With the coronavirus pandemic leaving the major league baseball season in question, minor league players find themselves in serious limbo, too.
MLB pledged interim support for minor leaguers Thursday, promising “a lump sum equal to the allowances that would have been paid through April 8th,” the scheduled end of MiLB spring training. But there’s still the question of how minor leaguers are going to get by during the sure-to-be shortened regular season, for which they have no guaranteed income.
“A lot of guys have families they need to provide for, and even for those who don’t, it’s hard when there is no salary at this point in time,” said D’Evelyn graduate Grant Witherspoon, an outfielder in the Rays’ system. “I was lucky to have a bit of a signing bonus, but there’s a lot of players who don’t have that. A lot of my best friends in the organization are struggling to make ends meet. It’s a tough time.”
Witherspoon is currently living at his parents’ house in Lakewood. Many minor leaguers had to make such a move with the widespread shutdown of MLB spring training complexes. A fourth-round pick out of Tulane in 2018, Witherspoon has a $460,000 signing bonus to fall back on — a luxury the majority of lower picks (usually rounds 10 and below), as well as players who signed out of college as seniors, do not have.
Plus, minor leaguers aren’t paid salaries during spring training. Rather, players living at the team hotel are given a per diem, the amount of which depends on the organization. So the “interim support” pledged by MLB is intended to cover that per diem through April 8, with the weekly amount depending on the team.
During spring training, Colorado gives minor leaguers $50 a week if they live at the team hotel, and $350 a week if they don’t. Players get breakfast and lunch at Salt River, and those at the team hotel can get dinner there, too. Colorado general manager Jeff Bridich said the team will be giving $400 a week to its minor leaguers through April 8.
“That ($400 a week) allows them to buy groceries and to help them be able to live wherever they are for the short-term,” Bridich said. “Hopefully that will allow them to live comfortably…Once April 9th hits, we’ll see what happens.”
Much as per diems vary across the league, reports vary as to exactly how much financial support each team is pledging for its minor leaguers over the next three weeks.
According to the Arizona Republic, the Diamondbacks are giving their players one-time deposits of up to $1,500 in addition to $300 a week as their per diems. And per the Tampa Bay Times, the Rays are giving players $400 a week as well as help with compensation for travel and leases. The gestures, and MLB’s proclamation Thursday, aren’t going unnoticed.
“It’s progress, and I’m glad that they’re doing something,” said Peter Bayer, a Regis Jesuit graduate and pitcher in the Athletics’ organization. “It’s probably not going to be very much, but at least it’s something, and that will mean a good amount to a lot of the players who have been struggling during this time.”
Bayer, who signed for a bonus of $7,500 as a senior out of Cal Poly Pomona in 2016, knows that struggle. He relied on employment with DoorDash for extra funds after the season was initially postponed March 12. Now back home in Parker, he’ll be working at a local baseball facility in addition to doing remote training for a different, out-of-state facility.
For the majority of prospects, like Rockies’ former 16th-round pick Alan Trejo, finding viable, flexible employment is the biggest challenge during the pandemic.
“Most of us don’t have a lot of money to sit on, and for me in Los Angeles, basically everything shut down so it’s not like I can go and work just anywhere,” Trejo said. “I was working as a substitute teacher in the offseason, and making pretty decent money there — so, fortunately, I have enough to sit on for while — but now I can’t do that job, either, with the schools being closed.”
MLB is recognizing the widespread financial ramifications the postponement is having. In addition to the interim support for minor leaguers, it has also announced a $1 million food assistance plan as well as a $30 million package to support ballpark workers. It is also working on a plan for compensating minor league players from April 9 through the beginning of the upcoming season, if it is played.
“The package (for stadium workers) is a great initiative and I’m glad those people are able to receive a paycheck for the work they’re not going to be getting,” said Reagan Todd, a Regis Jesuit alum and pitcher in the Rockies’ organization. “Maybe, and hopefully, they’ll continue to follow suit with us (during the regular season).”
In the meantime, players are getting in their training however they can, whether via isolated bullpen sessions like Todd or in small workout groups with hometown buddies at the local park, as Trejo has done. And while they try to find creative ways to stay in shape, those within the baseball community like Emily Waldon have rallied in their defense.
Waldon, who covers minor league baseball for The Athletic and Baseball America, has been using Twitter to crowdsource flexible employment opportunities as well as raise cash for players most in need. She’s helped around 100 ballplayers so far, and she’s not alone, as non-profits such as More Than Baseball are also bringing minor leaguers’ financial struggles to light.
“Right now, you’re seeing all the minor leaguers looking out for each other, which is cool to see, because in this type of scenario the players are realizing how many fans and communities they have behind them even though they’re not major-league players,” Waldon said. “The response to what they’re going through has been incredible.”
Waldon and Bayer both hope the attention brought to minor league pay (or lack thereof) during the postponement will be a springboard for a broader discussion about player pay. MLB has plans for a pay raise across the minors for 2021 — but the league has also expressed the intention to cut 42 farm teams across the country ahead of that season.
Long-term pay structure issues aside, players acknowledge the front offices of both MLB and MiLB are in a difficult situation.
“It’s a tough spot for everybody,” said Quin Cotton, a Regis Jesuit alum and outfielder in the Reds’ system. “Like how I didn’t necessarily prepare my budget to buy myself food all the time, teams aren’t prepared to pay minor leaguers when there’s no games and we’re not working. It goes both ways, and obviously the financial support would be very appreciated and very helpful. But it’s not that simple.”
Minor League Baseball’s 2020 pay structure
Even if MLB clubs did commit to paying minor league salaries while the 2020 regular season is suspended, players would have a tough time getting by on that money alone without the free food and lodging they’d be receiving if they were with their clubs.
Here’s a look at the current MiLB pay scale, with salaries approximated based on a five-month season.
Rookie/short-season: $290/week, $5,800/season
Class-A: $290/week, $5,800/season
Double-A: $350/week, $7,000/season
Triple-A: $502/week, $10,040/season