Manfred: MLB `flexible’ on minor league cuts, irked by talks

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              Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during the Major League Baseball winter meetings Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
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SAN DIEGO (AP) — Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred countered outcry over Major League Baseball’s proposal to chop 42 farm teams by challenging the minors Wednesday to “move off the take-it-or-leave-it status quo approach” to their ongoing negotiations.

MLB and the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues are negotiating a minor league agreement to replace the contract expiring after the 2020 season. MLB has proposed cutting more than a quarter of its 160 affiliates, citing concerns over the quality of facilities, travel and salaries for players.

Minor League President Pat O’Conner delivered an impassioned speech defending the minors to team executives at these winter meetings, and fans from small towns across the country have been outraged to see their teams listed as being on the chopping block. Manfred has even been roasted on Twitter by presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

Manfred said MLB “will remain flexible” in negotiations and is asking the NAPBL to do the same.

“This has been portrayed as a decision that has been made,” Manfred 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 maintained big league owners are concerned about keeping baseball in non-major league communities, pointing to the hundreds of millions of dollars MLB subsidizes annually to aid minor league operations. The proposal includes plans to keep independent franchises in communities that lose affiliated clubs.

“Having said that, our players deserve to play in facilities that are up to grade,” he said. “They deserve to have reasonable travel limitations. They deserve to be paid fairly.”

Minor league players make as little as $1,100 per month over the five-month season, paid entirely by their major league affiliate. MLB successfully lobbied Congress to exempt minor leaguers from federal minimum wage laws in 2018. Congress put the “Save America’s Pastime Act” onto page 1,967 of a $1.3 trillion spending bill.

By comparison, the major league minimum is $563,500 next year, and the top players make over $30 million annually.

Manfred became testy when asked why improving minor league salaries was being offered as a defense of the proposal.

“Obviously there is a way to pay people more without reducing the number of franchises,” Manfred said. “I think the question there becomes who should bear all of the costs associated with the player-related improvements that we think need to be made in the minor league system.”

Manfred said discussions between the negotiating committees have been “a little more positive,” but added that “some of the activities that have been undertaken by the leadership of Minor League Baseball have been polarizing in terms of the relationship with the owners.”

Four members of Congress formed a Save Minor League Baseball Task Force, and O’Conner has met with them. He has also been outspoken in his criticism of MLB’s proposal.

“It seems to me that minor league baseball’s future is under an existential threat as we negotiate this next baseball agreement,” he told executives in his speech this week, according to ESPN.

“I think they’ve done damage to the relationship with Major League Baseball,” Manfred said. “And I’m hopeful that we will be able to work through that damage in the negotiating room and reach a new agreement.

“You know, when people publicly attack a long-time partner after they’ve committed to confidentiality in the negotiating process, usually people don’t feel so good about that.”