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February 3, 2011

The BP Wayback Machine

Baseball's Y2K1 Bugs

by Gary Huckabay

While looking toward the future with our comprehensive slate of current content, we'd also like to recognize our rich past by drawing upon our extensive online archive of work dating back to 1997. In an effort to highlight the best of what's gone before, we'll be bringing you a weekly blast from BP's past, introducing or re-introducing you to some of the most informative and entertaining authors who have passed through our virtual halls. If you have fond recollections of a BP piece that you'd like to nominate for re-exposure to a wider audience, send us your suggestion.

It's only appropriate that we kick off this series with a nod to BP's founder nearly ten years after it ran as a "Daily Prospectus" column on February 21, 2001. As we enter another year clouded by an expiring CBA, it's clear that much about baseball remains the same a decade down the line.

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The dark time between the end of the World Series and the time pitchers and catchers report has mercifully come to an end. Arms have been dragged to Arizona and Florida, and beat writers, pundits, and integrated B2B/B2C Baseball Content Provision Weasels (read: us) are looking to fill space until games start being played. There's a fair number of stock topics that usually serve as fodder for local coverage this time of year, including but not limited to:

  • Can Veteran X return to form?
  • This new free-agent acquisition surely makes us favorites
  • We've got nine guys competing for the #5 starter job
  • The big-market teams are going to roll over everyone
  • How come my Baseball Prospectus hasn't arrived yet? (Canada only)
  • Gosh, this new ballpark is going to be swell
  • The sky is falling
  • We have to stay healthy
  • We'll go as far as our starting pitching takes us
  • The DH still blows
  • There's not enough pitching

Unfortunately for most fans, this is a waning year, meaning the last season before the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires. This results in lots of sportswriters asking lots of PR-trained stakeholders about economic, business, operations, and policy issues, which is something like asking E.F. Codd about the importance of electrolyte balance in gout prevention. So this year, we get a bunch of extra topics and some additional emphasis on salary expenditures. That's yielded some interesting twists on old themes:

The first topic has been adequately addressed by almost everyone except MLB itself. It's a silly idea if its purpose is to address competitive imbalance, and a pretty ineffectual one if the real goal is to gain back some mediascape during football season. Baseball's bylaws and rules are pretty labyrinthine, and the organizations that are successful at working within it will probably have an even bigger advantage if that system is made more complicated. Giving the Minnesota Twins an opportunity to draft Wil Cordero away from Indians is not going to be either a cure-all for competitive imbalance or even a small part of the fix.

Of course, no one's shown me that competitive imbalance even exists, so what the hell do I know? Baseball has a remarkable knack for flailing at non-existent problems and telling people that their product sucks. "We need a new stadium because we're in a crime-infested neighborhood, our team stinks, and we can't afford to sign David Segui to a ridiculous contract. Only through revenue sharing can our rotting carcass of a club continue as a viable entity and continue to employ people like Ron Coomer and Mike Benjamin. But come down to the park and pay $11 for a hot dog and a beer. It's a party, dude. And bring your little rugrats, too."

Contraction

Contraction to 28 teams is a personal favorite of mine. It combines lots of imagined problems with lots of imagined causes, and presents a solution that's either mindbogglingly stupid or emetically cynical, depending on whether you attribute misdeeds to malice or ignorance.

What problems would contraction solve?

  • Diluted or ineffective pitching?

    Please. The available population from which players can be drawn is proportionally bigger than it's ever been. The game has become more offense-oriented thanks to many of the athletic advancements we've seen. Advanced training techniques can add strength and flexibility, which will help hitters marginally more than hurlers. That runs true for most advances, from better lighting to the body armor that should be regulated or banned to laser eye surgery. Dr. James Andrews has been too busy repairing the damage Dallas Green wrought to come up with "TuffCuff--the Ultimate Shoulder Helper!"

    Of course, MLB clubs, noted for their capability to adapt to change, have responded by, well, um, pretty much running pitching staffs the way they always have. What would eliminating the Twins and Expos do? Hell, the Twins have won two World Series over the last 15 years, which is two more than most clubs.

  • Revenue disparity?

    Revenue is generated when people come to the ballpark and when media organizations are interested in broadcasting your games in order to sell ad space. This is more likely to happen if you have a successful team.

    To create a successful team, you need to put quality players on the field. This means being able to identify, acquire, develop, and retain talent. That means hard work, study, and proper, diligent management.

    On a basic level, I fail to see how the elimination of 2/30th of possible revenue streams will be beneficial, unless...

  • Lack of quality blackmail markets?

    Getting closer, but I have my doubts whether or not anyone is this cynical. With Arizona, Tampa Bay, and Denver all flush with MLB franchises, existing clubs don't have that extra bargaining power of The Credible Threat of Relocation in their back pocket. Does anyone believe that Montreal is going to Nashville any time soon? Northern Virginia, maybe, but it's much better to have an artificially tight market for your monopoly product. Having two or three baseball-hungry towns is a nice little kicker to bring to the negotiating table.

There are other non-existent problems that contraction also doesn't solve. Make your own list. It's fun!

Payroll Disparity

What about the fact that Alex Rodriguez makes more than the Pittsburgh Pirates? Shouldn't we be concerned about that?

Well, not really. First off, thanks to some truly shrewd moves, I don't think this is going to be the case. Cam Bonifay has made a succession of truly addled decisions this offseason, serving both to inflate payroll (Derek Bell) and decrease effectiveness (Derek Bell). If clubs are going to spend $15 million on a set of five players, it will often be the case that it makes the most sense to spend $14 million on a superstar, and $250,000 each on guys like Jeff Tam or Chad Bradford who no one knows. Acting optimally with the cash you do have available for payroll will create the ability for you to go out and spend money wisely. Albert Belle will make more than $10 million this year. I'd rather have Jeremy Giambi for about 5% of that.

Chicken Little

Yes, the Yankees are collecting rings. Yes, they have a big payroll. Is it indicative that baseball has systemically changed, and that clubs in small markets can't compete, thus ending baseball as we know it? If so, no one, including the Blue Ribbon Panel experts, has really demonstrated it. As others have pointed out, if Terrence Long doesn't get blinded by an awkward sun, we could be hearing about a renaissance of small-market clubs right now. (Though the idea that Oakland is a small market is laughable to the people who come through the Caldecott every morning.)

The sky is not falling. People are coming to the ballpark, they're watching baseball, and the game on the field is better than it's ever been. We're seeing the start of some tremendous careers, the peak of some of the best players ever, and the exit of inner-circle Hall of Famers like Rickey Henderson and Cal Ripken. Players are bigger, stronger, and faster than they've ever been, and the quality of management in the front offices is going through the process of overhaul that took place in American industry 15 years ago.

Are there problems? Until the management evolution is complete, I'm not sure we can identify what the problems are with any degree of certainty, which is why I'm so fascinated when so many people offer dramatic solutions. Personally, the only danger I see is that egos will get in the way of the negotiations among the owners.

Impending Doom

The CBA ends at the end of this season, and fans are terrified that the 2001 season will be the last baseball they'll see for a while. Unfortunately, I think these fears are somewhat justified. The NBA ownership crushed the league's players like crepe paper, and owners are already posturing and preening about how "We're financially prepared for a work stoppage," as Giants owner Peter Magowan stated last week.

The underlying issue is that the financial payoff if the owners succeed in getting something ridiculous like a salary cap is huge. So there's an incentive for them to try something dramatic.

I'm not sure that it's in the best interest of ownership to get what they want. The NBA and NFL aren't exactly shining examples of the benefits of a salary cap. Salary caps create byzantine processes, and make player personnel moves that much more difficult. A salary cap limits the ability of a businessperson to invest in their own business. If I'm spending $65 million and want Alex Rodriguez for another $25 million, it should be my call whether or not I go get him. Like all investments, I want to make sure it makes sense.

The common thread through all these issues is management. I still don't believe that there's really anything inherently wrong with baseball. I see a group of owners that wants to completely eliminate the risk associated with decision making. They want to be profitable even if they make bad decisions, like signing Derek Bell, Terry Mulholland, Kevin Young, Mike Benjamin, and Pat Meares. As a fan, I don't want to see that. I want to see risk, reward, and accountability, so the best possible game can take place between the lines. I want clubs to get better at finding, identifying and developing talent. That means more Andruw Joneses and fewer Mike Benjamins.

I still contend that there's just nothing major wrong with baseball that proper management and freer talent market can't fix. If you want to pay David Segui $7 million a year, go nuts. I'll pay Roberto Petagine $300,000 and beat you. But as a fan, don't expect me to pay for your mistakes, or hold it against the players just because their compensation is public knowledge. I'm not quite that stupid or jealous, and I know other fans aren't either.

Gary Huckabay is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Gary's other articles. You can contact Gary by clicking here

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