New CBA Roster Rules Leave Many MiLB Veterans Without A Job

Thanks to a rule in the fine print of last year's CBA, over 400 MiLB players could be left jobless this year. Let's talk to some of them.

WORCESTER, MA - APRIL 27: Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders RHP Mitch Spence (15) throws a pitch during a AAA MiLB game between the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders and the Worcester Red Sox on April 27, 2023, at Polar Park in Worcester, MA. (Photo by Erica Denhoff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The 2023-2024 MLB offseason has been a slow-moving one up to this point. Countless major and minor league veterans remain on the open market.

We already know about Scott Boras and all of his clients left on the board. What about the countless minor league veterans, though? MLB and MiLB free agents all go into the same pool, but they generally are not viewed the same.

Someone like Blake Snell or Matt Chapman is going to warrant a whole lot more attention than a long-time MiLB veteran who has yet to make his big league debut.

Thanks to a small – and at the time, unnoticed – rule in the first-ever MiLB CBA (collective bargaining agreement), the minor league players union gave the league the right to shorten domestic roster sizes – if they wanted to. This would place further emphasis on top prospects and less on career minor leaguers.

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Of course, as soon as the door opened for them to do so, they did. Now, teams can only carry 165 players in their organization during the season and 175 during the offseason. To put that into perspective, last year, the numbers were 180 and 190, respectively.

That is a total of 15 roster spots in each organization effectively being removed from the equation. For those keeping track at home, that could mean a whopping 450 MiLB players that will be jobless in 2024. Teams do not always go right up to the roster limit, so the actual number will fluctuate.

No More Fliers On MiLB Depth

Each team needs players who have fought their way through the minors to reach either Triple-A or the major leagues. Sometimes, we see them make it to The Show. Drew Maggi, John Lindsey, Wynton Bernard and Guilder Rodriguez stick out above the rest. However, they are a dying breed.

You’re forgiven if none of these names ring a bell to you. Each spent years pursuing their dream before ultimately getting a cup of coffee at the game’s highest level. Now, that’s not going to be happening much more.

According to Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper, executives have told him that they’ve had to turn away veterans because there’s not enough room on their rosters.

Cooper mentioned that there are some who disagree with that approach, as there are certainly times where a player who’s close to the big leagues is more valuable than a 20-year-old non-prospect. This thought process is fading out around the league.

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The fact of the matter remains: if a team wants to sign a non-roster invitee, they’ll need to find another player to release. As Cooper notes, this is an issue many front offices have never faced before.

Thanks to the 60-day injured list, teams are going to be able to cheat the system a bit. Players placed on the 60-day IL will not count towards the roster limit until they are activated. This means that clubs will temporarily be able to add extra players to replace the ones on the long-term IL. Once they are eligible to return, a release is going to need to be made somewhere.

Cooper also pointed out that international players do not count toward the limit until they come to the United States. This will incentivize teams waiting to bring players over from their Dominican player complexes.

Perspective From An Affected Player

“The players union failed MiLB free agents badly,” a 12-year MiLB veteran said in a text to Just Baseball. He wishes to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the subject.

“We got a text in 2022 saying that we were being protected by the MLBPA and that there’d be a vote taking place. Obviously agreeing to a group advocating for your best interests with the issues we faced prior was an easy decision.”

However, he said that he believes this group of advocates are on the younger side and might not have faced the hardships someone like him has gone through. He went on to say that it feels like the league is working against the grinders who have worked tirelessly to chase their dreams.

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How, he wondered, does someone who spent so many years in Triple-A being one injury or one hot streak away suddenly become so expendable? After all, he’s played for seven different organizations with six stints at the highest level of the minors. Double-digit pop, blazing speed and the defensive chops to play all over the diamond isn’t enough if you’re “old.”

“I was reassured that [the MiLB players union] wasn’t interested in giving the owners the ability to cut the domestic reserve in the United States,” he continued. This “domestic reserve” is the total number of players employed by teams. He said that the final decision was made via player vote, but wondered how many of the voters had experience in MiLB free agency.

New Rules Could Be Ending Careers

On the same day, another player contacted Just Baseball via text to say that he was retiring. This comes just a short while after the league’s announcement of shortened roster sizes.

“It’s just been such a quiet offseason,” he said. “It’s getting to the point where I have to decide whether it’s even worth it to continue playing.” As an 11-year MiLB veteran who has established a strong reputation as a beloved catcher, this player received no calls all winter long.

Previously, he had been able to hold on to a roster spot in Triple-A for years. Last year, playing for the Triple-A affiliate of an AL East club, his pitchers loved how he called games and preferred throwing to him over other catchers on the roster. So much can change in such a short time.

“If you don’t have major league service time by a certain point and don’t continue to have standout seasons, you’re out of luck. This new CBA is hurting guys who are arbitration eligible as well. Teams want to either pay superstars or have a roster full of guys who are making the minimum,” he said.

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Another minor leaguer who just wrapped up a three-year stint in an NL East organization said, “I have no idea why they’re doing this.” Since his release, he has yet to latch on with another club. This could be, and likely is, because of these roster rules. “If we’re making rosters smaller, we also have to start taking our losses on ‘prospects’ who have three years in the league with an ERA over 8.00,” he stated.

It’s tough to argue that point. Prospects always get long leashes, but it’s unfair to not provide a similar leash to other players around the roster.

An Agent’s Perspective

Players are not the only ones that are frustrated by recent events. Speaking to an agent who prefers to stay anonymous, there is a concerning pattern developing.

“As usual, the MLBPA squeezes out older MiLB players. Teams don’t care about getting outs and results anymore, they are more concerned with high velo and spin rates. The ‘star’ players and the ‘up-and-coming’ stars are the favorites over the guys in the middle,” he said.

He also pointed out that the Mexican Summer League increased the number of foreign players each team can sign, so odds are some of these “middle guys” who got squeezed out of an MiLB roster spot may head there, or even to Asia.

Is Playing In Asia or Mexico a Plausible Avenue For Players?

“You have to go where you are wanted and have an opportunity to play”, a relief pitcher in the AL Central told me. “I loved my time in both Mexico and Japan. There’s less politics and you just play baseball. If you’re good, you stay. If you’re not, you don’t.”

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According to a minor leaguer we spoke with, it depends on the league. “Japan is really competitive; it’s close to the big leagues, maybe Triple-A. Plenty of guys I talk to say Korea is a solid way to go, but roster limits make it tough there too,” he said.

With salaries in Asia being parallel to the big leagues, there’s certainly appeal to head over there. However, the leagues limit the amount of foreign players allowed. In the KBO, the limit is three per team, with a maximum of two pitchers allowed. In Japan’s NPB, the limit is four per team. With this in mind, there are only so many spots to go around.

To be clear, having the opportunity to continue your career in a non-MLB league is a luxury. In recent years, we’ve seen countless players head overseas, raise their stock, and come back to the United States. Miles Mikolas, Eric Thames, Erick Fedde, Josh Lindblom and Jay Jackson stand out as recent examples.

Again, the issue lies in the amount of roster spots available. Asian leagues have a strict limit because they want fans to see their hometown players on the field. It’s difficult to argue with that logic, even if it results in less jobs for American players trying to continue their playing days.

What About Indy Ball?

In independent ball, the offers can be so low that it is not worth it to even to suit up. “I was told that they can pay me $3,000 a month, but only if I understand that they can’t keep me on the roster for long,” one current MiLB free agent said. “They told me, ‘It’s just too much money to allocate to one person,’ which is ridiculous.”

“This specific team is close enough to me where I have to drive myself, and by the time I pay for the daily commute and housing, that paycheck just doesn’t get it done. Some of the younger guys in these leagues are making under $1,000 a month and they only have $125,000 to pay for an entire roster. It just is not enough.”

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This is all without mentioning the buyouts associated with playing in indy ball. Should you sign with an independent club and warrant the attention of an MLB organization, the club has to pay a fee for your services on top of your agreed upon salary.

A few years ago, that fee was $15,000. Now, it’s down to $12,500. One player I spoke to on the matter said that MLB organizations will tell players that they’re only so interested in signing them and that, frankly, they aren’t worth the buyout money.

Closing Thoughts

The league is putting MiLB players, especially veterans with little-to-no big league service time, in a tough spot. Emphasis on being solid clubhouse presences and carving out careers as high-minors depth appears to be at an all-time low.

It remains to be seen how much of an effect this new “rule” will have in the long run. Right now, we’re already seeing players struggle to land a job. As time goes by, more and more of these minor league grinders will be phased out.