Saving baseball from itself, Part 1: a relegation fantasy

Barred: Perhaps there is a way to separate a foolish team from its money.

Can anything subdue Major League Baseball’s suicidal urges? Can the incredible dullness of homer/strikeout ball be abated? Can teams be stopped from engaging in wholesale tanking rebuilding?

The swelling dullness of the game is easily solved by changing the ball, reversing the juice that made 2019 a joke and also altering the sphere to cut down on ever-increasing pitch speeds. MLB could do it by next season, if it had the brains. Big if.

But that’s for Part 2.

Right now, it’s time for Part 1 of saving MLB from itself, ridding the leagues of the scourge of tanking alleged rebuilding that has made so many games meaningless. It’s pure fantasy, because it would involve some of the Scrooge McReinsdorfs volunteering to lose income. They might not care about baseball or fans, but they sure as hell care about the bottom line, so we need a system that provides severe financial penalties for tanking re-evaluating options.

One of the causes of the rush to the bottom among so many teams today is that their incomes are becoming less and less dependent on fielding good product. With so much sharing of revenues from TV and internet rights and such, actual ticket sales are becoming a relatively minor concern. Who cares about dropping $50 or $80 million in ticket sales, if you can still rake in all the other cash while slicing $100 million from what your payroll should be? Especially since, thanks to the egos of billionaires and Greater Fool Theory, you can always bail out for way, way more than you paid for the team.

The dream may not be about Jeannie, but it would take a genie to make it real.

Still, let us dream — beginning, as dream sequences should, with poetry:

Two, four, six, eight,
Baseball gotta relegate.
No way to save the sport of the nation
Without starting relegation.

Most of you are familiar with the concept of relegation, used in sports leagues all around the world. The most noted model, in the U.S. anyway, is British soccer. The process is simple.

The top-of-the-heap British Premier League has 20 teams. Each season, the bottom three get relegated — that is, sent down — to the next level, which is Football League Championship. In turn, three teams from 24-member FLC move up. All told, there are eight levels, and relegation exists all the way to the bottom.

That’s not a system that can be copied in professional baseball, because minor league teams here aren’t independent entities. You could end up relegating a team down to Triple-A and elevating the same team’s Triple-A farm team.

So what we need is a whole new league, one the worst MLB teams can fall into, at least temporarily. A proper name would be something like Loser League, or Dumped League. This being America, though, we have no use for accurate descriptions and a tendency to give the loftiest titles to the lowliest examples, so, for working purposes, let’s call it the Wonderful League, or WL.

How would it work?

Fair question. For our fantasy purposes, let’s assume that all the talk about expansion isn’t idle chatter, and that two teams will be added to the majors after the next round of union negotiations. Expansion teams are always lousy for a while, so they become the first two teams of the Wonderful League — let’s call them Portland and Las Vegas.

Portland and Las Vegas will need some company, and there are plenty of really bad teams to provide it. Since the expansion will create a total of 32 teams, including the WL, a sensible division is to keep 12 in each of the current leagues and send six to the WL the first season. To keep the leagues in balance in the first (adjustment) year, three teams each from the AL and NL would be relegated.

If that occurred in 2018, the White Sox would have been one of the teams, but they’d escape that ignominy with their stirring 2019 performance. This year, those being sent down would be Detroit, Baltimore and Kansas City from the AL, Miami, Pittsburgh and San Diego from the NL. Voila — eight-team league!

The existing leagues would stay with three divisions each, but with four teams per division. There would be plenty of shuffling needed among divisions, and, eventually, between leagues, but that can be a good thing.

Since the WL would be a sub-major rather than minor league, there could be interleague play, as there is now. To keep a 162-game schedule, AL and NL teams would play the other three teams in their division 18 times each and the others in their league 10 each, for a total of 134. That leaves 28 to divide between playing each other, as now, and playing the WL.

That would give the Wonderful League teams 42 games each against National and American league outfits, leaving 120 within the WL. Divide the WL into two four-team divisions, and they’d play each team in their own division 20 times, each in the other division 15.

The remaining teams in the current leagues could have playoffs just as now, three division champs plus two wild cards, which means 10 of 24 teams would have postseason play, roughly the same percentage as the NFL. Plenty to shoot for at the top, plenty to try to avoid at the bottom. No playoffs for the WL, unless an extra game is needed to determine who moves up.

I hear you saying, “Cute, but what the hell are we accomplishing with all this?”

Another fair question. What we’re doing is making almost all games meaningful. There would be battles for the top in the AL and NL, but also battles to avoid the very bottom and consequent relegation. And the WL teams would have large incentive to end up in the top four.

After the first year, relegation would be reduced to four teams, two each from AL and NL going down, four from the WL going up. Again, that may require some realignment but that is by no means bad — ask Milwaukee and Houston how much they’ve suffered from switching leagues. Heck, we could even end up with a whole bunch of Sox-Cubs games.

How does this confusing mess help anything?

By hitting the Scrooge McReinsdorfs right where it hurts: the wallet. By making tanking engaging in corrective steps for future improvement — while not giving a damn about the team or its fans — really expensive.

First, because the WL is a sub-major, not a minor league, all the players keep their major league salaries, their major league benefits, the MLBPA rules. The players would lose out on possible playoff shares, but they’re already on teams that had no chance, or even intention, of making the playoffs.

The players’ statistics count, just as statistics from games against the Marlins or Tigers or Orioles count now, even though those are sub-major teams. That means the miser owners can’t cut major expenses.

Second, because they get their income cut. Big time. Being sub-major is apt to reduce attendance, of course, but the White Sox, for example, have seen little attendance dive during their seven years in the wilderness.. The big change, what is really important, would be cutting into all those shared revenues the cheapskates depend on — slice all their shares in TV, web, and other shared revenues in half.

Instead of those revenues being split 32 ways (post-expansion), each team in the AL or NL that season would get a 1/28th share … so they fare better than now … and those in the WL would get a 1/56 share. That’s a difference of at least tens of millions of dollars.

That provides a serious incentive not to tank fail. No longer would teams not in serious contention be dumping players at the trade deadline to slice payrolls; they’d have to hang on to everyone they’ve got in hopes of avoiding relegation. Every game would be important, at least until mid-September.

The system would widen demand for top players, hiking pay for free agents. That should make the union happy.

Those teams that are relegated would not be sentenced to permanent lower status, but given a help in improving. Heck, if they’re really rebuilding instead of tanking it could even be a good thing … except for the money. They would still get to be in the draft — taking the first eight spots — and they could still trade and bid on free agents and use all the other ways of acquiring players.

Aristotle said, “Change in all things is sweet.” The Scrooge McReinsdorfs of MLB may not agree.

The alternative to relegation is to leave things as they are, with much of the league playing meaningless games for most of the season, with most games involving at least one team whose owners aren’t even trying. MLB can stagger on that way, but it’s staggering a path to oblivion.

Relegation — it’s a way to save major league baseball from itself. And in the land of the greed and the home of the knave, pure fantasy.


2 thoughts on “Saving baseball from itself, Part 1: a relegation fantasy

  1. I always figured that the 1st 15 draft picks could be reversed, where the 15th worst record picks first, the 14th picks 2nd, etc, through the worst record picking in the middle of the 1st round. The 16th worst picks 16th, and the rest of the 1st round follows suit, through the World Series winner.

    Force teams to spend with a spending floor, don’t reward the worst record with high draft picks. A team would have to try to be mediocre to get the top draft pick.


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