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January 24, 2001

An Unbalanced Idea

The Competitive Balance Draft

by Joe Sheehan

After allowing it to lay dormant for five months, Bud Selig dusted off the report of his Blue Ribbon Committee and announced plans to implement some of the changes it suggested. The one that received the most attention was the so-called competitive balance draft. As presented by Selig, the draft would allow the teams with the worst records over the previous three years to select one player each from the teams with the eight best records over the same period.

The draft's purpose is to address the game's supposed competitive balance problem, that being the current code for "the players make too much money." Those of you who have followed the game's labor struggles will remember past codes like "meaningful compensation," "cost certainty," and the legendary "survival of the game".

MLB's current line of reasoning is that rising salaries have caused team success to be determined solely by the amount of money a team spends on its payroll, with that figure determined by whether a team is a low-revenue or high-revenue one. MLB is saying that only large-revenue teams--the definition of which changes with some frequency--can have success in the current economic climate.

The esteemed Committee's report cited the usual litany of statistics in support of that position. Of course, the numbers cited use a definition of payroll (salaries of players on the roster as of August 31) that leads to a distorted conclusion. Additionally, the committee made no attempt to ascertain the impact that the changes in baseball's postseason format, the 1994 strike, and the implementation of a flawed revenue-sharing plan may have had on the game.

That said, let's leave the Blue Haired...er, Blue Ribbon Committee alone for the moment and focus on the competitive-balance draft. The list of teams that would have participated in such a draft after the 2000 season has run in many places, but let's review them here. The following teams would have lost a player (1998-2000 winning percentage in parentheses):

Atlanta (.625)
New York Yankees (.616)
New York Mets (.572)
Cleveland (.567)
San Francisco (.559)
Boston (.557)
Houston (.557)
Cincinnati (.530)

One problem presents itself immediately. The small-market--by any definition--Cincinnati Reds would have lost a player in this system. And while both New York teams show up on this list, neither Chicago team does, nor does the Los Angeles team. The Cleveland Indians, who have maximized their opportunities in one of the game's smallest markets, would have lost a player in this scenario.

Which teams would have gained a player?

Florida (.406)
Montreal (.412)
Tampa Bay (.414)
Minnesota (.417)
Detroit (.439)
Kansas City (.440)
Pittsburgh (.445)
Philadelphia (.447)

As before, the last name on the list is the most interesting. The Philadelphia Phillies have had a run of poor teams since their 1993 World Series appearance, but the idea that they are at some disadvantage, playing in one of the biggest markets in the nation, is spurious.

Of the other teams, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays are in their fourth year of existence; the Florida Marlins, Montreal Expos and Minnesota Twins haven't even tried to compete over the period in question, paring payroll to the bone for the dual purposes of collecting revenue-sharing funds and extorting new stadiums from their local governments. This is behavior that should be rewarded?

Sure, these arguments are dead horses, ones we've made again and again here at Baseball Prospectus. And the purpose of this piece isn't to make them again.

No, what we want to do here is look a year forward. The above indicates what the competitive balance draft might have looked like had it been implemented last year. But what if it the idea passes for this year? What teams would be likely participants in the draft?

Here are the teams with the best records in baseball for the 1999-2000 period:

Atlanta (.611)
New York Mets (.588)
Cleveland (.577)
New York Yankees (.573)
Arizona (.571)
San Francisco (.565)
Cincinnati (.557)
Boston (.552)
Oakland (.551)
St. Louis (.526)
Chicago White Sox (.526)
Seattle (.524)

That's 12 teams. Now, almost no realistic expectation will move the Braves or Mets out of the top eight, and it's probable that the Yankees, Diamondbacks and Giants would also lose a player in the draft. But look at the next seven teams, the ones that could end up with a top-eight record and be subjected to the draft. The A's--the poster child for small-market malaise just a couple of years ago--are almost certain to lose a player in the draft next year. The Reds could win another 85 games and be forced to cough up a player despite never having made the postseason in the 1999-2001 period. The Mariners and Cardinals, who have made the most of their small markets, could play their way into the draft with successful campaigns.

Which teams would be likely to draft players?

Chicago Cubs (.407)
Minnesota (.410)
Montreal (.417)
Tampa Bay (.427)
Kansas City (.437)
Philadelphia (.438)
Florida (.443)
Pittsburgh (.455)
Milwaukee (.455)
Detroit (.458)
San Diego (.463)
Baltimore (.469)
Anaheim (.469)

Yup. The Chicago Cubs, the sun-splashed, suds-soaked Snugglies, would be a near-lock to pick in a draft held after the 2001 season. That's the same Cubs who occupy a shrine, whose games are televised nationwide, and who play in the third-biggest city in the country.

Look at the rest of the list. The Phillies remain, although they appear likely to play their way off of it. Two teams moving into cash-cow ballparks, the Pittsburgh Pirates and Milwaukee Brewers, could move off the list and be replaced by two of the wealthier franchises in the game, the Baltimore Orioles and the Anaheim Angels.

This plan, if implemented, could force the Oakland A's and the Cincinnati Reds to surrender a player to the Tribune Company and the Disney Corporation. Now, we're not privy to exactly what conversations took place when Mr. Selig and his staff were deciding how to improve Major League Baseball, but we have to assume that forcing two of the smallest-market teams in baseball to cough up a player to two teams owned by gargantuan media conglomerates wasn't on the short list of good ideas.

The real point, of course, is that baseball doesn't have a competitive balance problem. Look at those lists. Over a three-year period, just two teams have played .600 baseball, and none have been under .400. Over two years, there's just one .600 team and no under-.400 teams. Between those extremes, there are teams in markets large and small, with revenue streams large and small, playing baseball good and bad.

This is a plan that solves the problem MLB wants the public to believe exists: large-market, large-revenue teams having all the success. Even a cursory look at the numbers above should be enough to convince anyone that their premise is erroneous. Once that is removed, the case for this draft falls apart.

What baseball has is one well-run franchise, the Yankees, making unholy amounts of money and winning four championships in five years. It has two franchises, the Twins and Expos, that aren't trying to be competitive and, for three years running, are getting paid for their trouble. A competitive balance draft doesn't change those things, and it has a negative impact on the legitimately small-market teams that are trying to win. It's a do-nothing "solution" that feeds the need to do something while maintaining the illusion that payrolls are the be-all and end-all of success and that everything would be better if the players weren't so damn greedy.

Addressing the emerging gaps in revenue growth, ensuring that all teams have an equal economic incentive to succeed, forcing out ownership groups that aren't motivated to win, abandoning markets that don't support the game, and, perhaps most importantly, ceasing the incessant anti-marketing of baseball and its teams are the real solutions. The competitive balance draft has nothing to do with any of the above and should be cast aside.

Joe Sheehan can be reached at jsheehan@baseballprospectus.com.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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Related Content:  Draft,  Baseball Salaries,  The Who,  Balance

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