When the Blue Jays made the decision to increase their Minor League salaries by 50 percent across the board ahead of the 2019 season, they believed they were making a small gesture. It turns out to have made a huge difference.
Four men at the helm -- president and CEO Mark Shapiro, general manager Ross Atkins, vice president of baseball operations Ben Cherington and director of player development Gil Kim -- are or were at one time farm directors. Their goal through raising salaries was to offer a level of comfort and improve players throughout the system.
“We put a lot of thought and effort into creating better environments for players to grow and improve,” Kim said. “We’re emphasizing and educating on the value of better nutrition, better sleep, better recovery and a healthier and more well-rounded lifestyle. We ask a lot of these players, so we felt that the salary increase was one of the ways that we as an organization could help our players access more resources, whether that’s through nutrition, gym memberships, housing facilities, etc.
“We know that the standards and expectations of a professional baseball player are extremely high and that this doesn’t solve all of the challenges players face. Ultimately, we felt this was an important step in the right direction, one that aligned with our values and will hopefully improve the lives and development -- both on and off the field -- of the players here.”
Jackson Rees joined the Blue Jays' organization in June 2018 as a non-drafted free agent out of the University of Hawaii. The bump in salary in his second year of professional baseball was incredibly significant for the 25-year-old right-hander.
“I got a thousand bucks and a plane ticket when I signed, and I didn’t have much money to my name,” Rees said. “And I’ve definitely felt the impact and [the raise] helped me a lot. … I can really just focus on baseball, and I don’t have to worry about where the money’s coming from. Because I can’t wait until possibly the big bump, if I make it to the Major Leagues. So it’s very nice. I know a lot of other guys who don’t have a lot of money are very appreciative of what they’ve done.”
While players agreed that the impact was felt throughout the entire system, they also noted that it might have hit home a little bit more for those who didn’t sign for large bonuses.
“I’d say most of the impact is on the guys like me, late-round picks, undrafted free agents, guys who don’t have that big up-front signing bonus to live off of for a while,” said Graham Spraker, a 24-year-old right-hander who was drafted in the 31st round. “I was signed in 2017 and I got the minimum signing bonus as a senior in college, so juggling the monthly salary was huge for me.
“I wasn’t obviously living like a king during the season this year, but I was comfortable. I was comfortable, and now I’m not really pressured to work the entire offseason: I can actually focus on baseball.”
From the moment the players learned of the increase during the spring to the end of the season, they found themselves talking about it -- first among themselves and eventually with others who wanted to know more -- and hoping the Blue Jays were the beginning of a trend.
“It impacted all of us,” said 24-year-old righty Mike Ellenbest, Toronto’s 24th-round Draft pick in 2016. “We had a big meeting one morning in Spring Training, and [the staff] was hiding something, and we knew it. Charlie Wilson [Toronto’s director of Minor League operations] announced we were going to have a pay raise this year and the whole room went nuts. It was so nice.
“Being [in the Arizona Fall League] with all these other guys from different orgs, they talk about our raise and we talk about paycheques and whatnot, and we’re always talking about how maybe other orgs can jump in. Obviously, the Blue Jays are trying to help us, but maybe they’re trying to start something good here. They’re doing a good job.”
Even for some who haven’t necessarily struggled financially through their time in the Minors -- like 24-year-old righty Maverik Buffo, who was a 34th-round Draft pick in 2017 and spent most of the ’19 season on the injured list -- every little bit made a difference.
“Oh, we absolutely felt the impact,” Buffo said. “Especially in rehab -- that’s where it helped a ton to have a bit extra. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to the Blue Jays for that; it’s huge.
“I’ve always been pretty smart with my money but even now, that’s a huge edge to help out a little bit. This had a bigger effect. It’s a big change, and it helps a ton, because now I could save a little bit more and be smart going into the offseason. … That little bit extra can get you different things and helps take pressure off of you, for sure. It’s nice when you’re not worrying about it. And in this time in our careers, you try not to.”
Added Rees: “Sometimes you’re worried about saving money for some big expense. You never know when you might need a plane ticket or you might need to go do something. Even if it’s not necessarily something important, being able to have the mindset that maybe I could go visit my friends in the offseason, or pay for food throughout the whole offseason, or for training facilities.
“Last year I had to go get a membership at 24-Hour Fitness and that was 40 bucks a month, and that adds up over the five months that I was there. Even though it’s not that much, to me, it’s a lot. So the increase is very, very helpful.”
Helpful, and incredibly impactful for an organization just trying to make a gesture.
“[The impact was] probably bigger than we thought,” Shapiro said. “We were trying to do the right thing. We were taking advantage of an opportunity to examine it, and listening to a lot of advocacy from Gil and from Ben and from [director of baseball operations] Mike Murov, things that Ross and I had dealt with as farm directors over decades as well, understanding that that’s a substandard way for those young men to live; that not many of them get big signing bonuses.
“The life they live is sometimes masked by the few who get those big signing bonuses. We thought it was a small gesture, and we underestimated how meaningful [it was] to many of them. One of the coolest things has been just how many of them have felt so much pride in the organization for doing it.”