NEW YORK — Bickering over Major League Baseball's proposal to cut 42 farm teams escalated Wednesday with the exchange of acrimonious letters by the commissioner's office and the governing body of the minor leagues.
MLB deputy commissioner Dan Halem wrote some minor league owners view their affiliation with a big league franchise "as a commodity with a fixed value that is bought and sold for a profit similar to a taxi medallion."
The National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, the governing body of the minors, said in a letter to baseball commissioner Rob Manfred that the motivation for MLB's proposals was "related to the staggering difference in payrolls among MLB teams."
In negotiations to replace the Professional Baseball Agreement that expires after the 2020 season, MLB proposed cutting the minimum guaranteed affiliation agreements from 160 to 120 and said it would drop Double-A teams in Binghamton, New York, and Erie, Pennsylvania, along with Chattanooga and Jackson, Tennessee. The plan would eliminate the 28 teams from four Class A Short Season and Rookie Advanced leagues that do not play at spring training complexes and would replace them with teams in a "Dream League" of unaffiliated players that would operate under the auspices of MLB. The amateur draft would be pushed back from June until later in the summer.
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke has joined the mayors of Dayton, Ohio, and Columbia, South Carolina, to co-chair a task force to save minor league baseball in their communities. More than two dozen mayors signed on in the first 24 hours since the group was created earlier this month.
The goal of the task force is to represent the interests of communities that have not been involved in MLB's proposal to cut teams that are an essential part of the culture of many mid-sized cities, Berke said.
"It's because all of us understand that this plan is a major league error," Berke said. "There is a huge following of Major League Baseball fans who also love minor league baseball in all of our cities."
Talks are set to resume on Feb. 20. Many members of Congress have come to the defense of their minor league teams.
Halem said minor league resistance was due to owner economic interest and not preserving baseball in communities, and he cited moves during the last two years of teams from Helena, Montana; Mobile, Alabama; New Orleans; and Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He said minor league teams made unilateral decisions to move 77 times since 1990 and claimed MLB recently learned the Class A New York-Penn League put Batavia into receivership and sold the team to an owner who intends to move the franchise.
"Given the track record of MiLB abandoning communities when it suits the owners' economic interest, it is more than a bit ironic that you hold yourself out as the defender of local communities," Halem wrote in a letter dated Jan. 29.
Halem said MLB's objectives in proposing the elimination of Short Season leagues that start play in June are tied to a desire to reduce the amateur draft from 40 rounds. He said 18% of drafted players reach the majors, including 5% of those drafted after the 25th round. Just 8% of drafted players acquire three years of major league service, including 1% drafted after the 25th round.
"With the draft moved to early July, MLB clubs would not have players to send to short-season teams until late July or early August, making the operation of a short-season league unfeasible," Halem wrote. "With the number of rounds of the draft reduced, MLB clubs will not sign a sufficient number of players to staff short-season teams."
MLB's proposed Dream League would play from June 1 through Sept. 1 and could maintain baseball in current areas where affiliated minor league clubs would be eliminated. Halem said players could make better decisions whether to play college ball or go pro. He said that when possible, players in the Dream League could be assigned to teams in their areas.
"There is little doubt that very few currently affiliated short season franchises would have any realistic hope of surviving under this seriously flawed concept," the minors claimed in its unsigned letter, dated Jan. 23. "MLB should stop promoting this 'Dream League' concept, which serves no purpose other than to provide false hope to communities that will most certainly suffer the loss of their professional teams."
The minors asserted the elimination of Short Season leagues would save each big league organization $300,000 to $400,000 in payroll annually. As for stadium improvements, the minors said both sides "should work together to identify teams currently playing in stadiums deemed inadequate and the specific improvements required."
"These teams, and their communities, should be given an agreed upon amount of time to demonstrate that they have access to sufficient financial resources to make the required improvements and to complete the improvements," the minors wrote.
Halem wrote the only formal proposal made by the minors was last March 1 and "essentially rolled-over the existing agreement for another decade, except that it reduced MiLB's share of the expenses." The minors said in a statement they had provided "numerous substantive proposals."
MLB has been speaking with elected officials in New York, Pennsylvania and Tennessee about obtaining public financing to improve facilities, Halem said. Those are the states the host the Double-A teams proposed for elimination.