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The View From Pluto: Baseball's Shutdown Spells Big Trouble for the Minor Leagues

The Mahoning Valley Scrappers are among 40 minor league teams set to be cut.
The Mahoning Valley Scrappers are among 40 minor league teams set to be cut.

The two-month-long Major League Baseball shutdown amid the pandemic is having a big effect on the minor leagues. While major league players and owners continue to work toward a deal to start the season next month, it’s becoming clear that the minor leagues won’t play at all.

As a result, teams have cut hundreds of players. WKSU sports commentator Terry Pluto says the Indians released 11 players last week.

"Nobody on the list is a real hot prospect," Pluto said. And he says the Indians cut fewer players than some other teams. The Arizona Diamondbacks, for example, released 64 of their prospects. The Indians will continue to pay their minor leaguers $400 a week through June, and their health benefits through the end of August.  

"It's a sign that more (cuts) will come, because these guys aren't playing and they aren't serving their purpose," Pluto said. 

A sport based on development

Baseball is a sport based on development. The Indians have two rookie league teams, two levels of Class A (Mahoning Valley and Lake County), the AA Akron RubberDucks and the AAA Columbus Clippers. 

"(Indians manager) Terry Francona has said most players need between 1,500 and 2,000 at-bats in the minors to really be ready to play in the big leagues. The more guys you have in the minors, the more likely you are to find that player who can help you."

Pluto says Indians catcher Roberto Perez is an example. "He was a 1,112th draft pick a number of years ago. He hung around and kept increasing his catching skills and started to hit a little bit. Then he finally made the Indians as a backup and last year he ended up starting." 

Mahoning Valley likely scrapped

Pluto says it seems nearly certain that the Mahoning Valley Scrapperswill be eliminated, as proposed before the pandemic. The Scrappers are among 40 teams on a list to be cut. "(For) some of them, (Major League Baseball) was trying to pressure those local owners into upgrading facilities for their players by threatening to get rid of them," Pluto said.

"But now, I think they'll figure, 'Why do we need to pay these minor league salaries?' Because it's the Indians who will be paying salaries and they supply the equipment and everything else. So, how many survive and how many guys who own it now put it on the market for next year?"

A scaled-back draft

Next week, Major League Baseball holds its scaled-back draft.

"I thought it was pretty destructive that they came up with this idea," Pluto said. 

"It goes 30-some rounds most years. This year they're only going five rounds. And the rule is you can only sign undrafted players for a maximum of $20,000. You don't make any money until you get to the majors, so you want that signing bonus. But they're doing this because they figure, 'We're not going to have minor league baseball anyway, so what if we draft 30 or 40 guys and we have nowhere to put them?'"

A destructive model

"You're growing players in the minors. You can also grow fans in the minors. Then, you're cutting your draft down because you want to save money this year. I can't imagine any other sport being so short-sighted. I just think eventually their arrogance will really cost them. The arrogance being, 'We could do business how we want, and people are still going to be there for us.'"

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Amanda Rabinowitz
Amanda Rabinowitz has been a reporter, host and producer at WKSU since 2007. Her days begin before the sun comes up as the local anchor for NPR’s Morning Edition, which airs on WKSU each weekday from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. In addition to providing local news and weather, she interviews the Plain Dealer’s Terry Pluto for a weekly commentary about Northeast Ohio’s sports scene.