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Saving Major League Baseball From Itself

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A competitive balancing act.

Independence of Korea, O, Tori, minister of Japan in Seoul, discussing with envoys of the Chinese government, May 1894, Korea, Sino-Japanese War, Private collection.
These guys had a better shot at successful negotiations than baseball does.
Photo12/UIG/Getty Images

Can we save competitive balance, and thus baseball?

Only if the two sides would get along, which has less chance than a projectile made of frozen water in a very hot place. But, what the heck, there’s nothing going on, so let’s put it out there.

And while we’re at it, let’s solve another professional baseball embarrassment as well.


THE STARTING POINT

The two sides in the collective bargaining talks are back at the table, which may only mean that they’re checking out the bagel and doughnut selection that will have to tide them over until the sandwich and wraps show up at lunch. There’s nothing to indicate that anything but noshing and posturing will be taking place.

That leaves it to some of us on the outside to come up with proposals to try to break through the mountainous impasses, and work toward having a 2022 season before it’s too late. Not much we can even suggest in the gamesmanship over who breaks first vis-a-vis greed, though we might suggest to the players there is no way in hell they can possibly out-greed the owners, who are professionals on the Scrooge front.

SO, BACK TO COMPETITIVE BALANCE

Both sides say they want to improve it, to get rid of a situation where half of the teams are tanking. Tanking is something teams can do with wild abandon, because revenue sharing among teams gives them gobs of money — probably about $180 million per team if we could trust figures made public on MLB income, which we can’t, because a trip through an owners’ meeting as part of Diogenes’ search for an honest man wouldn’t even cause a flicker of his lantern — before they sell a single $50 ticket or $12 beer.

There is the small problem of how to go about competitive balance. The players naturally want to mandate a player payroll minimum, the owners naturally want to set a cap of sorts by lowering the luxury tax threshold.

Neither side is apt to care for the others’ concept, though there was word way back when that the owners offered a $100 million minimum if matched with a big luxury tax hit that would act as a de facto salary cap. That idea has disappeared, so it was probably just some sort of trial P.R. balloon.

Nonetheless, the $100 mil figure was out there, so:

LET’S PLAY A MINIMUM PAYROLL GAME

MLB player salaries have been going down for years — the lowest since 2015 this past season — and the percentage of teams with payrolls of less than half the league average keeps going up. Being successful at a lower cost is great American capitalism, cadging dozens of millions from your fellows while being incompetent is supposed to be strictly Sovietski. So we need a way to support the guys who do well, while we punish the freeloaders.

There is one way: Provide a performance incentive.

Using SPOTRAC figures, a full dozen teams had total 2021 payrolls — active, injured and sunk costs of players let go — of less than the $100 million figure bandied about earlier, all the way down to Baltimore’s $42 million. A few of those teams were even successful. Let’s reward those teams for being smart baseball people, even if cheapskates.

Instead of simply mandating payrolls of at least $100 million, or any other arbitrary figure, let’s also give credit for wins. The numbers here are just an idea, but the concept should work to discourage tanking without punishing successful capitalism.

Say every team is forced to put $100 million into a figurative payroll pot — but then are given a way to get some of it back, even a lot of it. For our example, credit a team with $2 million per win beyond 70, $3 million for every win past 81. The credit would only be against their own theoretical $100 million — no dragging other money in.

For 2021, given year-end payroll totals, only seven of the 12 teams would be punished:

That’s a total penalty of $167 million, which can be put to good use. We’ll get to that in a moment.

This system should not only discourage tanking in general, but should particularly cut down on salary dumps at the trading deadline. Unless a team is hopelessly bad, it could save several million with a couple of extra victories, enough to cover the savings from dumping a third of the salary of a pretty highly-paid player, while actually providing fans with a better product.

This would also provide incentive to continue putting your best team on the field in September, even if the game means nothing to you but does to your opponent or its rivals for playoff spots.

Sure, this system would be very costly to the truly cheap and truly terrible, but if you’re just a sponge who doesn’t compete, or just in it for the incredible tax breaks pro sports teams get, you shouldn’t be in the business.

Now, just as the numbers presented here are arbitrary, so is the system. It may be a good idea to give one year as a mulligan, or to scale penalties over time (as is done for the luxury tax). It may also be more fair to make an adjustment for being in a particularly strong division like the AL East, or a particularly pathetic one, such as the Centrals.

(Better yet, adjust the divisions periodically ... right now, move Cleveland to the East and Tampa or Toronto to the Central ... terrible for the White Sox, but excellent for baseball. But that’s another story entirely. Or adjust to an even schedule. Or both.)

The dividing line could also be a percentage of league average payroll rather than a set figure. But putting pay on a downward slide would be particularly harmful to players and less likely to accomplish the anti-tanking goal.

OH, YEAH — FOLLOW THE MONEY

So, what do we do with the $167 million? Easy — we give it to minor leaguers.

If you spread the wealth among players in the full-season divisions, Low-A through Triple-A — roughly 3,500 players — you come up with more than $47,000 apiece. Heck, that gets them darn near minimum wage, even with all the overtime they chalk up every week of the season.

Of course, that amount would probably be a one-time bonanza. Major league teams would quickly learn it pays to spend more, and it pays to try to win instead of tank. But there would still be millions of dollars going into the pot, which is better than the current situation.

DID I MENTION THERE IS NO WAY IN HELL THIS COULD EVER HAPPEN?

Yeah, yeah, looks like I did. Good. Didn’t want to seem like a hopeless dreamer.