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Saturday, June 11, 2011

MLB To Realign?

Apparently the topic has come up in the talks over a new collective bargaining agreement.

The plan would be to have two fifteen-team leagues (with possibly the Astros moving to the AL to form a natural rivalry with the Rangers), and then you'd have 5 playoff teams from each league, dispensing with the divisions. That structure would avoid a few bad results of recent years, where a more worthy team that finished say second in the wild-card race lost out on a playoff spot to a division winner who barely had a .500 record (I think this occurred with the NL West a few years ago). What it will not do, of course, is mimic the English Premiership soccer league by forcing the worst three teams in each league into AAA and then elevating the best three teams. The new structure also won't help teams like Baltimore, Kansas City and Pittsburgh suddenly improve.

That said, the new structure would offer hope for teams like Baltimore and Toronto, who are stuck in a division with high-spending New York and Boston. There's nothing to say that were they to have a record that wasn't as good as that of the Yankees or Red Sox but that was among the top five that they couldn't make the playoffs. Under the current structure, no matter how good they would be, they would be out of luck. I am pretty certain, though, that concerns about high-performing AL East also-rans and their potential for making the playoffs hasn't driven this discussion.

Change is challenging. The proposed changes are, among other things, not only this new format but also adding a fifth playoff team. The details for the structure of the playoff aren't clear, but it had been reported that if there were to be a fifth wild-card team added to the divisional format, the two wild-card teams would have a very short (perhaps 1-game) playoff series. Under the proposed new structure, there wouldn't be divisions, but the only way to get to a "Final Four" in each league would be to have the fourth and fifth teams in a playoff. If the powers that be are not willing to shorten the regular-season schedule, you could have the World Series in early November, and that's not appetizing for the sport as a whole and fans in the Middle Atlantic region and New England in particular.

Still, it's good to change things up every now and then, but all this talk of restructuring belies a major flaw in MLB that could haunt it in years to come -- the lack of a salary cap. The union detests it, but practical economics might compel it. The simple reason is this -- there will be a pronounced need to prop up the teams that perennially will not be among the top half in payroll. Statistics have shown that while spending in the top half doesn't guarantee a winner, your chances of making the playoffs are much less than if you do spend in the top half. Which means that if the economy gets tougher, perhaps there' s another recession, perhaps we hit either a deflationary or inflationary spiral, discretionary spending might take a hit. Which means that the teams that seemingly hang in there on a thread because they offer a product that cannot make the playoffs, well, those teams might not hang in there any more. Sure, the "bankruptcy" word seems incompatible with professional sports, as there is always some newly minted billionaire who might not blowing hundreds of millions of dollars for a trophy. It's hard to argue with that. But it's also hard to argue with teams that are tantamount to the Washington Generals, trying to hang in there year after year with mostly empty ballparks, relying on a few good gates when close by, winning teams visit and bring fans (see, for example, the gates in Pittsburgh and Washington when the Phillies are in town or the gate in Baltimore when the Yankees are in town). Without a salary cap, those teams' mission could become futile, and, yes, under the right circumstances, they could disappear. At some point there won't be a point to fielding a team that just has no chance of making the playoffs.

MLB needs a full roster of teams so that they can have a full season, but it needs to give fans and future fans (young people) a chance to see the hometown team win. What are the owners' and union's suggestion for this outside a salary cap? Revenue sharing doesn't seem to have worked, and the NFL's model suggests that in any given year a poorly performing team can turn its fortunes around pretty quickly and become a winner. MLB is more complicated, because in football you don't need to groom players in a farm system the way you do in baseball. But, if you had a salary cap, the best teams would have to do more than outspend the small-market teams. And then things would get interesting.

One friend in business has suggested that you don't need panels of smart people to come up with new, brilliant ideas. Sure, MLB can create committees to study this, but they can do something much simpler -- copy the NFL's model, because it works. If they were to do that, they'd have a more vibrantly competitive league, instead of one that depends upon big-market teams and the best-heeled owners. It would be great for the Pirates and Royals to contend again, and it would be great for fans everywhere if their team had a legitimate chance. Sure, there are some owners who will continue to botch it, but you might even draw more and better owners if they knew that they would compete in spending on players on a level playing field, regardless of how much revenue their media networks can generate.

The powers that be in MLB are focusing on the deck chairs.

They should be focusing on the ship.

And not just steering it, but considering whether it needs an overhaul.


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