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Playing The Game: CBA and Competitive Balance

South Dakota Tom



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When players and owners put pen to paper on the last collective bargaining agreement, the hope seemed to be that a combination of revenue-sharing and a luxury tax would work in concert to allow all organizations to field competitive teams. The players went along with the traditional formula of underpaying minor leaguers, and locking up younger players for pre-arbitration (3 years, or at least 2 years if you were a Super 2 - including a minimum 86 days and being in the top 22% of your same-year peers in service time in the most recent season). That was followed by three more years of arb eligibility.


But after six years, all those players who had not already signed long-term deals would be free agents. They would have reached the open market, competing to divvy up all that shared money, with at least a few teams pushing up to - and past - the luxury tax.


Teams weren't supposed to make deliberate decisions to sacrifice on-field performance in the hope of accumulating cheap young players, rising in the draft (and international bonus pool money), trading away players in their second- or third-year of arbitration for lower-level flyers. The recent success of Kansas City and Houston employing that strategy to draft or trade veterans for high-end controllable talent, then supplementing that core with an expensive free agent or two, and winning a World Series, has not helped matters.


For when a team or two employs that strategy, it gives them an edge in the construction of a future ballclub, at the price of fielding their best possible current team. When over half the league simultaneously employs that strategy, you end up with a lot of very poor baseball - and a lot of veteran players seeking out roles on the few teams remaining who will even consider employing them.


How do we fix this? How do we simultaneously bring in new players, reward veterans, encourage analytics in personnel, and avoid the bust-and-build strategy? There is no one answer, but rather, a combination of factors, that seem necessary.


A spending floor - Every team would have a requirement to spend a percentage of revenues, approaching 50%. This idea would promote the service of free agents to make sure teams spend sufficiently. It would also allow smaller-market teams to creatively invest in arb- and pre-arb extensions to give their teams financial and personnel stability. I can imagine owners neither wish to advertise their revenues or their utilization of those, or have their hands tied in deciding how to construct their teams. How can we be required to spend money on players whose contractual obligations might serve to block a simultaneous core of younger players more in need of big-league development?


Given the disparity in revenue from top to bottom, one could also imagine a scenario where this could lead to unfair monopolization. Are the Dodgers now required to spend twice as much as other teams? Aren't we going to hit a point where the floor for the top teams comes dangerously close to the luxury tax we don't want them to spend beyond? We Twins fans (as most other teams not pushing the luxury envelope) have seen some pretty questionable roster moves made solely based on economics and options remaining , but one can imagine a team having to retain a $12 million albatross rather than promote a rookie in order to stay above sea level.


Draft order and draft compensation for lost free agents - I suggested a lottery system for the first three rounds in an earlier article. I saw another suggestion that the team that came closest to the playoffs would pick first, on down to the worst non-playoff team, and then finally the playoff teams from worst to first. The concern here is that teams could easily be stuck in hellish mediocrity for a long time, unable to select the top draft picks, and unable to elevate their seasons, perhaps because of a single poor long-term signing that weighs down payroll for seasons to come.


I will confess that I like a little competitive imbalance - races in which all drivers have the same exact car are not interesting to me. Even with revenue-sharing, a luxury tax and a spending floor, some teams are going to be more able to sign premium players than others. That is fine with me - it is when this practice is combined with the lack of a spending floor and half the league serving as a development pool for the top 8 teams that it maligns the sport.


Many other ideas have been floated - decrease the amount of time until free agency. Decrease the amount of time until arbitration eligibility. Increase the pay of every level of minor leaguers, and the minimum salary for anyone making a big-league club.


Some ideas promote greater interest in the sport from a less-patient audience (the "bigger pie" theory) - fewer trips to the mound. A pitch clock. A 3-batter minimum for any pitcher. The universal DH combined with a 26-man roster with a 13-pitcher maximum (wait, you just killed the LOOGY but you want to double the number of jobs for the aging slugger?). A much smaller roster expansion in September, so late-season games don't become a substitution-fest. An international draft. Major league free agency taking place all in the week after the Super Bowl. I'm not convinced personally that drastic changes to the sport will do more to bring in new fans than it will to alienate traditional ones, though common-sense pace-of-play tweaks seem justified.


Of all the items out there, to me, the salary floor is the key. Simply by requiring a certain amount be spent by each team allows minor leaguers to survive, young major leaguers to be compensated earlier and more highly, and still retains a share of revenue that every team is going to need to spend on the accumulation of veterans. All the other competitive balance measures fail if not coupled with a requirement, at least, to try.



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Seems to me that the obsession with declaring all but the best teams as trying to fail is a bit of exaggeration. After all, only 5 teams can get a top 5 draft choice. And none of those are a sure fire guarantee, and the rest are a shot in the dark. The international bonus budgets are not determined solely on order of finish either.

Did the old way of doing international really work. The rich teams just ignored the spending limits and paid huge fines just so they could dominate the signings. Look at all the international players in the Yankees system that are about to flood the top prospect lists if you don't believe me.

And of course these teams that are "trying to fail" should eventually emerge as the top teams if their prospects pan out. Isn't that the way it's supposed to work?

I think we are blaming the wrong people for what is going on in free agency. When several players set at the top of the heap and refuse to sign all winter because of extreme demands, they put all of the players below them at risk. Those players wait for the others to sign so they can establish their place in the pecking order, but when a lot of teams are waiting out the players at the top in order to proceed with other options, nothing happens. The most vulnerable people in this scenario are the players near the bottom, who finally can't wait any longer and sell themselves short just to get a commitment from a team. I don't think the CBA is to blame for these behaviors. I think it is greed. Probably on everybody's behalf.

One other thing. When it comes to so called service time manipulation, their is no manipulation at all. The players union negotiated that allowance into the agreement in exchange for the Super 2 arbitration arrangement. Do you suppose they would be willing to give up Super 2 in exchange for more leniency on the service time calculations? And in reality, that is probably a concession negotiated by the union anyway, since a player already doesn't have to play an entire year to get credit for an entire year of service, which is why there is this issue in the first place. The bottom line is that these rules were probably concessions gained by the union years ago, and now the teams are demonized for playing by the rules.

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MLB, and milb as a partner in this, should be included in any future equation. The problem is, the MLB union has little to no interest in helping the milb players since...well, simply...they aren't MLB players yet. They have a "you aren't here yet so who cares" attitude. MLB owners, including the Twins, spend millions of dollars on milb salaries, agreements, academies, infrastructure, etc. Strictly from a bonus signing platform and salary, etc, if they were just being businessmen, would you want to spend more than you have to?


Now, were I a MLB owner, not only would I be investing all I can in scouting and facilities, but I'd be willing to spend more on salaries, a mere pittance in the scheme of things, to bring the best available talent to my milb clubs...which I would also love to own or have controlling interest in if I didn't own them outright.


I have thought about MLB following a model close to the NFL to achieve greater stability. But is it practical? I don't know. The NFL'S minor system is college and the draft, for the most part. Very different from MLB. Can a luxury tax and minimum payroll work in the current structure?

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It's called MLBPA for a reason. Because it represents MLB players, who have a total different set of priorities than minor league players.

The difference between the NFL and MLB is the amount of time it takes to develop most baseball players. An NFL player spends 3 years in college and then most of them are ready to play in the NFL. Thank goodness for them, because a great majority of them only last for 3 or 4 years then.

Baseball players can spend 3 or maybe even 4 years in college, and then still need another 4, 5, or 6 years to make it to the major leagues. This is why teams have to "blow it up" and cash in their chips to accumulate as many prospects as they can, because it takes so long and so many of them to build another contender. No team can simply buy enough talent to be a contender, unless by accident. The NFL teams on the other hand can a lot of times reload on the fly, especially if they have a few key players, such as a good quarterback.

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If the current climate is indicating a lack of competition for free agents, add two teams in strong markets. Demand will go up real quick when there are 50 less MLB players to choose from, and 100s fewer minor leaguers. Also, expand the rosters. Two more players apiece in a 27 man roster would add 60 more MLB players. Demand again goes up.


Teams can afford to be choosy because theres an overabundance of choices right now.


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If you want to speed up the gam, allow the hitter to call a max of 2 time outs (times out?) per AB. Or ban hitting gloves so they don't have to re-tighten them after every freakin' pitch.

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Great post, SDT


I come down on the side of the players, but on the other hand I'm really not interested in seeing veterans making mega-deal money in their decline years. The Pujols contract comes to mind. He doesn't even pretend to run anymore, barely jogging from base to base. Sure he earned it, but look at him now. It's not good for baseball. I don't know. The market may be self-correcting as we are seeing Keuchel and Kimbrel not being offered long deals?


The idea I hadn't heard but really, really like, is the top draft pick going to the team that just misses the postseason. It would be really, tough to game that or tank for that that way. You could alternate the draft order something like: 


1 - Final team eliminated for postseason

2 - worst record

3 - second-final team eliminated for postseason

4 - second worst record,

5 - third-final team eliminated for postseason, and so on, until the postseason teams draft.


Really love that and wonder why it hasn't been mentioned much before. 

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