Solving MLB’s Balance Problem

Sure, Major League Baseball is worried about the time it takes to play a game. That’s evidenced by some of the proposals that Commissioner Rob Manfred and the players union are negotiating currently, according to ESPN and the Athletic. But Manfred is also worried about some larger issues, including the Houston Astros’ model of stinking it up for several years, stockpiling draft picks, and then winning the World Series or two after the rebuild.

As far as the business model goes it makes all the sense in the world for a team that can pull it off–at least in the long term– because the years of success outweigh the economic damage of years of watching barf.

But, it’s not just one team. Every year there is a competitive imbalance because one or two or three or four teams are intentionally awful. Pretty soon, every fan of the game will have been screwed. And just like we saw after the strike, they will be slow to come back. Sure the numbers may be up, but the percentages are way down compared to previous generations. It’s yet another way for the game to say, “See ya, already dwindling fan base.”

Part and parcel of that, I suppose is the loss of competitive imbalance that tanking brings and baseball isn’t the only sport trying to address it. The NBA is trying to ensure teams play their best players because the league knows a fatal flaw for any sport, even one celebrating 100-plus years as America’s pastime, is the notion by fans that the product they are watching is not the best it could be…on purpose.

It’s almost akin to the Chicago Black Sox scandal of 1919 (happy anniversary, Chicago!). The big difference is only the gamblers knew at the time that Chicago’s players were throwing the World Series. With this latest business model, everybody knows which teams are going to stink pretty early on. But it’s still a bad look for Major League Baseball when one team sucks so badly that it gives the other teams in its division an unfair advantage over teams in another division where there is no tanking taking place.

As for his solution, you’ve got to give Manfred credit for suggesting some out-of-the-batter’s-box thinking. Rewarding successful teams with higher draft picks instead of penalizing them by picking last? I’m not sure of the viability of that plan when you consider that the teams that stink are going to keep on stinking because they’re going to be at the bottom of the list come draft day. On the flip side I’ve always felt that the draft was such an inexact science as to render the top picks fools gold for the teams that picked them. You look at some of the notable number one draft picks in baseball and many of them never sniffed the big leagues. Luke Hochevar? Mark Appel? Brady Aiken? So perhaps it’s not as unfair as it would seem. Maybe it would stir owners to find smarter general managers.

Before some of you pooh pooh the idea, look at the Los Angeles Dodgers. They’re coming off a run of division titles and two World Series appearances. Their farm system is considered one of the best in the big leagues. Compare that to San Francisco which won three World Series titles in five years and has one of the worst farm systems in the big leagues. Put those two teams side by side and Manfred‘s idea doesn’t seem like it would overly penalize a team that is simply smarter than its competition.

Manfred is also proposing a single trade deadline in the first half of the year when the first trade deadline is now.

It’s another interesting thought. It does away with the deadline when a team places a player on waivers and then decides whether or not to match the salary offer put up by another team. I think it could reduce the late-season fire sales by teams that get rid of their best players in exchange for draft picks.

Its likelihood of success is small. It obviously hurts those teams efforts as they attempt to rebuild. But, it seems the success of those teams is minimal, again in part because management is the problem.

And again, such fire sales, I’m sure Manfred knows, hurt attendance as teams lose their star players, especially the homegrown talent: The one final hope that fans have been clinging to. I think it hurts the long-term health and viability of the game when it stars continually bounce from team to team.

It’s one reason I was particularly pleased when Cincinnati did not get rid of Joey Votto. I think the Reds’ moves in the off-season will make them one of the surprises in 2019.

And if they are successful, then maybe some of Manfred’s ideas will find a home in the game.

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