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January 23, 2000

Prospectus Roundtable

All hail Czar Bud

by Baseball Prospectus

On Thursday, baseball's owners signed a resolution that gave Commissioner Bud Selig significant power to make unilateral decisions to restore competitive balance. While Selig did not immediately go Robin Hood on the likes of George Steinbrenner, this decision has many ramifications for the game, both on and off the field.

Joe Sheehan: It's an ownership end-run around themselves. Bud Selig now has all the power, meaning the upcoming labor brawl is going to be between him and Don Fehr directly. The potential outcomes alluded to--dictatorial revenue reallocation, mostly--are extreme solutions that are never going to get past MLBPA challenges.

But this was basically a move that appointed Selig head of the owners' negotiating team. There's no reason to listen to anyone else at this point.

Chris Kahrl: I'd go back to what I said in the Brewers essay in Baseball Prospectus 1999: we're just getting started. The fun thing about life under Czar Bud is that while he rules with the iron fist of consensus, he's also more likely to wield the commissioner's power effectively and directly. Yes, he's going to pull his share of boners, drawing on years of the reactionary thoughtlessness that come with being an owner. (The "can't please anybody at any time" decision to have John Rocker "tested," for instance.) But, in Sandy Alderson and Paul Beeston he's got a pair of popular henchmen who will help smooth things over.

As far as labor negotiations, I think we're better off with Selig being in a position of direct responsibility. Once and for all, the union loses the maneuvering room to pussyfoot around and not take a lockout threat seriously because some idiot like Fay Vincent thinks he's empowered to hose his employers. Meanwhile, the owners don't have the comfort zone of operating through their usual fall guys: the lame lawyers or Dick Ravitches or other flunkies, all of whom get discarded once the union reminds the owners they don't have much use for this sort of organizational shell game. Face-to-face, mano y mano labor negotiations from beginning to end are finally here, and it's about time.

I am concerned about Selig's willingness to erase trades. There's very little doubt that he wanted to in 1998 during the Marlins' purge. Depending on the point at which he might have done that, he could have created a huge scandal by putting a major wallop on Wayne Huizenga's checkbook before the trash man finally bailed out. The only thing the game would have gotten out of it was another couple of black eyes and a fistful of lawsuits from the aggrieved Huizenga.

Under an economic system with real revenue sharing, there might be more reason for the commissioner's office to prevent salary dumps. Owner rhetoric aside, enhanced revenue sharing should guarantee profitability, as much as you can guarantee such things. At that point, the commissioner's office might deserve to have a big stick to guarantee that teams are doing their level best to put a solid team on the field. The alternative is that you could end up with Cal Griffith/Bob Short/Charlie Finley profit-driven management, owners who settle for that guaranteed profitability without spending anything on player development or acquisition.

Jeff Bower: A point that you've already reached, to a degree, with the Pohlad Twins and the pre-Loria Expos. There's no doubt that those teams have been profitable the last few seasons, and they aren't plowing the revenue-sharing monies back into player development and acquisition. Draft-pick signability is as much an issue as talent come June.

CK: The Twins are spending more money nowadays as far as player development. They aren't where they were five years ago, and they've started up a Dominican academy, as well as a concerted effort in Australia.

Dave Pease: The "small-market" mentality that Selig frequently exhibits could have some ugly ramifications if he can't control his veto hand. Luckily, Selig doesn't seem all that inclined to do the "popular" thing, as the Rocker situation so elegantly underscores. I'd much rather have a powerful commissioner who operates on his own essentially random gyros--however slipped they might be--than one who is blown in the direction of popular opinion like a politician.

Just think of all the people that thought the Randy Johnson Astros deal was intolerable and a something-for-nothing dump last year. Yeesh.

Jeff Hildebrand: Exactly the trade I had in mind. Popular opinion doesn't seem to recognize the legitimate "trade a good player for prospects" trades, so if those sorts of trades get vetoed, then some smarter teams are actually going to get screwed over in a big way. Another interesting example is the White Sox "white flag" trade of 1997, which I suspect would have been vetoed. Although maybe not, since it was Selig's buddy Jerry Reinsdorf.

I'm not sure what this means for the upcoming labor negotiations. It looks like they've finally conceded that revenue sharing is independent of a salary cap or any such structure. Somehow, I doubt that will stop them from trying to impose one, but they'll have to use a different argument.

I think the big key is whether Selig is looking for a fight and a chance--a damn slim one, in my opinion--to break the union, or whether he's decided to take an incremental gains approach, getting small givebacks here and there. If he takes the latter approach I suspect we may be looking at a short lockout or strike, but not much more. If he wants a fight, this could be worse than 1994.

Keith Law: My take on the trade-vetoing power is that there's significant moral hazard involved. In any fair trade, 28 owners will oppose it, and in some, 29 will. I mean, that's the point. So why even open the door a crack to de facto leaguewide voting on trades?

CK: Worse yet, what if MLB decides to circumvent this moral hazard by electing some collection of official bozos to review deals to decide whether or not a team is getting value in a deal? It's already been made plain that they've used arbitrators who didn't know squat about baseball, and they've already made the mistake of letting Elias dictate compensation for free agents. I would hate to see the same sort of "expert" silliness intrude into whether or not a trade can be made.

What's been interesting about media response to Selig's new power is that every story I've seen harkens back to when Bowie Kuhn decided to drive Charlie Finley out of business, as if that was somehow a high point in the history of the commissioner's office. I think the critical element here is that this power was granted to Czar Bud, and not to the commissioner's office. Once Czar Bud is gone, if the new guy doesn't walk into the office with the same reputation for slow, secretive consensus-building, the owners will simply change the rules back to prevent another Fay "Mad Dog" Vincent scenario.

JH:Just to throw another topic out there, I think that the coronation of Bud as the King (as touted for years by Anheuser-Busch Brewing Co.) pretty much guarantees that the DH is dead, probably as part of the next contract negotiation. The American and National Leagues exist as nothing more than names on paper, Selig wants more interleague play and a 25th man is a lot cheaper than a starting DH. All those add up to kill what started with Ron Blomberg over 25 years ago.

CK: I don't have a serious problem with dumping the DH. While I think offense is good, there are enough teams doing dumb things with their DH situations over the years that I'd rather just dump it. On a certain level, I'd hope that dumping the DH would create competitive pressures on bad first basemen. When is enough Paul Sorrento or Rico Brogna or David Segui too much? The GMs who commit to those guys would be hurting even more than they already are when their betters can pick up better options, and I see that as a good thing.

KL: I have a feeling Fehr and Gene Orza won't give that up so easily. If it goes, it's as a bargaining chip to extract several pounds of OwnerFlesh(tm) in the next negotiations. You know, like forcing them to add six more teams ("up next on FX: the World Champion New York Yankees take on the Tulsa Dust.").

CK: Is it just me, or is Czar Bud's idea of all Internet monies going to "small-market" teams about as handy as saying the commissioner's office will insist on sending free staplers to the 10 least profitable franchises?

DP: Hey, come on...that's just like giving the small-market teams a stake in a kewl dot-com IPO. Think of it: in 10 years, with a bit of luck, the CyberRoyals could acquire the Yankees in an all-stock deal!

CK: I think we've finally hit on the formula that will make Herk Robinson Time's Man of the Year.

Related Content:  Bud Selig,  The Who,  Labor Negotiations

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