Glendale, AZ - OCTOBER 16: Salt River Rafters pitcher Simon Rosenblum-Larson (28) in action during the Arizona Fall League Baseball game between the Salt River Rafters and the Peoria Javelinas on October 16, 2019 at Peoria Stadium in Peoria, AZ. (Photo by Joshua Sarner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

When Major League Baseball owners voted unanimously in September to cover the in-season housing costs of most minor-league players beginning with the 2022 season, the decision was hailed by advocates as a much-needed measure to improve the living standards of baseball’s neglected underclass.

But with minor leaguers just weeks away from reporting to spring training — Major League Baseball’s lockout only affects players on a 40-man big-league roster — there is considerable uncertainty about how the plan will look in practice, according to Simon Rosenblum-Larson, a co-founder of More Than Baseball, a nonprofit advocacy group formed in part to provide assistance to minor leaguers in need.

And while MLB implemented across-the-board salary increases for minor leaguers last season, those raises still fall well short of what is needed to meet basic needs for players, many of whom are trying to support themselves and their families by taking on odd jobs in the offseason.

“We did a survey of a number of players, and the most common answer for offseason job is DoorDash,’’ said Rosenblum-Larson, the director of player personnel for More Than Baseball and a co-founder when the organization was formed in 2020 by a small group of players, including former Mets prospect Jeremy Wolf and former Yankees prospect Slade Heathcott. “Guys are working in warehouses, stocking. They’re doing night shifts at Home Depot. A lot of guys are working construction. Uber. All those types of grocery delivery like Instacart. Jobs that have flexible hours because guys have a hard time working scheduled hours when they have training, and most guys are training 15 to 20 hours a week.

“So they’re working a part-time job for their employer, the major-league team, and getting paid nothing for training.”

Rosenblum-Larson is a Harvard-educated pitcher who was drafted after his junior season at Harvard in 2016. He has spent the last five seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays, advancing as high as Double-A Montgomery last year, but injuries limited him to seven appearances. As director of player personnel for More Than Baseball, he has overseen the distribution of more than $750,000 in financial assistance to over 1,200 minor leaguers, according to its website, with some of its funding coming from direct donations by big leaguers such as Adam Wainwright and Daniel Murphy.

Rosenblum-Larson, who is due to report to Rays camp in March, said he has not received any instructions regarding housing this season from the ball club. However, he praises the Rays as the most progressive in the big leagues with the resources they devote to minor leaguers.

How much communication has he had with the Rays on the topic?

“Basically none,” he said. “I can't speak for other teams, but I've talked to a number of players from a lot of different organizations and nobody's heard anything. We've communicated with teams, we've told them that, you know, we did a player housing survey, we know what players want from their housing, and it doesn't match up with what teams are implementing.”

In a statement to Bally Sports responding to some of the concerns raised about housing and pay by Rosenblum-Larson, MLB said the housing policy remains “a priority” and that it continues to evaluate “all aspects of the player development system.”

“While the housing policy is a substantial endeavor, its successful implementation is a priority for Major League organizations,” the statement read. “Like any new regulations, it is the responsibility of each Club to fulfill the requirements. Because of the policy’s flexibility, Clubs may exceed the minimum standards and adjust based on individual circumstances.

“The goal of the industry is to ensure outcomes that benefit Minor League players and address various issues that predate the (Professional Development League) structure announced in February 2021. We will continue to evaluate all aspects of the player development system and will look to build on the recent improvements.”

Major League Baseball has informed minor leaguers that they will be expected to stay in team housing or pay for their own places in spring training. Last week, Advocates for Minor Leaguers, which has played a significant role in pressuring MLB to effect changes in housing policy, issued a statement calling for players to have the choice of receiving a housing stipend or reimbursement if they don't find the MLB-provided lodging sufficient.

After years of inattention and indifference to the quality of life experienced by minor leaguers, MLB has finally begun to make changes, in part as a response to the public spotlight on the issue cast by advocacy groups, like Advocates for Minor Leaguers and More Than Baseball, and by some players — at the risk of their own careers — who are speaking out about the substandard pay, housing and nutrition they have had to endure while trying to forge a path to the big leagues.

"It's gotten to the point now where there are guys who are in a serious mental health crisis because of how stressful money is here," Angels Double-A pitching prospect Kieran Lovegrove told ESPN’s Joon Lee last July while describing how he was living with six other teammates in a three-bedroom apartment, with one player sleeping in the kitchen.

Lovegrove, who called out Angels owner Arte Moreno by name, later told The Athletic’s Sam Blum that his speaking out had achieved its purpose.

“It shattered the illusion a lot of people had about what professional baseball is,” Lovegrove said. “That was the goal. It was to make people realize that things can change, absolutely. There’s no financial constraint that means that we can’t have a basic living wage.”

The 'huge return' MLB would get on its investment

Last year, MLB raised minimum salaries at every level of the minor leagues: from $290 weekly to $500 in High and Low-A ball, from $350 weekly to $600 in Double A, and from $502 weekly to $700 in Triple A. That means, for six months of work, players were paid $12,000 minimum in Class A, $14,400 in Double A and $16,800 in Triple A.

Then, in November, MLB outlined its new housing plan, which called for:

  • Housing options at a “reasonable” distance from the ballpark
  • Bedrooms providing for a single bed per player, with no more than two players per bedroom
  • Furnished residences, with basic utility bills paid
  • Hotel rooms where other options were not feasible

Picking up housing costs, which will impact roughly 90% of minor leaguers, offers a measure of financial relief in addition to the salary increases. But Rosenblum-Larson expressed skepticism about what the housing mandates will look like in practice.

“There's basically no general understanding among players about what to expect come spring,” he said. “Teams are given basically, leeway to do it all differently. In general, that means you're going to do it as cheaply as possible. We know that.

“As the MLB memo has said, teams can put two players in a room, right, so you can have 25-year-old guys with wives and kids sharing a room with another guy. They don't need to have AC in the units. They can be hotel rooms, if the team can't find other housing. So, I mean, generally the answer is that teams are gonna cut corners. They’ve always done that. Why would they not continue to do that.

“Furthermore, teams don't have staff committed to this. So to find housing for 200 guys (per team) is a chore. It’s a challenge. And teams are not hiring new staff to do it. So what that also means is that they're going to even further cut corners because they just don't have the manpower to make it happen.”

Rosenblum-Larson acknowledges that he enjoyed advantages many other minor leaguers did not. As a 19th-round draft pick, he received an $85,000 signing bonus, a modest amount compared to the signing bonuses of first-rounders that he has long since spent, but it helped defray some expenses. His education has afforded him offseason office jobs that pay him considerably more than many of his peers.

But he also has first-hand experience with the indignities of minor-league life as well — the low pay (a grand total of $3700 his first year of pro ball, and breaking the $10,000 threshold one season because he played in the Arizona Fall League, where players are paid at the Triple-A rate of $2,000 a month), sleeping “three inches away” from a teammate in a host family’s home on a rickety cot that would routinely collapse during the night, and later sharing a three-bedroom house (with a married player and his wife, another teammate and his girlfriend, and a dog) with most of his pay that summer going toward rent, utilities and his cellphone.

It’s frustrating, Rosenblum-Larson said, that MLB has not solicited input from players in crafting their housing policies.

“We've communicated with teams, we've told them that we did a player housing survey, we know what players want from their housing,” he said. “It doesn't match up with what teams are implementing. First of all, like there's no coverage for players with families. There's literally nothing for them. There is no option for players who want to find their own apartment to get a stipend or something. They're basically told if you don't take team housing, (you’re on your own). Team housing would require having a roommate.”

Even before MLB put in place its new housing policy, some teams already had taken it upon themselves to offer assistance. The Astros, for example, paid for fully furnished apartments for their minor leaguers. The Phillies, Giants, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Mets and Nationals were among the other teams that issued housing stipends.

“The housing thing, I think is a net positive,” Rosenblum-Larson said. “It's a very good thing that MLB is going to be paying for housing. (But) players should be given some input on what that system looks like. Nobody, nobody was consulted. Not a single player was talked to as far as I know. And players notice that. That's all I want is for players to have some input on changes in minor league baseball.”

It’s pretty self-evident that the real game-changer for minor leaguers would be for MLB to create a salary structure for minor leaguers that goes beyond last year’s modest increases, which still left many players falling short of a livable wage.

For the purposes of an exercise showing how much that would cost big-league teams, Rosenblum-Larson uses a ballpark estimate of $8,500 as an average salary for roughly 6,000 minor leaguers. That comes out to a total of $51 million. Let’s say MLB bumps up the average salary to $25,000, which would cost $150 million, a difference of $99 million. Divide that by 30 teams, and what do you get? An added burden of about $3.3 million.

“About what it would cost to sign one free-agent outfielder,” Rosenblum-Larson said.

The reality, though, is that minor leaguers have little to no leverage to affect such a significant change. They are not unionized, never mind belonging to a powerful union like big-league players have.

“There's no incentive to pay any more,” Rosenblum-Larson said. “They know that players are still gonna show up.”

When 70% of minor-league players believe they are going to make it to the major leagues, the number identified by More Than Baseball’s surveys, most are willing to put up with conditions they would find unacceptable in other circumstances, even if the reality is that fewer than 10% will ever make it. But make it to the big leagues, and you could be set for life.

“The public is not going to say anything,’’ Rosenblum-Larson said. “Fans don't care. So why would teams (change). It helps their bottom line.

“(But) we know that players will perform better if teams pay them. Like that is an absolute, we understand that. We also know through our own research as an organization that, if teams pay players more, they're going to spend it on their development. We asked players what they would do with $1,000 more a month and they said basically three things. They would spend it on better food. They would spend it on training. They would spend money to go train at a good training facility in the offseason. And they would spend on rent and bills.

“We're not talking about guys getting paid to go blow their money on fancy vacations and things like that. Guys are not going to do that. We have the research (and) we have the data to back it up. They’re going to spend their money on basic needs, like a place to sleep, good food that can help them develop their bodies. They're going to spend on baseball, on getting better. I think it would give teams an enormous advantage if they started paying their players better, because they will see increases in a player’s capacity to develop. They could get a huge return on their investment if they started paying players better.”

The Rays, Rosenblum-Larson said, have proven to be one of baseball’s most progressive teams in terms of their player development, spending more money on food and nutrition, mental health, sleep, hydration and basic support. That has paid dividends in the number of prospects who have made an impact on the major-league level.

But the entire industry, he said, could benefit if the players were paid better.

“Imagine the return if you get one more Juan Soto on your team,” Rosenblum-Larson said. “You get one more, you know, Ronald Acuna Jr. You get one more Ozzie Albies. You get one more Javy Baez. You get one more Mike Trout. You get one more young star player.

“The return on that investment is insane. And it's practically nothing.”

Featured Podcast

See all