Minor league baseball
- Part of the History of baseball series.
Minor baseball leagues are North American professional baseball leagues that compete at a level below that of Major League Baseball. All the leagues are operated as independent businesses, but all of the best-known leagues are members of Minor League Baseball, an umbrella organization for leagues that have agreements to operate as affiliates of Major League Baseball. Several leagues, known as independent leagues, have no links whatsoever to Major League Baseball, and thus are not members of Minor League Baseball (the organization).
Each league affiliated with Minor League Baseball is composed of teams that are independently owned and operated but directly "affiliated" with one major-league team. For example, the Albuquerque Isotopes are an affiliate of the Florida Marlins.
The purpose of the system is to develop players available to play in the major leagues on demand.
Minor league baseball also goes by the nickname the "farm system," "farm club," or "farm team(s)," because of a joke passed around by major league players in the 1930s when St. Louis Cardinals general manager Branch Rickey formalized the system and teams in small towns were "growing players down on the farm like corn."
Baseball evolved in the mid-to-late 19th century from an amateur pastime into an organized professional sport.
Teams organized, and formed leagues. Leagues merged with other leagues until there were more than 35 powerful leagues playing all over the country.
During that time, the leagues began paying players, making baseball "professional" for the first time.
Of the all of the leagues, the most powerful and the one whose players received the most attention were the ones that held New York City, the media capital of America whose journalists' stamp on anything made it the biggest and best in the country.
All of the attention and the large populations of places like Manhattan and Brooklyn give the National League its biggest advantage: money. Large crowds meant more money to pay for the best players. The National League would pluck players from other leagues, and sign them to contracts that allowed them to own that player's rights to play baseball anywhere, anytime.
This type of contract came to be known as the reserve clause. It was one of the most hated aspects of the business of baseball, both by players and by other leagues who spent time and money developing talent, only to have it plucked away from them.
Thus the National League, which arose as the dominant and controlling force of the New York baseball scene, became the first "major" league.
In the late 1890s, the Western League run by the fiery Ban Johnson decided to challenge the National League's position. In 1900, he changed the name of the league to the American League and vowed to make deals to sign contracts with players who were dissatisfied with the pay and terms of their deals with the National League. This led to a nasty turf war that heated up in 1901 enough to concern Patrick T. Powers, president of the Eastern League, and many other independent league owners.
They worried about the conflict spilling over into their operations. Representatives from many of the independents met at the Leland Hotel in Chicago, Illinois on September 5, 1901. In response to the National-American battle, they agreed to form the second National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, called the NABPL, or "NA" for short. (The "NA" uses the name Minor League Baseball today.) Powers was made the first president of the NABPL, whose offices were established in Auburn, New York.
The purpose of the NA at the time was to maintain the independence of the leagues involved. Several did not sign the agreement, and continued to work independently.
In 1903 the dog fight between the American and National Leagues ended in the National Agreement of 1903. The NABPL became involved in the later stages of the negotiations to develop rules for the acquisition of players from their leagues by the National and the American.
The NA was signed because players were being pilfered from clubs in other leagues with little or no compensation to the teams. The 1903 agreement insured that teams would be compensated for the players that they had taken the time and effort to scout and develop.
No NA team was required to sell their players, although most did because the cash became an important source of revenue for most teams.
These leagues were still fiercely independent, and the term "minor" was seldom used in reference to them, save by the major-market sports writers. News did not travel far in the days before heavy television and radio, so, while the leagues often bristled at the major market writers descriptions, their viewpoint of the situation in that day was that they were independent sports businesses, no more and no less.
Many baseball writers of that time regarded the greatest of the leagues in the NA, such as Buzz Arlett, Jigger Statz, Ike Boone, Buddy Ryan, Earl Rapp and Frank Shellenback, as equal to some major league stars.
In 1922 the US Supreme Court decision which grants baseball a special immunity from antitrust laws had a major effect on the minor leagues. The special immunity meant that the American and National leagues could dictate terms under which every independent league did business.
By 1925 major league baseball crammed down a flat-fee purchase of $5,000 for the contract of any player from an NA league team. This power was leveled primarily at the Baltimore Orioles, then a Triple-A team that had dominated the minors with stars such as Babe Ruth and Lefty Grove because owner Jack Dunn refused to sell them to the majors for years.
Leagues in the NA would not be truly called "minor" until Branch Rickey developed the first modern "farm system" in the 1930s. The Commissioner of Baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis fought Rickey's scheme, but ultimately the Great Depression drove teams to establish systems like Rickey's to insure a steady supply of players, because many NA and independent teams could not afford to keep their doors open without the patronage of major league baseball.
The leagues of the NA became subordinate to the major leagues, the first "minor" leagues. Other than the Pacific Coast League, which under its president Pants Rowland tried to become a third major league in the Western states, the other leagues maintained autonomy in name, with total dependence upon the American and National league in economic and political fact.
Where the players come from
Only 25 of the players on the major league 40 Man Roster play for the major league baseball club, except from September 1 to the end of the regular season, when all major-league teams are allowed to expand their gameday rosters to 40 players. The remaining 15 players play at some level of the minor leagues, usually at the Triple-A level. Players on the 40 Man Roster are members of the Major League Baseball Players Association. They work at the lower end of major league pay scales, and are covered by all rules and player agreements of the PA. This allows the other 15 players to play every day, rather than spend time sitting on the bench. Minor league players not on the 40 Man Roster are under contract to their parent major league baseball club, but have no union. They generally work for far less pay, starting at Rookie (lowest) to Triple-A (highest). Many players have signing bonuses and other additional compensation that can run into the millions of dollars, although that is far more rare.
How Affiliation Works
Major league clubs in the modern farm system will enter into affiliation agreements with several teams to develop players at each class-level. Each major-league team has agreements with one AAA team, one AA team, at least two at A level (including Short-Season A), and at least one in a US-based Rookie League.
Class A ball used to be divided into High-A and A levels. Minor League Baseball eliminated the distinction in 2002, but the system still develops players by moving them through the California and Carolina leagues in the same way that has been done for decades. Twenty-one major league teams have a Short-Season A affiliate and a Rookie affiliate. Teams without a Short-Season A affiliate will invariably have at least two rookie franchises. All clubs keep one Rookie team in a US system, like the Gulf Coast League or the Arizona League. Teams can have several additional Rookie League clubs, depending upon whether the teams participate in the rookie leagues in the Dominican Republic, Venezuela or Mexico. In some cases in the Dominican Summer League, teams may also split control of a rookie club.
Affiliations are contracts that can be drawn up from one to five years. The major league club pays player salaries. The minor league club handles all other operations and operational expenses.
Affiliations between teams change for financial or competitive reasons, or as the result of a move. The New Orleans Zephyrs of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League were affiliated with the Houston Astros through 2004. However, this changed for 2005 because Nolan Ryan's minor league baseball business expanded. The Round Rock Express, a Class-AA club in the Austin suburb of Round Rock, was moved to Corpus Christi and renamed the Corpus Christi Hooks. The Edmonton Trappers, which had been purchased by Ryan in 2003, moved from Canada to Round Rock to become the new Triple-A edition of the Express. The Canadian franchise had been affiliated with the Montréal Expos, now the Washington Nationals. Houston, with its relationship with Nolan Ryan (the Astros are one of three teams that have retired the Hall of Famer's jersey number), and its ability to improve its fan base across a wider area in Texas, moved its AAA affiliation to Round Rock. The Zephyrs, to remain in the affiliated system, had to sign with the Nationals or find another club who was willing to swap affiliations for the Nationals.
Presently, the longest continuous link between major-league and minor-league clubs is the link between the Orioles and their Rookie-level Appalachian League affiliate, the Bluefield Orioles. This affiliation has existed since 1958.
Today's Farm System
Levels of Talent
Two or three leagues at a time are grouped into different classes based on the ability and readiness of their typical players. From highest to lowest, the levels are:
- Class AAA - Teams are typically in the largest metropolitan areas without Major League Baseball franchises. Usually holds the remaining 15 players of the 40 man roster who are not eligible to be on the major league club. Often times referred to as a "parking lot" because many major-league quality players are held in reserve for emergencies at the major league level. Players at this level from the 40-man roster of a major-league team can be invited to come up to the major league club once the major-league roster expands on September 1. For teams in contention for a pennant, it gives them fresh arms and bats. For those not in contention, it gives them an opportunity to evaluate their "next best" players for the next season.
- Class AA - This is the fastest-moving, most fluid group of players. Usually located in mid-sized cities. Many will jump to the major league from this level. A small handful of players can be placed here to start, usually veterans from foreign leagues with more experience in professional baseball.
- Class A baseball players are honing their skills. Usually located in small or mid-sized cities or suburbs of large cities. They usually have particular issues to work out: Control for pitchers, consistency for batters are the two most frequent reasons someone stays in Class A baseball. The class has been divided into two levels since Minor League Baseball made an adjustment in 2002, although most experts still recognize three because players are promoted by major league clubs as they always have been:
- High-A - One level below Double-A, the California League, Florida State League, and the Carolina League remain at a higher level of play. Often a second or third promotion for a minor-league player, although a few high first-round draftees, particularly with college experience, and players burning up the foreign rookie leagues will jump to this level. These leagues play a complete season. Several younger Japanese, Taiwanese, Korean and Australian baseball players get their start as American "rookies" at this level.
- Low-A - Full season leagues like the South Atlantic League and Midwest League are a mix of high-quality first-season rookies from the current year's draft and signings, and players moving up from the Short-Season leagues.
- Short-Season Leagues - As the name implies, these leagues play a shortened season, starting in June and ending in early September. The late start to the season is designed to give major-league teams time to sign their draftees and immediately place them in a competitive league. Players in these leagues are a mixture of newly-signed draftees and second-year pros who either weren't ready to move on, or for whom there was not space at a higher level to move up.
- Short-Season A - Consists of the New York-Penn League and Northwest League and is the highest level short-season affiliate for 22 Major League organizations. The remaining 8 MLB clubs have their highest level short-season affiliate in either the Appalachian or Pioneer Leagues. In many instances players drafted out of college will begin their careers at this level, while high-school draftees will begin their careers in either an Advanced-Rookie or Rookie League.
- Advanced Rookie League - Comprised of the Appalachian League and the Pioneer League, this level is a mix of recent draftees and second-year players. The reason being that this is the entry level affiliate for some Major League organizations, such as the Houston Astros who do not have an affiliate in either rookie league. Instead, the Astros have a team in the Appalachian League (Greeneville Astros) and New York-Penn League (Tri-City ValleyCats). For other Major League organizations, such as the Milwaukee Brewers, this serves as their highest level short-season affiliate. The Brewers have a team in the Pioneer League (Helena Brewers) and a team in the Arizona League (Phoenix Brewers), but do not have an affiliated club in either the New York-Penn or Northwest Leagues.
- Rookie League - The lowest level of Minor League Baseball, the leagues here are also short-season leagues. In the United States, team rosters of the Gulf Coast League and the Arizona League consist of newly-signed draftees and a few players brought in from the Dominican Summer League, Venezuelan Summer League, or Mexican Academy League of the season prior. Some players in the foreign rookie leagues will stay a year or more longer now because of the shortage of United States H2-B immigration visas caused by changes in immigration law after 9/11.
Until the 1950s, there were also Class B, C, and D leagues (and, for half a season, one E league). The Class B of that day would be equivalent to the Rookie level today. The other class designations disappeared because leagues of that level could not sustain operation during a large downturn in the financial fortunes of minor league baseball in the 1950s and 1960s caused by the rise of television broadcasts of major league sports across broad regions of the country.
Determining where players should go
A major league team's Director of Player Development determines, in coordination with the coaches and managers who evaluate their talent, in Spring training. Players both from the spring major camp and minor league winter camp are placed at end of the spring training season by the major league club on the roster of a minor league team.
The Director and the General Manager usually determine the initial assignments for new draftees, who typically begin playing professionally in June after they have been signed to contracts.
The farm system is ever-changing: Evaluations of players are ongoing. The Director of Player Development and his managers will meet or teleconference regularly to discuss how players are performing at each level. In addition to personal achievement, injuries, and high levels of achievement by players in the classes above and below all steer a player's movement up and down in the class system.
Players will play for the team to which they are assigned for the duration of that season unless they are "called up," promoted to a higher level; "sent down," demoted to a lower class team in the major league club's farm system; or "released" from the farm system entirely. A release from minor-league level used to spell the end of a minor league player's career. In more modern times, with a more powerful independent baseball system, many players will "park" a career for a season or two in the independent leagues, which are scouted much more heavily. Many will get a second or third look from the major league scouts if they turn their career around in the indies.
Variations in the system
There are variations to the Farm System's classes that should be noted:
- Rehabiliation (Rehab) Assignments - Players on the Disabled List (DL) can be sent to the minor leagues for rehab work. Players are sent to minor league clubs by geography and facilities, not by class for these reassignments. Curt Schilling's recovery from an ankle injury in 2005 saw him rehab in Pawtucket, Rhode Island at the Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox, very close to the home club in Boston. Minnesota Twins prospect Jason Kubel, who blew out his ankle in the Arizona Fall League in 2004, reported to Minnesota's Class-A Florida State League team, the Fort Myers Miracle which is based in their well-equipped Spring Training facility in Fort Myers, Florida.
- Minor League Free Agency - Like major leaguers, minor league players also enjoy free agency. Their contracts expire after three years, and unless their contracts are renewed by mutual agreement, they are released from any obligation to the major league club. Those who can't find the right deal with an affiliated baseball club may also take a season in independent baseball before returning to the farm system of another major league club. This is done because players, in the world of free agency and high-dollar salaries, often find their careers "stuck." Major league clubs will often trade for a big dollar position player rather than call someone up from the minor leagues. This can leave position players in the Triple-A and Double-A levels of the farm system with no ability to move up. They become 'spare parts' players unless they can find a new club that views their skills differently.
- Class System Variations - The classification system today is a very rough rule of thumb, particularly in the "readiness" category. There are players who start at all levels of the farm system, although launching from Triple-A is the most rare. More and more players are taken from Class AA to the majors without time in Class AAA. Triple-A has two appropriate nicknames: It's been dubbed the "parking lot" by some sports writers because players can easily get trapped into being reserves for injured major leaguers. It's also been called the "third major league," because the level of play is exceptional, players play harder because they want to prove something to those judging their talent, and because they draw as well as, if not better than, some of their major league counterparts. The Marlins may have won the 2003 World Series, but, up until playoff time, their Triple-A Albuquerque Isotopes franchise was outseating the major league club most nights of the week. The independent leagues also play a role, draining off some talent looking for a change.