Those of you that have frequented this site over the past year may know me for coining such terms as Bi-Polar Betty, Sophie, & Wagonmaker, coming up with the strangest analogies (here & here), and having an unnatural fascination with all things WPA (too many to link all of them). I live behind enemy lines in Waukegan, IL, and have been a jack-of-all-trades in the job market, working in such diverse fields as medical textiles, chemical processing, fast food, outboard motors, retail, and nuclear power.
I don't write for a living & I've never run a blog, so this is my first official post; a big thanks to Larry for giving me this opportunity.
The other night, I happened to catch a Deutsch Bundesliga (German soccer) match between Bayern Munich and Bochum. Bayern Munch is a perennial powerhouse, while Bochum generally bounces between the first and second divisions within the DBL's two-tiered format. Watching this got me to thinking - what would Major League Baseball look like if it was switched to a similar system? A format where the best teams compete in the first division and the lesser squads battle to be promoted to where the big money resides. A format where quality players can be sold between teams, meaning well-run, small-market franchises don't end up watching their young talent walk away. Plus a few other wrinkles while we're in the mood. (I will use the English Premier League for reference.)
After a few hours mulling it over, I realized two things: there's no way I can think long and hard enough to think this all the way through on my own; and this would be a great way for everyone on VEB to kill some productive work hours on a Friday.
A quick synopsis of the Barclays English Premier League (or EPL):
The EPL is the world's most watched sporting league and most lucrative football league, followed by over a billion people. It is widely regarded as one of the best leagues in the world along with Spain's La Liga & Italy's Serie A.
The league was formed in 1992 from the top division of The Football League and is currently contested by twenty clubs. The EPL was started as a response to the top clubs wanting to break away from the rest of The Football League, trying to capitalize on an upswell in the popularity and financial viability in English soccer in the late 80's.
Other European leagues use a similar system to the EPL; there have been 61 different clubs which have participated in Serie A over the last 75 years, with only Inter Milan participating in every season. (Check out Wikipedia's EPL page for further information.)
Obviously, the point of the EPL is to ensure that soccer fans have an opportunity to see the absolute best in English football (and to optimize the money making potential for its best clubs).
How would the MLB system work?
In much the same way, with the only changes (from the EPL structure) being how many teams are in each league and how many move between the leagues. This may appeal to some ownership groups, upset that the lesser teams are siphoning off their profits. This may also appeal to fans who believe that the talent pool has been unnecessarily watered down.
How does the media money work?
The EPL is working with a structure that gives roughly 80% of the money to the Premiership clubs and 20% to the second division. This would probably need to be adjusted (60-40 or 67-33) to help make the MLB structure work (and palatable to the relegated ownership groups). There would also be better stadium, advertising, and associated revenues within the first division. This difference in money and exposure would be an incentive to the 2nd division clubs to push hard to finish at the top of their league.
What teams are relegated to the second division?
Sure to be a much discussed topic; this would be dependent on organizational philosophies. Obviously, teams like the Yankees and the Red Sox, with significant revenue streams, would be able to afford the highly-prized prospects and the young established stars of the 2nd division that are available for sale. Poorly run franchises like Tampa & Kansas City would be doormats of the lesser league. The Twins pose an interesting problem, in that they are a well-run organization that churns out prospects, but resides in a small market. Can they play well enough to stay with the big boys or do they take the profitable route & sell off their young studs? At the opposite end would be teams like the Cubs, well funded but historically less than proficient. Two good discussion points: look back at the 1994 Expos, and the 1997 & 2003 Marlins with their resulting fire sales.
How would free agency & trades work?
Trades would work as they always do, but free agency would be dramatically altered. The EPL (and many other football leagues) use a transfer process where a player is sold from one team to another. This ensures that teams that are good at developing their own players are able to profit from it, instead of watching their homegrown talent leave with only a draft pick as compensation. I'm not sure if is part of their program already, but a percentage of the transfer fee could be given to the player as a further reward for their good play. (See Averill, Earl for historical significance.) Obviously, any player dropped from their club would become an unrestricted free agent and not subject to transfer rules. (One note: unchecked capitalism has resulted in the record for transfer fees in the league skyrocketing from £3.75M in 1993 to £30M in 2006 - how this would be affected by a NYY/BOS-fueled salary escalation is intriguing.)
How does this affect the minor leagues?
I think this could really open up the current structure. The major league teams in both divisions would be limited to three levels of developmental squads, as they would still need injury flexibility and to be able to generate their own talent. But by limiting their pool of available players, the resulting wave of free agents can be scooped up by now-independent minor leagues that can develop those players and sell them to MLB for profit. Also, free up the larger AAA cities - give them a chance to develop their own legacy, not dependent on MLB handouts. (It might open up a situation where a minor league powerhouse, akin to the Baltimore Orioles of the 10's-20's, could supplant a poorly run 2nd division major league franchise. It is a radical possibility, but I think it could ultimately be healthy for the game of baseball.)
How does this affect the draft?
To prevent a 1950's Yankee-style dynasty, where they scoop up the cream of the available amateur talent, or a bonus-baby bidding war, the draft should remain. But it could be adjusted to give a significant advantage to the 2nd division clubs. Give them two passes through the draft order before the Premiership gets a crack at it, and give them an additional round every 4th or 5th. But with the reduced developmental league roster space, limit the draft to 35 players per team. This entire system works well in two ways: it gives a boost to the 2nd division clubs and frees up more players to sign with independent minor leagues.
After reading all of that, we still haven't asked two big questions. First, could this actually work? Theoretically, yes. It's based on a formula that has worked in the past for the world's most popular sport and for its most popular leagues. It is a perfect opportunity to overhaul many aspects of MLB, to filter out the less than desirable portions of this organization. And it would put the best possible product out onto the field. Realistically, there are so many variables, so many strong personalities, & so much resistance to change, that it seems impossible to make even minor changes, never mind a much needed cleansing of the sport. And the total amount (and depth) of change is so daunting that it's easier to think of this premise as if it has already figured itself out.
Second, would it actually improve the sport? I really don't know; the tremendous amount of upheaval required to pull off this change in philosophy and operation has the potential of destroying many franchises, and baseball as a whole. Taking longtime minor league teams and setting them adrift in a "sea of independence." Relegating franchises that have been operating for more than a hundred years, while potentially steering them towards financial ruin. Freeing thousands of young players into a saturated market, where there's no guarantee of proper compensation or a decent chance at making the major leagues. Maybe in the end, this whole shift in thinking and doing things will be productive, but the health of the sport could be touch-and-go in the interim.
Whether it would improve anything or if it would work at all, this is certainly a useful exercise to look at our grand game from a different perspective. To question whether MLB is doing things in the best way possible.
I figure that's enough of a rolling start to get the creative juices flowing. Next week, I want to take another look at the general system, how the money works, and the relegation of certain teams, using the collected comments of the VEB community as a springboard for further discussion. The following week, we can do the same for player transactions, the draft, the minor leagues / developmental squads, and any other useful topics that come out of the conversation.