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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:


Competitive Balance Draft

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. Contact him by

clicking here
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