From an outsider's perspective, Trey Nielsen was living the dream.
Of the millions of children across America and around the world who suit up for Little League baseball games, only a select few will one day see all the stars align as their aspirations of becoming a professional ballplayer come to fruition.
Nielsen ascended the metaphorical mountain into affiliated ball. A 42nd round draft pick hailing from Salt Lake City, he rejected a deal with the Cubs in 2010, opting to play for the University of Utah instead. Three years later, the Cardinals selected Nielsen in the 30th round of the 2013 draft. A physical revealed that even without a professional pitch to his name, Nielsen had sustained a tear in his ulnar collateral ligament.
One Tommy John recovery later, Nielsen miraculously burst onto the scene with the Low-A State College Spikes in 2014. He induced a 57.5% groundball rate while striking out 25% of opposing batters en route to a 2.50 ERA. Nielsen earned a promotion to High-A Palm Beach the following season, where his prior success evidently made the 1,200 mile trip with him. In spite of the tougher competition, Nielsen was still able to maintain a 55.4% groundball rate and 2.59 ERA over 111 frames of work.
By this point in time, Nielsen had vaulted inside the top 20 of MLB.com's Cardinals prospect rankings. He continued to work his way through the pipeline in 2016, making his Springfield (Double-A) and Memphis (Triple-A) debuts. Nielsen leapt two steps closer to the summit of the mountain: the 40-man and Major League rosters. That summit was, for the first time in Nielsen's life, truly within a fingertips' reach. As he told StLSportsPage.com, "I spent the majority of the 2017 season in Triple-A, posting some of the best numbers I ever had in my career."
Why then, would a pitcher coming off a 1.65 ERA campaign in Triple-A, hang up his spikes at age 26? Nielsen explained his decision in the aforementioned STL Sports Page post:
For those that have a wife, or a wife and kids, it becomes even harder. Life doesn’t slow down for anyone and it seems to go into warp-speed when you live the baseball life. I remember living in the hotel (which we are required to pay for) during my Tommy John rehabilitation, receiving a check for $124 every two weeks. After my hotel cost was accounted for that was all that I had left. I would have lived outside of the hotel but when you’re a first-year player you don’t have that choice. That’s not to mention I was living in a very high-end place - Jupiter, Fla. Over time, my bank account started to decline rapidly, and reality started to set in that I had to get another job.
Yes, I worked in the offseason but I also had to carry a job into the season just to get by financially. Here I was trying to chase my dream of become a big-leaguer and yet I could not even provide for my family during the chase. I don’t want to hear people say, “Just be grateful you got the opportunity.” I am grateful, very grateful. But those people say that because they fell in love with “the game,” not the business, just like I did. At the end of the day, they turned a game into a business.
What we have here is a young man sacrificing his lifelong dream and career because he couldn't make ends meet as a world-class professional athlete. When I originally pitched this article idea to VEB managing editor Craig Edwards, he correctly reminded me that "baseball is supposed to be one of, if not the most merit-based industries there is when it comes to performance dictating advancement and playing time. When players leave the game for non-performance reasons, it cuts into that, even just a little."
Lawsuits have been filed alleging that Major League Baseball is violating the Fair Labor Standards Act. As Ted Berg of USA Today notes, rookie ball players–who often receive draft signing bonuses of only $5,000–can earn as little as $1,100 a month without overtime pay. Even players reaching the Triple-A level can still receive monthly salaries as low as $2,150 for a season lasting five months. Meanwhile, the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour works out to a monthly income of over $1,250 (assuming 40 hour work weeks), plus those jobs pay 12 months a year. According to 2017 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the minimum annual salary for Triple-A players falls below every poverty threshold regardless of family size and number of children.
The Census Bureau also reported in 2017 that the median household income in the United States grew to $59,039. If we arbitrarily set $50,000 as our hypothetical minimum salary, this would require an additional $40,000 or so per player, or $10 million for an organization with 250 minor leaguers. Lowering the target mark to $40,000 drops the cost down to $7.5 million. Matt Swartz at FanGraphs found the cost of a win in 2017 to be approximately $10.5 million, a figure that will only increase at an estimated 5.9% annual inflation rate. So from a purely economical standpoint, an owner would need to gain less than a win per season to yield a positive cost-benefit analysis by giving their minor league employees a raise.
For starters, creating a stronger financial safety net for players would decrease the odds of "diamond in the rough" prospects falling through the cracks. Many draftees, especially those who can't afford agents, are forced to agree to measly signing bonuses to continue their professional career. For prospects that aren't "bonus babies", as Nielsen referred to them, the decision to go pro currently brings about immense risk. These players could flame out, casting them into unemployment–potentially without a quality education–with little more than a few years of sub-minimum wage income to fall back upon. If professional baseball provided a steady living, a pioneering team could snag a player who otherwise wouldn't sign.
Then there are players like Nielsen, who never play out their careers solely due to the financial burden of minor league baseball. All it would take is one or two of these players making an impact at the MLB level to justify the expenses of keeping their careers alive.
Higher salaries would also result in a more productive player development system as a whole. Luke Voit, who at 26 made his MLB debut for the Cardinals in 2017, had to rely upon his father to purchase his bats until last year. It was only when Voit was called up to St. Louis that he even began renting a car.
Irrespective of whatever claims an MLB attorney or spokesperson may make, training for affiliated baseball is a year round profession. When talented prospects like Nielsen have to work second jobs as a way to pay their bills, their growth as baseball players is obviously being stunted. As Nielsen described firsthand, many minor leaguers lack the time and resources to adequately train at a high level:
Once the offseason honeymoon stage is over, it’s time to get back to work. This means going to the gym, running, stretching, dieting, throwing, hitting, etc. Keep in mind you have to fit this into your daily work schedule, and depending where you live, facilities and training partners can be hard to come by; not to mention that you generally have to be reporting your progress to your organization on a consistent basis. For those who don’t know, minor league players don’t get paid during the offseason, yet there is a high-demand for performance.
When minor leaguers are regularly limited to $25 of per diem food money on road trips and receive no such compensation during the offseason, it becomes difficult for players to maintain peak athletic condition with a nutritious diet. Furthermore, players without access to top notch training resources and sufficient time to get the recommended amount of sleep will see their progression as prospects suffer. The bottom line is that low salaries disrupt minor leaguers’ ability to perform their jobs as effectively as possible.
Nobody is calling for minor leaguers to suddenly become millionaires overnight. Nobody is even saying they need to be particularly affluent. Regardless of whether or not the moral imperative of paying minor leaguers a living wage outweighs corporate interests (in reality the answer is most likely no), higher salaries could correlate to a higher quality on-field product. With pre-arbitration players being more important to roster construction than ever before, the first team to give their minor league players a well-deserved raise is going to reap the rewards of an improved player development system.