB limits each team to defined bonus pools for those players, so the extra $30,000 in annual salary would be a sizable de facto bonus for every Cub draftee, while not counting a penny towards the bonus pool. Third, intangibles matter when trying to sign free agents. Players remember which organizations are cheap and which treat their players with dignity.
For all of these reasons, I think the Cubs would be wise to restructure their minor league salary system soon. Like, yesterday.
*I will refrain, at this time, from extensively diving into the staggering greed and lack of morality displayed by MLB owners in lobbying for this law.