Can Minor League Baseball Recover From Virus?

ALSO: INNOVATIVE RAYS IMPACT BASEBALL BUT NEED FAN SUPPORT

Pregame Pepper

Did you know ...

The last-place Pittsburgh Pirates got all 19 of their wins against playoff participants . .

September 17, 2020 was not a good day for Toronto pitcher Chase Anderson, who fed five – count ‘em, five – gopherballs within a 14-pitch span to Yankee sluggers Brett Gardner, DJ Lemahieu, Luke Voit, Giocarlo Stanton, and Gleyber Torres . . .

Phillies catcher Rafael Marchan batted 846 times in the minors without a home run but then connected in his fifth at-bat in the majors . . .

Mets third baseman Todd Frazier fanned Braves slugger Adam Duvall during an emergency relief role in the final month of the season.

Leading Off

Covid Made Major Impact On Minor Leagues

By John Supowitz

Major League Baseball has wrapped up the bizarre 2020 season. At one point we weren't even sure there would be a season but, like the NBA and NHL, baseball has crowned a champion.

Although we saw the big clubs play out their season, one thing was missing; sweet, lovely minor league baseball. Major League Baseball made the decision to cancel the seasons of all the MLB- affiliated leagues. Some teams will hopefully return to action this spring, but what will be the state of minor league baseball post-pandemic?

The main reason MLB was able to pull off a season while MiLB couldn't was because of its revenue streams. All major league teams have contracts to broadcast their games locally and each team takes a percentage of the national TV contracts. The minors do not have that option; all minor league games are streamed through MiLB.tv and the teams do not get any revenue from these broadcasts.

We saw the immediate impact of no minor league season as many players were released while others saw their paychecks reduced to a fraction of their normal amount.

Here’s how the business model works: a minor league baseball team is essentially a small business -- somebody owns and operates a team. One way that makes it easier to function economically is that the major league organization pays the salaries of the players, coaches, and staff, but the minor league team pays the ballpark lease, marketing, and in-park operating costs. Just like many other businesses during this time, teams in the minors had to shut their doors and follow their state's health guidelines. As time progressed and certain restrictions were lifted, clubs began to find ways to make some money, some of it from renting the stadium via Air BnB.

Minor league teams make the majority of their revenue through advertising. If you travel to any minor league ballpark, the advertising of local businesses is prominent on the outfield walls, seating sections, and in-game promotions. With the pandemic impacting local businesses, the budget for advertising may not be affordable in 2021.

The way they usually make money is through ticket sales. But it is not known when baseball will come back or what capacity of fans will be allowed. Reducing the numbers of fans who can come to the games could lead to massive losses of revenue that could bankrupt an organization.

Minor league teams are local businesses that attract people from around their area and employ people from the community. The impact of losing a professional sports team in a smaller market could have an economic impact throughout that community.

According to MiLB data reports, most teams earn approximately $70,000 per game in revenue. About 89 per cent of their revenue goes to their operating expenses, including paying employees and paying rent on their home ballparks. Again, a reduction in that revenue leads to a team folding within a year.

In a Wall Street Journal article, K.L. Wombacher, president of the Hillsboro Hops, commented on the financial ramifications of not having these revenue streams.

“There are a lot of teams that wouldn’t be able to survive,” he says. “I don’t know what would happen. It would severely hurt our industry, there’s no doubt.“

There are currently 160 minor league teams affiliated with MiLB but MLB has already begun the process of eliminating about 40 of them after this season. They've already begun to accommodate this move by significantly reducing the draft from 40 rounds to just five. It would be realistic to say that some teams might have already played their last games.

As of today, the state of the coronavirus pandemic is still in question. There is no assurance that teams would be allowed to have fans attend their games come April, especially if a vaccine is not available to the general public.

Even with Major League Baseball playing its season, it has reported a $8.3 billion debt from its different lenders and close to $3 billion in losses. What kind of impact could that have at all levels for the 2021 season?

John Supowitz graduated from Quinnipiac University with a Masters Degree in Sports Journalism. He is a baseball writer for primtimesportstalk.com and the host of The IBWAA Zoom Discussion “The Press Box.”

Cleaning Up

Shining Rays Make The Most From The Least But Lack Fan Support in Florida

By Dan Schlossberg

Happy Halloween Weekend!

It’s the time of year when baseball general managers take stock, trying to decide which of their young players will prove to be pumpkins and which will be prospects.

With virtually all teams determined to cut payroll, GMs need to know which veterans to slice from their rosters as non-tenders, which free agents they might sign on the cheap, and which youngsters are ripe enough to be plucked from the vine.

All of them will cast envious eyes at Tampa Bay, where the low-budget Rays reached deep into October.

The Little Engine That Could spent only a pro-rated $27.4 million on payroll, according to Spotrac, ranking third from last among the 30 big-league clubs.

“They’ve got the same amount of men on their roster,” said defeated Houston manager Dusty Baker, “but it seems like they’ve got more because they’ve got a lot of interchangeable parts and are used to using them.”

Yankees GM Brian Cashman agreed, comparing the Rays’ roster to a Swiss Army knife. Both the Yankees and the Astros, along with the Athletics, were eliminated by the Rays so far in the current postseason.

Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash, likely to win his first Manager of the Year award this season, is a master at changing lineups, rotating positions, and juggling pitchers – one reason why a record 13 different relievers saved games for the Rays in a 60-game season.

Few players have multi-year contracts or have been around long enough to qualify for free agency.

“We’re not a team built with superstar after superstar,” Cash said after the ALCS. “We’re a team that maximizes opportunities and tries to get matchups to help us win games. And we did that really well this year.”

Yes, they did. The Rays went 40-20 to win the AL East and grab top seed in the league entering the postseason. After outlasting three American League opponents in the playoffs, they challenged the Dodgers in the World Series games by using their own strategy against them: lots of longballs and two-out hits.

“We can compete with anybody,” said Tampa Bay outfielder Austin Meadows. “We know how good we are. And we don’t worry about what people say on the outside.”

Outside of Tampa Bay, few fans can name more than a handful of players on the Rays’ roster. Their clubhouse is like Grand Central Station at rush hour, with massive movement in and out, and their strategy has proven so successful that other clubs are copying it.

The manager deploys left-right platoons at multiple positions, realigns lineups on a daily basis, banks on bunts and hit-and-run plays, stations four men in the outfield or five in the infield, and rotates pitchers from relief to starting and back again. The magic in his wand finally expired in the decisive Game 6 of the World Series, when he lifted coasting starter Blake Snell for no apparent reason and suffered the consequences immediately. But Cash, who is not much older than his players, will learn from that experience.

It’s too bad Tampa Bay plays in an antiquated stadium in an out-of-the-way place and draws so few fans that there’s talk of playing half their home games in Montreal – or maybe moving north of the border permanently if the one-time home of the Expos builds a new downtown ballpark.

With its plethora of snowbirds who flock north just as baseball season starts, Florida is fine for spring training but lousy for the regular season. Tampa Bay has even moved regular-season games to Disney World, where ballpark capacity is 11,000, just to give its players the chance to play in front of packed stands.

The situation isn’t much better in Miami, despite the unexpected post-COVID success of Derek Jeter and Don Mattingly. Even though they play in a new, better, and bigger ballpark than the Rays, the Marlins have never been a big draw.

The Rays have won the attention of baseball by getting maximum mileage for minimum money but they still need to get the attention of their local audience. Finding a better place to play would help.

Former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ is Weekend Editor of HERE’S THE PITCH, national baseball writer for forbes.com, senior baseball writer for Latino Sports, and author of 38 baseball books. He has covered baseball since 1969. Dan’s e.mail is ballauthor@gmail.com.

Timeless Trivia

Tampa Bay outfielder Randy Arozarena, a sudden slugger when it counted most, was the first rookie position player to win MVP honors in the American League Championship Series . . .

Charlie Morton and Roger Clemens are the only pitchers to win Game 7 for one team and then pitch against that team in another Game 7 . . .

When the Braves scored an NL-record 29 runs in a late-season game against the Marlins, they collected all of them in six innings (scoreless in the first and eighth and no bottom-of-the-ninth).