Playing conditions in professional sports are much better than they used to be, except in minor league baseball. Major League Baseball teams do not splurge when it comes to their affiliates. Jimmy Wulf explains why there should be minor league facility makeovers.
Here are two pictures of development facilities for young athletes who are expected to contribute in the future to billion-dollar professional entities. The top picture is from a facility which is directly controlled and supported (via a subsidiary relationship) with one of those entities, and only employs prospects who have been already identified by said entity as a potential contributor. The bottom picture is from an academic institution with no direct relationship to any of the entities they are supplying with talent:
Perhaps not the fairest direct comparison, but from the perspective of some very basic business logic, there’s something wrong here.
The golden words of MLB roster construction in the post-PED era are “cost-controlled talent”. It’s accepted wisdom that sustainable success is largely predicated on the number of both stars and role players an organization can mint from within, creating a surplus of cost-controlled talent to be capitalized on in a number of ways.The nature of the CBA rewards player tenure with dollars, and teams can no longer reliably count on veterans defying age to justify their increasing cost. Compounding the problem, 45 years after Flood v. Kuhn, GMs still can’t figure out how to stop blowing the roof off the free agency market every year.
More generally, this athletic generation is benefiting from an unprecedented explosion of knowledge in how to take care of their bodies, both in general and tuning them for specific athletics. From nutrition to weight training to core training to hatha yoga, we’re miles and miles away from where we were a generation ago. This goes double for baseball, a sport which historically has held an unusual disdain for basic athletic conditioning. Dustin Pedroia was among the first ballplayers that I can recall training at a track-oriented speed and performance center; today a focus on those sort of elements is routine. Can you imagine if Mickey Mantle knew how to train like Mike Trout? In other sports developing future pros, the benefits of doubling-down on this explosion have already taken hold at those lower levels. College powerhouses like Oregon are models of how to provide their talent with top-notch experiences in every area of their athletic training, from dedicated dining halls with specialized menus and individualized diets, to gyms such as the picture above.
But then, there’s minor league baseball. Home of the $25 meal allowance, deli meat postgame spreads, and endless bus rides. Weight rooms and clubhouses that wouldn’t pass muster at local YMCA. Sub-par health and training support systems, with the best resources provided in a ‘roving’ manner by the parent club. They can’t even count on the dorm room a collegian gets – while there are various programs to hook minor leaguers up with housing and other things to supplement their probably-illegally-tiny paychecks, it’s a very ad-hoc and patchwork approach.
There’s a (somewhat) reasonable argument that teams have made at times, that providing too comfortable a level of living to minor leaguers will douse the burning desire they need to make it all the way up the ladder. But there’s a long, long way to go between the state of the minors today and the cushy life of big league employment. As long as The Show offers exponentially more in salary and five-star travel, it’s unlikely many of these ultra-competitive, alpha athletes will get too comfortable in Toledo, and I suspect the clubs know that. The logic against treating minor leaguers better is among the last remaining holdovers from MLB’s glory days of viewing players as one step above indentured servants. They’re not; they’re incredibly valuable assets that could make or break future success. I suspect the inertia is nothing more than owners not really wanting to spend the money, and MLB’s half-assed system of affiliate relationships gives them solid cover to not do so.
But the money’s there to be spent, and the first teams that do so will likely realize a material advantage in their talent development pipeline. There’s no reason at all why AAA and AA (at least) training facilities and development support systems shouldn’t be indistinguishable from a top-flight NCAA athletic department. Yes, top college teams have an extraordinary amount of money (much of it donated!). Despite various types of bookkeeping obfuscation, most MLB teams are also awash in cash, mostly due to TV networks pouring billions into live programming in a desperate attempt to not die. Pretty much every path of acquiring talent they can use that money for comes with a spending cap or penalty attached to it. Heck, the Red Sox burned $100 million on Daisuke Matsuzaka in part because they couldn’t find any other un-penalized place to spend it, and that was almost 10 years ago. With the richest teams maxed out on efficient spending in talent acquisition, the deficiencies in how they develop that talent becomes a crucial opportunity to exploit. There’s never been a better time for an organization to burn excess revenue on major infrastructure improvements in the minors.
The amount of money MLB teams allocate towards minor league development is drastically under-weighted compared to the marginal benefits they could realize by doing so. Even a seemingly absurd increase, like an incremental $50 million invested by an organization, still pays for itself if it turns just one or two wash-outs into an everyday MLB players. With all we know about training and development today, and the extent to which it’s not being applied by minor league affiliates, it’s reasonable to expect the impact of a massive overhaul exceeding the cost many times over. The time is well past due for Major League Baseball clubs to take the next logical step away from their history of backwards business practices, and give their prospects what they need to maximize their chances of turning into a winning lottery ticket for everyone.
(P.S: The situation with Dominican academies is even worse)