Per local reports, 3B Josh Jung has a left (non-throwing) labral strain that will sideline him for an indefinite period and possibly require surgery. Terrible news for someone who might have won the starting 3B job out of Spring Training. I saw plenty of him last August and September and thought he was ready. At the very least, he was to be among Texas’s most prominent prospects when the minors resume.
FanGraphs.com’s just-revealed top-100 prospect list places Jung 9th, the highest I’ve seen him. I’ll have more on prospect rankings down the road.
Stock Photo Of Chain And Padlock Draped Over A Baseball
This week’s lengthier MLB-MLBPA discussions are encouraging, but on the whole, the lockout and tenor of ongoing negotiations reminds me of 2020’s reorganization of the minors. In that case, MLB patiently let the agreement with MiLB expire and largely dictated new terms to a collection of teams decimated by the pandemic. (Some have sued, but I don’t think they have much of a case.) In the current situation, MLB owners and management can’t domineer the Players Association as it did MiLB, but they seem willing to accept the loss of games and negative press in order to achieve the same resounding victory.
Fans have the right to be weary and disgusted, especially after two Spring Trainings impacted by the pandemic. I certainly am. However, I absolutely do not buy the “billionaires vs. millionaires” dismissal or the idea of locking them in a room until they work it out. The stakes are too high. For most players, this next CBA will govern what remains of their careers. The draft and reserve clause prevent anything approaching genuine competition for the services of most players. Salaries are essentially fixed. Any improvements in their compensation and working conditions must be obtained now. Likewise, for owners, terms that make the final version of a CBA tend to stick, so anything conceded now could impact profits and asset values well beyond the terms of this agreement.
Per Travis Sawchik of The Score, 63% of MLB players in 2019 had under three years of service time. From 2011 to 2019, the average debut age increased from 24.6 to 25.6, but the percentage of players over 30 has decreased from 40% in 2004 to 30% now.
Entering 2021, the average MLB salary was over $4 million, but that figure is badly skewed by top-tier free agents and has no relevance for the vast majority of players. Roughly 45% of MLB's active roster have salaries under $1 million. By my count, 30 of Texas’s 40-man roster members have yet to reach arbitration. Of those, I count 17 yet to reach $1 million in cumulative earnings, including signing bonuses. A decent number of them will eventually, of course, and I'm not trying to pass them all off as destitute. But for many of these players, minimum salaries are all they'll ever see, so I think the union is right to weigh them heavily in the negotiations.
One Hundred Fifty
Connected to the critical monetary issues is MLB’s request (withdrawn as of Monday) for the power to lower the number of US-based minor leaguers per club from 180 to as few as 150. In the past, individual minor league teams had roster limits that generally guided the total number of players a club would employ, but clubs didn’t have an organization-wide roster limit to my knowledge. That has changed, and MLB may want the right to change it again for what seems a modest monetary benefit.
Reviewing Texas’s 2021 reveals what a lower limit would entail. 221 players took the field for the club’s minor league teams last year. Nine were rehabbing MLB players, another 17 were optioned 40-man members. That leaves 195 players on minor league contracts, to which must be added four absent from injury and seven draft picks who didn’t take the field. So, by my count, the Rangers had 206 players signed to minor league contracts over the course of the 2021 season. The total at any given moment was lower, but I don’t think the Rangers ever had as few as 150. Texas has at least 170 players signed to minor league deals right now. (Odds are my figures aren’t exact, but they should be close enough for discussion.)
The late-2020 overhaul of the minor league system eliminated 40 teams but guaranteed four full-season minor league teams per club through 2030. These four teams have a cumulative roster limit of 116. Rookie-level teams were and are at the discretion of individual clubs. Every club has at least one, some have two (not Texas). They have no roster limit and can stretch into the thirties and beyond. Staffing five teams with a maximum of 150 minor leaguers plus optioned 40-man members isn’t impossible but stretches resources awfully thin. A 150 limit would effectively prohibit multiple rookie-level teams within an organization.
Cutting aggregate roster sizes isn’t going to eliminate the AAA vets needed as MLB reinforcements, some of whom receive low six-figure deals. The eliminated salaries would be at the bottom, those making a few hundred per week.
Also, maintaining minor league rosters is difficult enough as is. Players get hurt and need replacements. Any promotion or demotion can set off a chain of transactions affecting the positions and plate appearances of multiple players. Now add to that the possibility of having to release a capable player in order to sign a draft pick, or putting forth a short-handed team, in service of some weirdly arbitrary roster limit.
Concurrent with this is the ongoing class action lawsuit by a group of minor league players against MLB. MLB’s argument ($ link) is that players are not employees during Spring Training, therefore they should not be paid. MLB’s counsel has reinforced this argument with a consulting study estimating that players receive training and benefits that would cost over $2,000 per week if obtained elsewhere, and that players gain “generally beneficial life skills” while in the minors.
Silver Cloud, Gray Lining
Good news: The lockout does not affect the minor leagues. Games will continue as scheduled, beginning Tuesday April 5 in AAA and Thursday elsewhere. Bad: Texas will still have plenty of players worth seeing, but the lockout and absence of MLB action is not to MiLB’s benefit.
First: Everybody on the 40-man roster is exiled. If you visit a minor league park this season (and you should!), you won’t see Sam Huff, or Sherten Apostel, or Yerry Rodriguez, or Ricky Vanasco, or Ezequiel Duran while the lockout persists. These players already missed 2020, and some were shelved for all or part of 2021 due to injury. They desperately need the opportunity to perform, but they’re banished from MLB facilities just like Max Scherzer, Corey Seager and Fernando Tatis Jr.
Second: Think about Drew Anderson, Jharel Cotton and Spencer Patton. All signed minor league deals with the Rangers before 2021, pitched well in AAA, and finished the season in MLB with 95 respectable innings between them. Patton and Cotton enter 2022 with MLB contracts, while Anderson parlayed his success into a gig in Japan. For their 2022 equivalents, the goal of returning to the Majors may not exist in April. Sometimes, opportunities are created by a combination of two or three superior weeks in the minors and an injury or bad performance at the MLB level. Some of these players could play well enough to warrant a call-up, only to have nowhere to go. That’s depressing.
Minor League Rule 5 Results
The Major League portion of the Rule 5 draft has been, at best, delayed by the lockout, but the minor league portion proceeded as planned in December. Players already on the 40-man roster were off-limits along with up to 38 players in the AAA reserve roster. The Rangers fully stocked the latter roster preceding the draft, leaving them unable to select anyone. They lost four players. Say farewell to:
IF Charles Leblanc (4th overall to Miami) – With a revamped approach, Leblanc more than tripled his home run rate in 2021 despite playing in AAA for the first time. Leblanc also struck out more than ever and posted a career-low .313 OBP and .229 average. He’s best suited to the corners (including LF) but can handle second and spot at short in a pinch. Leblanc is more of a prospect now than two years ago, when he struggled in AA, but even with the improved power I wasn’t shocked that he was exposed to this portion of the draft. Conversely, Baseball America described him as having the “greatest offensive upside” of any hitter in the draft lacking MLB experience.
RHP Abdiel Mendoza (18th overall to Toronto) -- Texas acquired Mendoza and RHP Teodoro Ortega in 2018 for reliever Cory Gearrin. Mendoza spent his Year 23 season in low-A, where he had his moments but struggled against lefties in general and everyone the second time through the order.
RHP Cole Uvila (26th overall to Baltimore) – Early in 2021, I thought Uvila had a shot to make his MLB debut. Like Joe Barlow, Uvila’s control ranges from so-so to frightening, but he strikes out plenty of hitters and manages to avoid too much solid contact the rest of the time. Or at least he did, until promotion to Round Rock, where in his first six outings he allowed 16 hits and walked 11 versus just three strikeouts. Still, writing off Uvila is premature. Recall that Barlow struggled badly in AAA and in successive spring tryouts before reaching the Majors.
RHP Nic Laio (27th overall to Pittsburgh) – His season mimicked Uvila. For a month, he was the system’s strongest reliever, fanning 31 in 18 innings with a 1.47 ERA for low-A Down East. Thereafter, mostly while in high-A, Laio continued to miss bats but was clobbered when he didn’t, permitting 11 homers and a .605 opposing slugging percentage in 38 innings.
Unlike some years, I didn’t have the reserve list before the draft. I did not expect Uvila or Laio to be exposed. That said, they were selected after two Rangers whose exposure didn’t surprise me.