MLB and its players have been at odds regarding a new collective bargaining agreement for several years now. It wasn’t until the latest CBA expired and the owners locked out the players that things finally reached a boiling point. Shortly after the CBA officially expired, commissioner Rob Manfred slammed the players for not working with the owners in reaching an agreement. The players have since thrown several counter punches claiming the owners haven’t made any effort to come to the negotiating table. When it comes down to it, neither side is that different from the other because they want to resolve many of the same issues. One such issue is competitive balance in the league.
New York Mets pitcher Max Scherzer came out last week and plainly stated the many teams go into a season without any intention of trying to contend for a title. They put together a low-budget roster that makes it easier to pocket the billions of dollars in league revenue without paying star players. While there have been teams like the Oakland A’s that have managed to contend, and the Houston Astros even won a title, it’s not a model that screams, “We want to win.”
To say that there’s zero competitive balance in baseball would be incorrect. MLB has crowned more teams as winners since the turn of the century than any of the four major North American sports leagues. During that time, there hasn’t even been a back-to-back winner. That being said, many of the basement dwellers continue to live at the bottom of their respective divisions while the cream remains at the top. The middle is a mix and mash of teams that periodically break through the ceiling to contend or sink to the bottom in a bad year. If the problem MLB has with competitive balance is a desire to win, there are things that can be done to fix it.
Motivating teams to win comes from a few areas. Below, we’ve outlined a few areas MLB can address the issue.
A true draft lottery
Currently, teams are rewarded for losing. If they don’t feel they can put together a winning season in their division, the consolation prize is a top pick in the draft. Teams can continue to lose games for consecutive years and draft in, or near, the top spot each year.
Rather than rewarding losing, reward winning. A team that misses the playoffs by one game on the final day of the season deserves more of a reward than a team that lost 100 games. Give each team that missed the playoffs one entry in a lottery system, then draw the draft order. A lottery system still gives the bottom feeders a chance to draft top talent without rewarding them for perennial losing. This, to me, is the best available option, but this specific format hasn’t been adapted by any league.
Anyone who pays attention to European soccer understands the relegation model. For those who don’t, let’s explain using MLB teams.
Each year, the bottom four teams in the top league get sent down to the second-tier league. For MLB, these teams would be sent to Triple-A. So, the way the 2021 season ended, the Baltimore Orioles, Arizona Diamondbacks, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Texas Rangers would all be relegated to Triple-A. With relegation comes a significant drop in sponsorship money because companies aren’t willing to pay top-dollar for second-tier teams. The revenue alone should be motivation enough to put together a winning roster every year.
While revenue is a significant motivating factor in the relegation system, it’s also why it won’t work in baseball. Should the LA Angels, Philadelphia Phillies, or San Diego Padres be relegated, their contracts for guys like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Manny Machado would financially sink them. With relegation, there would need to be a loan system that allows teams to unload their contracts for a period, which would be a whole other can of worms.
In reality, the imbalance comes from money and a willingness to spend it. Many small-market teams like Oakland, Seattle, and Miami don’t have the revenue to keep up with monsters like New York, Boston, and LA. These small markets struggle to meet the payroll demands that it takes to compete with large markets, so the thing that will really solve the issue is a model that includes a salary floor and salary cap. Teams will be required to pay their roster a minimum dollar amount each year, while the big spenders won’t be allowed to break a maximum threshold. For teams that traditionally struggle to meet the salary floor, revenue sharing would be put in place to help make up the deficit.
Unfortunately, players feel that a salary cap will limit the amount of money they get with contracts, and the owners fear that a salary floor will make them all go broke. So, the reality of this model getting through negotiations is low.
Solving MLB’s problem with competitive imbalance is a complicated issue. Many leagues all have different models because there isn’t a single solution. We’ll have to sit and wait for MLB and the MLBPA to come up with what they believe to be the best answer among a selection of mediocre choices.