I’ve chosen the three rules I believe MLB and the MLBPA will institute quickly, the three rules that make the most sense and which both the league and the players can agree on. But there’s one change I’d love to see MLB make, and it’s a rule that works brilliantly in European Football, or what we knuckleheads in American call soccer.
I’m talking about promotion and relegation, a key component of the English Football League System. Here’s how it works:
The top league in soccer is the Premier League, comprised of 20 teams. Those teams compete for the championship of their league. But the bottom three teams, those teams that finish last in a given year, they are “relegated” to a lower league called EFL Championship Level 2.
Meanwhile, the top two teams in EFL Championship Level 2 move up to take two of the three vacancies in the Premier League. The next four teams compete in a tournament to determine which one of them takes the other open spot in the league above them.
This process of promotion and relegation proceeds in every league, as the best teams move up and the worst teams shift down. There are a total of eight levels, and other non-league levels below that. But basically there are eight levels of football for teams to advance through.
I know what you’re thinking: how can the Minnesota Twins, Detroit Tigers, and Miami Marlins, for example, lose their major league teams and be replaced by the Toledo Mud Hens, Sacramento River Cats, and Memphis Redbirds? It’s not practical. I agree.
The English Football League System is predicated on competition and quality of play. Teams must compete and win enough to stay out of the lower rung of the league. There’s no room for “tanking.” The system is strong motivation for not sucking. The system rewards teams that make an effort to win, and punished teams that do not.
Major League Baseball should implement rules that prompt teams to field a competitive team, and if they don’t, those teams should be penalized. Here’s how:
#1. Terrible teams lose draft picks
MLB currently awards the first selections in the June Amateur Draft to the worst teams. The draft order is determined by win/loss record in reverse order. The player draft is the primary method for building a solid farm system to feed players into the majors. But the promise of building from within is not always an honest one.
Usually when teams tear down their roster and enter a “rebuild” they focus their attention to drafting and developing young players. But bad organizations are usually bad at developing good young players. Only a few teams have successfully employed a “total rebuild” strategy, the Astros being one of them in the last twenty years. But after Houston won a World Series in 2017, many teams are now trying to imitate that success. The problem is, MLB now has roughly a dozen teams purposefully tanking for a few years, as many as five years, to try to get good draft picks and rebuild on the cheap.
Under my plan, teams would surrender draft picks after losing 95 games or more in two successive seasons. The first time the penalty would be two picks, one in the annual June MLB Amatuer Draft and the other in the Rule 5 Draft. If a team lost 95+ in a third successive season they would forfeit two picks in the June draft and all of their Rule 5 picks. Any further penalties, or four seasons of 95+ losses in a five-year stretch, would multiply the offenses. You could also prohibit the offending team from getting compensation for lost free agents.
Faced with the possibility of losing draft picks, teams would have to strive to at least be moderately competitive. Too harsh? Hell, a team can lose 90 games in a row for six straight years and not be penalized. That’s still a pretty shabby team. But given the risks of losing picks, you’d see fewer teams tanking after the All-Star break, they’d be more inclined to at least ride the season out and make changes in the winter. That means fans see a better product on the field.
#2. Payroll minimum
Every team should be forced to pay at least $100 million to field their team. That works out to an average of $4 million per player on the 25-man roster. In 2018, the average MLB salary was a little over $4 million. The minimum is about $500,000.
A $100 million payroll leaves lots of room for a team to have a few higher-paid stars and also fill in spots with younger, cheaper players.
To put this into context, MLB teams average $85 million in operating profit (that’s their portion of gate receipts, concessions, and local TV/radio money). Many get far more than that. In addition, the bottom third of the teams get tens of millions in revenue sharing money from the luxury tax and league pools. The money is there.
In 2018, only five teams fell under this threshold, so this isn’t a big deal in most cases. But the White Sox for example, wouldn’t be able to carry a payroll of $77 million for three or four years and pretend they’re trying to compete. Same with the A’s, who reap the benefits of revenue sharing but do not put that money back into the product on the field.
If a team fails to meet the $100 million threshold they should lose money from the 31 percent of local revenue that is pooled by the league.
#3. Inept franchises should be relieved
If a franchise averages as many as 97 losses per season for a decade, that team will be placed in a “caretaker” status and the owners will face a council of their peers.
We’re talking about a really crappy franchise here. In the last forty years only one franchise has approached this level of ineptitude: the Detroit Tigers in the 1990s and early 2000s. For a ten-year stretch the Tigers averaged 96.6 losses and finished with more than 105 losses three times. It was a dark time for the team, which they emerged from in 2006 after the owner started investing in the roster. Imagine that.
Imagine the drama here: a team tanks for a decade and is placed basically in receivership. A council made up of the other team owners, player representatives, and city and state officials convenes to decide their fate. You could televise it, the debate would be fantastic.
There would be three options: (1) the team may be forced to be sold and kept in that city, (2) the front office can be forced to make wholesale changes, or (3) the team’s spot in the league can be placed up for auction.
In the latter case, ownership groups in other cities can bid to assume the franchise and field a team. Imagine the drama if Portland or Montreal or Las Vegas throw their hats in the ring to assume control over the A’s, for example?
This would be an extremely rare occurrence, but the threat of it would remind teams that the purpose of the game is to win.
Are my ideas insane? Too far-fetched? Not innovative enough? Let me know in the comments section below.
Dan Holmes is an author and baseball historian. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum and Major League Baseball. He once defeated George Brett in Texas Hold Em poker and faced Phil Niekro's knuckleball. He has two daughters and he writes regularly about baseball and many other topics.