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February 18, 2003
Could Relegation Work?
I get a lot of e-mail suggesting that baseball should use European-style relegation/promotion to encourage teams to compete. People suggest it to me in bars. I've read it in columns by otherwise sensible baseball writers. It is easily the most impractical idea anyone has proposed to solve some of baseball's problems, and I am baffled by its continued popularity.
Let's say that basketball decides to do something even more radical, and every year they're going to turn the NCAA Division I college with the best record into a professional team, and the Nuggets have to go into the amateur business and start a university.
But wait, that's ridiculous, you say. Those players don't have professional contracts. Where would they play? They've graduated, would they then have to stay with the same team? Who would pay these new salaries?
Uh huh, yup, you're right. And those are only some of the problems that relegation in baseball faces. But I want to take a concrete approach to showing the barriers to this course.
Let's say that baseball implemented a modest form of relegation to begin after the 2002 season. One team from each league is relegated. Then one team from each Triple-A league is promoted. I chose that method because it seems fairer that way, but what happens next is applicable no matter how you divvy up the joy and pain.
The two teams in 2002 would be Milwaukee (56-106) and either Tampa Bay or Detroit (55-106), with the tiebreaker being Tampa Bay's 2-4 record against Detroit, and the team's distinguished record of sustained, general haplessness.
The two teams from Triple-A that would be promoted would be the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons (91-53 in the International League) and the Las Vegas 51s (85-59 in the Pacific Coast League).
Changing ownership isn't really a big issue, as most high-level minor league teams have different owners than the parent team's. The Las Vegas 51s, for instance, are owned by Mandalay Sports Entertainment, the same company that runs the Mandalay Pictures film studio. Since the Mandalay Web site offers only a soothing picture of nature and a motto ("New concept. New content. A new beginning"), I looked up company info on the Dayton Dragons site, another minor league affiliate they run, and found this: "In a short period, MSAE has forged a diversified business relationship with one of the hottest sports entertainment properties in the industry, World Championship Wrestling."
Divisional alignments would also have to be resettled every year. In this example, the NL Central loses a team and the AL East loses a team. There are a couple of ways to rebalance the divisions after that point. The Red Barons could join the AL East, replacing the Devil Rays, and the 51s go to the NL West, which then gets five teams and the NL Central drops to five. That doesn't work out too badly, though there would be scheduling quirks almost any way you slice it, unless you realign every year or have teams wildly out of their geographical divisions.
Over the long term, there's another issue with location. Almost all the International League teams would take place in the East divisions. The Pacific Coast League, despite its name, offers a little more distribution, reaching out to Nashville, Memphis, and New Orleans. Still, half of its teams would normally play in West divisions. Meanwhile, many of the worst teams in baseball that would be weeded over the next few years would likely come from the two central divisions.
These two minor league teams don't have major-league stadiums. The Red Barons play in Lackawanna County Stadium, which seats just under 11,000 and features a bad-looking turf field (or, at least, one that doesn't photograph well). The 51s play in 9,000-seat Cashman Field, which looks like a nice, small, non-HOK-designed minor league ballpark.
The average major league baseball team drew about 30,000 fans per home game. If you figure that the newly promoted teams wouldn't draw that, instead take a small-market, bad franchise that's been demoralizing their fan base for years -- the Kansas City Royals. They drew 17,000 a game, or 6,000 more than could be held at the larger of these two stadiums.
That might not be a problem, though, because they might not draw that many. According to the 2000 Census figures I've got, Las Vegas is the 31st-largest metropolitan market in the U.S., trailed by Wilkes Barre-Scranton, Pa. at No. 63. Milwaukee's the smallest market with a major league team, and it's No. 26 on this list. (I always forget how large the Sacramento metro area is (No. 24, 1.8 million people) until I see it listed on these things.)
So it's the end of 2002. There are two new major league teams, one in Las Vegas and another in Scranton. Both play in small, low-capacity stadiums.
There's the matter of contracts. The big league clubs pay all of the salaries, the insurance, the coaches and the trainers--anyone who puts on a uniform belongs to the big club. The 51s players are under contract to the Dodgers, they just happen to be playing in Las Vegas. A micro-etched Tommy Lasorda smiling face is the watermark on their paychecks. The Dodgers own the rights to all these players. So if the Dodgers were looking at having the 51s join the majors and compete with them, they'd reassign every player worth anything to the big club in September or push them down to Double-A.
But let's say everyone who's on the 51s roster and not on the Dodgers 40-man comes up with the team. That means the 51s lose:
That's pretty devastating--they're losing their offensive core and a starter who did pretty well for them. Now you could make it so they'd be able to keep all their players. You could also try to concoct a way for the 51s to get the newly demoted major league team as their Triple-A team, including that team's players and its entire farm system--but of course the odds of those things happening are non-existent. Teams have entered into long-term deals with their minor league franchises, and not to give Bud Selig ideas, but the only way to do anything like this is to have minor league affiliates sign their deals with MLB and then have MLB shuffle them around as it sees fit.
It's also ridiculous to think that the Red Barons, for instance, should be able to fluke into a major league promotion and immediately be able to consolidate their position by looting all of the talent Tampa Bay drafted, paid, and developed. Yes, both Devil Ray prospects, I know, it's an awful blow. No matter how MLB rigs it, though, the newly promoted team is almost certainly going to have way too many holes to patch before the next season.
The 51s and Red Barons will try to sign free agents to patch their problems, but they'll have no money to sign anyone. They'd also have to staff the front office top to bottom starting from scratch. Minor league teams have GMs and front offices, but these are marketing positions--more akin to being the manager of a local Kinko's or a novelty restaurant than anything a major league GM does. They don't have scouting staffs or contract lawyers. They don't understand the waiver wire, or options.
If they were smart and really wanted to make a run of it they'd run onto the Net and offer short-term consulting gigs to non-affiliated talent evaluation guys and statheads, and form an amateur brain trust to try and keep the team above water until they'd built a solid organization. (Which actually wouldn't go that badly, now that I think about it, as long as you were careful to hire good people who could work together. Interested teams can contact me at the address at the bottom of this article for our consulting rates.) But that's another barrier -- it takes time and money to assemble these teams, and that's time and money that a newly promoted team doesn't have.
These teams also don't have major league media deals. The Mariners beam a signal to every citizen in the Pacific Northwest from lovely Portland, Oregon to beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia and shake each one down for $5 a head. By contrast, the Triple-A team in the same market, the Tacoma Rainiers, loses money on its media rights: they buy the airtime for games on radio and try and make the money back by selling advertising. Minor league clubs make their money on parking and concessions, and that's about it. As a major league team the 51s and Red Barons get a new share of the national media deal (presumably -- there would be contract issues here, too), but that's only a couple million dollars, barely enough to pay each member of a 25-man roster the major league minimum.
Without being able to house large crowds, the teams also aren't going to be able to make a ton of money on concessions, and they're going to miss out on the sweet suite funds the HOK facilities generate as well. At an average ticket price of $10 and selling out every home game (and, uh, no playoff revenue), the Red Barons would make all of $9 million, the 51s a little over $7 million.
Ignore all that: the legal entanglements, the problems of talent and organizations, the money. How would these teams perform, assuming contract issues didn't prevent them from keeping and paying their players?
The Triple-A-to-majors difficulty multiplier is around .860, which means if I hit a park-adjusted .500 in Triple-A, I should hit around a park-adjusted .430 in the majors (cough cough). Now with some quick napkin calculations:
Now, that's in a 144-game Triple-A season, so we have to multiply those out to a 162-game season (*1.125) and then difficulty-adjust the numbers. In the majors, the 51s score 751 runs, and allow 924 runs. The Red Barons score 659 runs, and allow 689 runs. That puts the 51s ahead of the team they replace, the Devil Rays (who were 673-918). The Red Barons? They would have been the 26th-ranked team in MLB scoring (ahead of Pittsburgh), and about 6th in runs prevented (behind the A's), which I think tells us more about their home park, despite the artificial turf, than it does about their competitiveness.
A quick Pythagorean calculation puts the 51s at 66-96, and the Red Barons at 78-84. It's shocking to contemplate that any Triple-A teams might be more competitive in the majors than many existing franchises, but there it is, staring back at me.
As I look at those records, I'm struck by another absurdity of relegation under the current system. A team with a farm system that has a great level of talent--say, the Indians--is rebuilding. While the minor league players are developing, the major league team's manned by stopgaps. Since the Triple-A team faces far lesser competition, it's not outrageous to think that the Indians could be eclipsed by their own minor league team. Then the next year, they'd have to field their best team in Triple-A to get the money-generating Jacobs Field back in the majors for the good of the whole organization. Then the major league team would have to punt to make sure they had the worst record, and, well, wasn't the whole idea conceived to eliminate teams that aren't competitive?
Football in Europe is built from the local level up. Pretend I live in a small town in Washington. My town of 5,000 would have a team composed of people from my area and local semi-pros, we'd play on a field with some bleachers, and we'd all wear team gear and our team would face off against the town of 3,000 down the highway. Then there'd be Redmond, with a population of around 40,000, which has more money and better local sponsors, and they'd probably have a larger, higher-division team, and a much nicer stadium, and I'd hate them. They'd face other similar-sized cities in western Washington, maybe Bremerton and Olympia. Then there'd be Bellevue, with 100,000 people, and they might be even better off. Seattle would field the largest team, but even then, individual neighborhoods would all have their own, smaller teams. The Seattle metropolitan area wouldn't have three teams, as it does today (Seattle Mariners, Tacoma Rainiers (Triple-A), Everett Aquasox (short-season A-ball), it'd have 20, 40, or more, all sizes and colors, from the major league team to amateur teams even Bower could crack.
As each of these teams did well, they could build their own stadiums and aspire to the advanced leagues, having assembled their teams independently by hiring away talent from other teams, building their fan bases and revenue streams. Relegation becomes easy. Teams that intelligently and aggressively build the product could move up, poorly run teams would eventually lose too many games and move down.
For baseball to be able to implement relegation, it would require an utter destruction of baseball as we know it today: every minor league freed from MLB, and a vast network of pro and semi-pro teams. Instead of rigidly organized affiliates for the purpose of developing players, teams would have to place players they have rights to at an appropriate level to avoid scavengers, while implementing an entirely new player development strategy, from coaching to advancement schedules.
It requires a country raised on baseball at every level, where baseball is not just called the national pastime but is indisputably the nation's sport. It'd have to reach the same level as football has in Europe, where the fan base supports such a massive, largely anarchic structure.
As a devoted fan of baseball, I'd love to see this country be as obsessed with baseball as I am. It'd be fascinating to see what kind of talent comes percolating up through the system when many more players pick up a bat or take the mound after high school or college--guys who today wouldn't get drafted. I'd like to be able to catch the local squad down the street and experience the kind of attachment we really only see today in the remaining neighborhood stadiums of Fenway and Wrigley. I'd give one of my Will Clark rookie cards to see teams face competition in their own backyards, so a sandbagger like Jeffrey Loria would only have so long before an upstart would steal his lunch. To see the rise and fall of franchises next to each other--that's the stuff rivalries to savor are made from.
But baseball is not the subject of insane, year-round national devotion. And because MLB currently does such an awful job marketing itself, it won't become that kind of obsession any time soon. There is no move toward freeing the minor leagues from the yoke of MLB, and there are too many legal and competitive issues to resolve before it could even be considered. Relegation will remain an impossible solution for the foreseeable future.
Derek Zumsteg is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.