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Major League Baseball is one of the most unique league’s in professional sports because – thanks to its Minor League system – it provides more opportunities for professional players to achieve their dream of playing at the highest level.
There are five levels of baseball in the minor leagues: Rookie Ball, Low A, High A, AA, and AAA. The AA and AAA levels often receive the most attention from the average baseball fan.
The biggest difference between AA and AAA baseball is that AAA is the highest level of the minor leagues and AA is the second highest.
There are several other subtle differences between the two levels that must be discussed in order to fully grasp the landscape of minor league baseball.
Is AA Baseball Really More Competitive Than AAA Baseball?
Technically, AAA baseball is the highest level of competition in the minor leagues, but some people argue that there is often more talent at the AA level.
Many people in professional baseball believe there is more talent at the AA level because that is where many of the top young prospects spend most of their time when in the minor leagues.
It has often been said that the biggest jump for a minor leaguer is from High A to AA because many of the league’s best young prospects play at the AA level. It is typically used as a measuring stick for those young prospects who dominate the lower levels of the minors.
Teams let some of their best prospects hangout on the AA team for longer than some of the other levels.
Once a prospect proves his worth over time at the AA level, he normally gets a short stint in AAA to make sure that his success at AA wasn’t a fluke before being called up to the big leagues.
Sometimes, some of the best prospects skip the AAA level altogether. It is not uncommon for teams to call up players straight from AA. In the past this was not the norm, but it happened enough that it did not surprise anyone when coveted prospects skip the last level of the minors.
However, in today’s game, it is becoming much more common. There were 61 players in 2020 that made a debut in the Major Leagues with no AAA experience.
The pandemic may have had something to do with that as there was no minor league season in 2020 and an expanded 60-man roster, so teams wanted to get their best prospects on the field. This trend is worth keeping an eye on to see whether or not it becomes the norm.
Again, this luxury is saved only for the best of the best in the minor leagues. Guys like Kyle Schwarber, Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton, and Michael Conforto are the types of prospects who make the jump from AA to AAA.
What is the Level of Competition in AAA Baseball?
Many teams view their AAA team as an extension of their Major League team. According to Fangraphs, the average age among players in AAA in 2012 was 28.2. The average age among AA players that year was 23.8.
Many of the players on a AAA team have either spent some time in the Major Leagues and have not performed well enough to stay there or have played several years in AAA without ever making it to the big leagues.
This does not mean that there are not some Major League level prospects in AAA. It just means that those prospects are usually much older and are often overlooked by some of the younger guys in the lower levels of the minor leagues.
It is advantageous for Major League teams to keep experienced players at the AAA level. When the big league team has a spot to fill for a couple weeks due to injury, many organizations prefer to bring up an experienced AAA guy than one of their young prospects in AA.
When this happens, the expectation is that the player will come in, provide some depth for a few weeks, and return to AAA when he is no longer needed. When teams call up their top prospects from AA, they are often looking for them to stay at the big league so long as they can handle it.
All in all, AAA baseball is still a high quality professional baseball league with talented players right on the verge of breaking through to the big leagues.
What is the League Structure of AA and AAA?
Recently, Minor League Baseball went through a restructuring that shook things up a bit with the end goal being increased salaries, less travel, and better working conditions for players.
Thanks to this restructuring, the AA and AAA levels are structured a little bit differently.
The AAA level consists of two conferences: AAA East and AAA West. Within these two conferences, there are divisions. AAA East consists of three divisions (Midwest, Northeast, and Southeast) where AAA West consists of two divisions (East and West).
The AA level consists of three conferences: AA Central, AA Northeast, and AA South. Within each of these three conferences there are two divisions.
In the AA Central and AA South conferences, there are the North and South divisions. The AA Northeast conference consists of the Northeast and Southeast divisions.
While it may be confusing to have all of these conferences and divisions named for their geographical location, one of the reasons for the restructuring of the minor leagues was to decrease the amount of travel among teams, especially at the AAA level.
Before this restructuring, it was nothing for teams to travel from one coast to another week in and week out because the divisions were not geographically aligned. This change happened in an attempt to improve the living conditions of minor leaguers.
While many argue that conditions must still be improved, this is a step in the right direction.
One of the most controversial topics among baseball fans today is some of the rule changes that are being talked about in the MLB.
For some of these potential rule changes, the minor leagues are being used as guinea pigs to test them out before applying them to the big leagues.
For example, in AAA this past season, all teams were required to use bases that were slightly bigger than regulation and covered in a less-slippery surface. This is not one of the most hotly-debated changes as bigger bases do not change how the game is played.
However, in AA, a more controversial rule change was tested. In 2021, all infielders were required to be in the infield dirt when the pitch was thrown. This rule attempts to eliminate the shift where an infielder moves into shallow right field to become a fourth outfielder.
In the lower levels, rule changes such as pitch clocks, limits on pickoff attempts, requirements for pitchers to step off the rubber before they pickoff, and even automated ball and strike systems were implemented.
Time will tell whether or not these new rules make their way to the big leagues.
Does every Major League team have a AA and AAA minor league team?
Yes, every organization in Minor League baseball has one AA and AAA team in the minors. Each team also has a High A, Low A, and Rookie Ball affiliate. In the past, some organizations had more teams than others at the Rookie Ball level, but that has since changed with the restructuring.
Are players required to play in the minor leagues before playing in the MLB?
No, players do not have to play in the minor leagues before making their way to the big leagues although it appears that way because so many of them do. It happened quite a bit in the 50s and 60s, but is very rare today. The most recent player to skip the minor leagues altogether is Chicago White Sox pitcher Garrett Crochet, a relief pitcher from the University of Tennessee who got drafted and went straight to the majors in 2020.
Are Minor League teams owned by their Major League affiliates?
Most Minor League teams are privately owned but share affiliation contracts with their Major League teams.
How much do AA and AAA players get paid?
The minimum salary for a AA player is $600 per week, and the minimum salary for a AAA player is $700 per week. These numbers were increased from $350 and $500 thanks to the MiLB’s new Player Development Contract with Major League Baseball. These are minimum numbers, and players who are more experienced sometimes make more money.
Can Minor League players be on the 40-man roster?
Yes, the 40-man roster is made up of both Major and Minor League players. These 40 players are allowed to be called up to the 25-man roster at any given time. Those 25 players are on the Major League team while the other 15 are dispersed among the minors (usually at AAA and sometimes AA).