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As MLB weighs minor league cuts, major league hopefuls foresee a narrower path

Major League Baseball is pushing a proposal to cut 42 minor league teams, including the Erie SeaWolves, pictured. The idea has been met with resistance from Congress and beyond. (Jack Hanrahan/AP)

In the waning hours of the 2017 Major League Baseball draft, Gabe Klobosits was sitting glumly with family members, watching his baseball life pass before his eyes and contemplating a career spent behind a desk, when suddenly the Washington Nationals called. They had decided to draft the Auburn University right-hander in the 36th round. The signing bonus would be $2,500.

He quickly agreed to the offer and spent most of that summer with two of the Nationals’ lowest minor league affiliates, the short-season Class A Auburn (N.Y.) Doubledays of the New York-Penn League and the low Class A Hagerstown (Md.) Suns of the South Atlantic League.

This fall, when Klobosits, now 24, heard about MLB’s proposal to eliminate the big league affiliations of 42 minor league teams — including the Doubledays and Suns — and reduce the draft from 40 rounds to 20 or 25, his thoughts immediately turned to what would have happened to him in 2017 had such a system been in place.

“Plain and simple, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” said Klobosits, a 6-foot-7 reliever who, from his humble beginnings, has turned himself into a legitimate big-league prospect, with a career 1.83 ERA in the minors and a chance to reach Class AA Harrisburg in 2020. “I’d probably be working a desk job, with a lot more student debt than I’ve incurred. I don’t even know what I’d be doing.”

MLB’s negotiations with Minor League Baseball for a new Professional Baseball Agreement — the contract that governs the complex partnership between big-league teams and their affiliates — exploded into public view following the revelation of the proposal, which would end the affiliated status of 42 teams. The purpose of the plan was player safety and comfort, streamlined geography and, as you could guess, cost savings.

MLB’s 30 franchises have working relationships with 162 minor league affiliates. The organization proposed reducing that number to 120 in the new agreement. To cushion the blow for the eliminated teams, it proposed launching a “Dream League,” with MLB’s financial backing, that would operate independently but still give exceptional players a pathway to graduate to affiliated ball.

Minor League Baseball reacted with outrage to the plan, appealing to Congress and the public and trumpeting the history and romance of minor league ball, in hopes of thwarting it. The strategy appears to be working. Four House members whose districts include teams on the cut list formed the bipartisan Save Minor League Baseball Congressional Task Force and vowed to fight the proposal. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), both Democratic presidential candidates, wrote scathing letters opposing it.

“Shutting down 25 percent of Minor League Baseball teams, as you have proposed would be an absolute disaster for baseball fans, workers and communities throughout the country,” Sanders’s Nov. 25 letter read.

During a news conference at baseball’s winter meetings in San Diego last week, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred appeared to back off the plan as it was initially reported, indicating it was only an opening proposal and lamenting that details were leaked by the other side.

“This has been portrayed as a decision that has been made,” he said. “The fact of the matter is, at the point in time this became public, we had precisely three negotiating sessions. It is by no means a fait accompli as to what the agreement is going to look like.”

Manfred called on the minor leagues to work with MLB on proposals for improving facilities and working conditions for players.

Minor League Baseball considers any proposal that includes the unwilling contraction of affiliates to be a non-starter, saying the loss of their major league affiliations would be a “death sentence” for the franchises. Much of their appeal with fans, the teams say, is the chance to see future big league stars as they climb the minor league ladder. They claim even the threat of losing affiliated status down the road would harm the surviving teams’ civic partnerships.

This player waited his entire life to get a shot at the big leagues, and then it was washed out.

“My message to the 120 [non-threatened teams] has been: ‘If you’re not on the list of 42 and you think you’re safe, you’re a damn fool,’ ” Minor League Baseball President Pat O’Conner said. “If this happens now, who’s to say this won’t happen again in the future? Who’s to say the next plan isn’t a 90[-team] plan?”

But MLB is beginning to use its leverage to its advantage, threatening to cut out Minor League Baseball entirely by finding a new set of affiliates, out of independent leagues and current minor league teams already owned by MLB teams.

“We don’t need to agree with [Minor League Baseball] on a deal,” MLB Deputy Commissioner Dan Halem said. “There are minor league teams all over the U.S. and many independent leagues, and many of them have much nicer facilities than our affiliated leagues. And they would all jump for joy if one of our [big league] clubs affiliated with them.”

Much of the discourse regarding what would be lost under the “120 Plan” has focused on the 42 targeted teams. Many of those teams consider themselves essential parts of their communities, and in some cases their major league tie-ins are essential parts of their identities.

“We’ve been an Orioles affiliate since Day 1 — since we started in 1989,” said Dave Ziedelis, general manager of the high Class A Frederick Keys, who were on MLB’s list of 42 teams targeted for contraction. “I don’t think we could remain viable under [the Dream League] model. Our fans are used to seeing the Manny Machados and Matt Wieterses and Zack Brittons.”

But if there is a certain romance to a small-town minor league team, there is also a cherished history of the late-blooming, late-round draft pick who becomes an unlikely big leaguer and sometimes even a superstar. Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza was a 62nd-round pick in 1988. Five-time all-star pitcher Mark Buehrle was a 38th-round pick in 1998. Nationals first baseman Matt Adams, an eight-year big leaguer, was a 23rd-round pick by the St. Louis Cardinals in 2009.

Klobosits, who hopes to join that list at some point, wonders whether such a thing would even be possible under the proposed plan.

“I think it’s unfair,” he said, “because a guy like me, a 36th-rounder, [might] never get that opportunity of a lifetime that we’ve gotten in years past.”

MLB says its teams don’t need so many affiliates and so many minor league players because only 3.7 percent of draftees taken in the 25th round of the draft or later ever make the majors. And those long-shot players would still be found, just through nontraditional pathways.

“The cream always rises to the top,” Halem said. “...We have to find those guys that would have made it, and our clubs will find them. Work a little harder, scout a little more.”

Although MLB has detailed the facility-related and geographical problems regarding many of the teams it has targeted for contraction — grounding its proposal as a workplace issue — there is little doubt the conflict is primarily an economic one. After a lengthy legal fight, minor league players are soon to be due a significant, across-the-board pay raise, and because MLB teams pay their minor leaguers’ salaries, the teams want financial relief in the next agreement.

“We told them on Day 1: This is a cost-sharing arrangement,” Halem said. “If we’re going to enter into this arrangement with you and we’re going to guarantee you players for all these affiliates, we’re going to have to renegotiate who’s paying for what. On the player side, our costs are going up. We’re going to have to share in that. And on the facilities side, we have all these facilities that need improvement, and you’re going to have to tell us how you’re going to do that.”

And, barring that, the alternative could be eliminating affiliates. Recent negotiations, including a round last week in San Diego, have been more cordial, both sides say, than the first several.

“Even in the productive conversations we had recently, we all agreed there are 25 or so teams that are in really bad shape and players shouldn’t play there,” Halem said. “I don’t think it makes sense for every community to have a major league [affiliation]. Many of these communities would be great for an independent league team because they wouldn’t have to meet our facility standards, which are designed to develop a player for the major leagues.”

But Klobosits is among those who wonder: If there were no Auburn Doubledays or Hagerstown Suns as Nationals affiliates, would there still be a Gabe Klobosits as a major league pitching prospect?

“Could Hagerstown use some renovation? Yes,” he said of the Suns’ Municipal Stadium, often cited as one of the minors’ most problematic facilities. “But I think a lot of towns, like Auburn, they thrive on minor league baseball. You take that away, and the economy in that town dwindles.”

Klobosits’s rise from “organizational player” — the phrase often attached to non-prospects who only serve to fill out rosters in the low minors — to legitimate prospect began with the Doubledays. His pitching coach at the time, former Nationals starter Tim Redding, made a tweak to his delivery, building more drive from his lower body, that quickly led to a velocity gain of about 5 mph on his fastball.

“You hear the phrase ‘fresh start’ — I got that fresh start,” Klobosits said. “I went in open-minded and said, ‘No one is going to outwork me.’ I had a chip on my shoulder, and I did everything the Nationals said. Wherever they sent me, I was going to go full-force and try to make it to the top.”

Still, without the large signing bonus to draw from, Klobosits, whose progress was slowed by elbow surgery in 2018, has spent the past three years barely scraping by on a minor league salary that has topped out so far at $6,500. During his three offseasons, he has worked in his hometown of Katy, Tex., as a salesman at a Mitsubishi dealer, an Uber driver and, this winter, a clubhouse attendant at a country club, where he cleans golf clubs and shoes for members.

Baseball's minor leaguers often toil beneath the poverty line

“You can’t live off [a minor league salary]. You can’t work out. You can’t eat right,” he said. “You can’t do the things your team wants you to do.”

But as difficult as his road has been, Klobosits is grateful it was there for him in the first place — and worried it won’t be for the next late bloomer like him who comes along.

“It is a business — I get it,” he said. “You’re not expecting someone past the 20th round to make it all the way [to the majors]. You can kind of understand where they’re coming from. But at the same time, it’s a sad thing to see because so many guys now would be losing out on the opportunity that I got.”

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