MLB Looking For Ways To Improve Competitive Balance
Spring training is all about hope. It’s a new season and every team is tied for first place. Anything can happen. Maybe this is the year that the Cubs (or your favorite team) can win it all.
At least that’s how things are in theory. In practice, not so much. The truth is that when MLB opens their 2010 season, about one-third of the teams will have no realistic chance of competing for a spot in the post-season. These teams have become little more than fodder to fill out baseball’s regular season schedule.
Part of the problem is that too many teams don’t spend enough on player payroll. The Yankees are an easy target because they annually outspend every other team, but the real outrage is that nearly one-third of the teams in baseball spend less on player payroll and player development than they receive in revenue sharing, that according to ESPN’s Jayson Stark.
While baseball denies this allegation, this offseason they quietly encouraged the Florida Marlins to spend a bit more on their payroll. The Marlins routinely low payrolls have been a source of embarrassment for MLB and a source of concern for the Player’s Association.
The Marlins have been last or next to last in payroll spending every season since 2006, and they have only spent more than $50 million once (2005) since the turn of the century. Although MLB denies any involvement, the signing of a long-term contract with pitching phenom Josh Johnson only occurred after a great deal of controversy and bad PR over the Marlins frugal ways.
Although the Marlins maintain that they did not violate the basic agreement concerning the use of revenue sharing dollars, the team and the Player’s Association issued a joint statement following Johnson’s contract signing. The statement indicated that the team and the Player’s Association will work together, along with the commissioner’s office, to make sure that the basic agreement is followed in the future.
Some fans disagree that there is a competitive balance problem in Major League Baseball and they point to these same Marlins as their proof. Sure, the Marlins are traditionally low spenders, but they have won the World Series twice since 1997.
Despite the two World Series titles, it’s important to keep the Marlins success in perspective. In 1997, the year the Marlins first won the World Series, they were a high payroll team. That year, the team payroll was the fifth highest among all teams (Cleveland was third highest). This was not a case of David beating Goliath so much as it was a case of David becoming Goliath.
Even so, it is true that a lower payroll team occasionally rises up to have an exceptional season. In addition to the 2003 Marlins, the Twins are a team that have enjoyed a modicum of success. While they haven’t done well in the playoffs, at least they have made it there a few times. And we can’t forget about the Tampa Bay Rays who had a great regular season in 2008, and even made it to the World Series.
However, to me, these exceptions prove the rule. Sure, lower payroll teams occasionally make it to the post-season, but it’s so infrequent that it is an exception to the rule, not the rule itself.
Over the past eight out of ten seasons, at least one team in the bottom third of payroll spending has made the playoffs. That would seem to indicate that low payroll teams can compete and that competitive balance isn’t an issue.
However, during those same ten seasons, six out of ten times at least five teams in the top third of payroll spending made the playoffs. In eight out of ten seasons at least four of the top spending teams made the post-season. In the other two seasons, three of the top ten payroll spending teams made the playoffs.
So in any given year, the top ten payroll teams claim four or five of the eight playoff spots, and the remaining twenty teams are left to fight over the scraps. Granted, there are occasional exceptions, but as a general rule, the more money a team spends, the more likely they are to make the post-season.
This is not exactly a news flash, but it has taken MLB some time to come to this conclusion. The MLB Special Committee for On-Field Matters has discussed “floating realignment” which would allow teams to determine their division based on geography, their plans to contend, and payroll.
According to Tom Verducci of Sports illustrated, committee members are interested in pursuing ways to improve competitive balance and believe that floating realignment could be a good non-economic way of accomplishing this goal. Others, most notably Red Sox owner John Henry, have called for a salary cap. ESPN’s Jayson Stark has suggested a taxing system that taxes both those teams that spend too much as well as those that spend too little.
The point is, the calls for MLB to do something to improve competitive balance are increasing and getting louder. Floating realignment may turn out to be a crazy idea and may be completely unworkable, but at least they’re talking about the need for change. And as with so many things in life, admitting you have a problem is half the battle.
Lou Mindar writes the blog Cubs Notebook. His book of short stories, Lake of the Falls, is due out in June.