The American Premier League

Anyone can win.

That's actually the motto of a different World Series (that would be the World Series of Poker), but Major League Baseball has dutifully offered that line to anyone who will nibble like an hors d'oeuvre waiter toting a tray of crab cakes.

And while a remarkable 18 teams were within five games of a playoff spot on Monday morning, such parity is more of a Bud Selig parlor trick than exhibition of competitive balance. While many teams can, and have, won lately, it's the other end of spectrum that's troubling.

Imagine for a moment that you're a Pirates fan (Pirates fans, you deal with that reality enough, so take this time to imagine you're on a Caribbean island or in a skiing village while I catch everyone up). You haven't been relevant after July since Barry Bonds smacked homers as nature intended. MLB and your front office can try to con you into believing you have a chance every spring, but you don't really believe it. You know that, mostly likely, any decent players you develop will be traded for future prospects or just leave outright in free agency. Where exactly is the incentive for you to buy into following baseball?

Maybe the Royals, Nationals, and Pirates are worst-case examples, you say? Okay, say you're an Indians fan, or a Brewers fan, or an Athletics fan, or a Padres fan. All of those teams have made the playoffs this decade at least once. With the exception of the Brewers, all of them have at least contended to reach the playoffs three or four times. But how did they do it?

The strategy for mid- and small-market teams is one of boom and bust. Take the Indians, for example. They broke down the last pieces of their 1990s dynasty early this decade, trading Bartolo Colon for Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee, and Brandon Phillips. Sizemore and Lee turned into all-stars for the team and led a near overtake of the White Sox in 2005 and an ALCS appearance in 2007.

However, as some pieces of that mid-2000s contender reached free agency, the team again cannibalized its stars into prospects. The trade of C.C. Sabathia last summer marked the beginning of the next bust phase, as the team's AL-worst record shows. It is yet to be seen if Victor Martinez or Lee will also become casualties of the Indians' market size, but you get the idea. If the Indians are to contend in the early part of the 2010s, they will need the next round of prospects they draft and reap from trades to come through. The same goes for probably more than half the teams in MLB.

Life at the top of the food chain is much simpler. Yes, some of the top teams have done very well drafting (namely Boston), but it doesn't hurt to be able to plunk down $100 million or so for Daisuke Matsuzaka, realize relatively little from that investment, and not have to reconsider investing in more free agents for the remainder of his contract. Boston's front office is the current house-on-the-hill in baseball, but it's their Fenway-filled checking account that ensures they can realistically dream of the World Series every year. And that's okay. Teams that find ways to make more money than other teams and reinvest that wealth in their baseball operations should be applauded for their success.

So what would make baseball better? It's time MLB took a cue from across the pond to create more competition within its middle and lower ranks.

Like MLB, the English Premier League (that's soccer, folks) is ruled by a handful of wealth-flush elites. We have the Yankees and the Red Sox; they have Manchester United and Chelsea. And like the EPL, the rest of MLB is left to try to shoot the moon by combining prospects that will ripen together and play at a championship caliber before their free agency driven expiration date hits. But in contrast to EPL clubs, MLB teams face lesser consequences for failing to hit that perfect combination. And it's in that soft underbelly that major league baseball needs to make the following changes:

The American Premier League

The system of relegation and promotion is the most obvious difference between European soccer and American sports leagues. That is, in Europe, a predetermined number of spots in every league is at risk every season. In the EPL, the last three teams in the standings drop to the "B" league for the next season, and the top three teams in the "B" league are promoted to replace them in the EPL. The system goes further down into leagues that feed the "B" league so that even the smallest team in the smallest league could eventually play in the EPL, given continued success.

Baseball is setup to handle this much better than any other sport in America. The infrastructure of the lower leagues is already there: we call them the minors. These teams have stadiums, fans, and some staff already in place.

However, there is one major catch: all of the minor league teams are currently property of a major league organization. It's not as if we could announce today that all minor league teams are now freed of their big league clubs and they own their players. Additionally, we'd have to find somewhere for teams to stash their prospects.

First, we'd need to trim down how many players each major league team controls in order to expand the talent pool. Baseball purists would probably have a heart attack at the thought of it, but does every organization need to control scores of players who will never sniff the big leagues?

Instead, what if every team at every level had the option of fielding two "JV" teams, one for players under 22, one for players 25-and-under. Let's say each of those rosters can hold 25 players, just like their major league brethren. That means each team would have the option to control 75 players. We can tinker with some DL spots, but you see the point. The JV teams would be broken into leagues that play the other JVs, just as we have in the current minor-league system.

But what if a rash of injuries wipes though a team's roster, you ask? APL teams can still do what they did in their MLB days. It's a distinction that goes unnoticed, but MLB teams "purchase the contract" of each player they call up from their minor league systems. So if the Tigers lose three starting pitchers in April, they can still ship some combination of their own players and cash to Toledo for the Mud Hens' fire-balling young ace.

The only difference here is any team could acquire any player from any league, not just the ones with which they are affiliated. Talent hungry teams would subsidize the minor league teams to a great extent by funneling money down the chain in exchange for attractive prospects. Teams in the A-ball and double-A leagues would have to balance the value of that cash against their ability to rise up through the leagues. Would an independent Pawtucket trade Clay Buchholz to the Red Sox for $20 million?

With this structure in place, we would only need to open the talent pool for minor league clubs to populate their rosters. Every MLB club would be allowed to protect 75 players from its current organization and fit them into the varsity and JV rosters. After that, all players would be open to an expansion-style draft, with the Triple-A teams getting the first picks in each round.

Who would sign on the fastest?

Obviously the fans and owners of the best Triple-A clubs would love this. With just one strong year tearing up the International or Pacific Coast Leagues, teams could jump up to the majors and all of the financial benefits that go with it. Having the Dodgers, Mets, Red Sox, or Yankees playing real games in their stadiums would be a jackpot for these teams. And if teams that are promoted to the majors can find a way stick there, their owners would have turned the investment of buying a minor league team into a major league payday.

Who would scream the loudest?

Team like the aforementioned Pirates, Royals, and Nationals would have everything to lose. Relegation would be a new low for cellar-dwellers. Think it's hard to get 15,000 to come to the ballpark on a Wednesday night in August? How about if, all of a sudden, you were hosting Durham instead of Detroit or Sacramento instead of Seattle?

But that threat might actually be a good thing for the dregs of the majors. Why should teams be guaranteed a place in baseball's top league if they're rarely relevant? Perhaps the grim reaper of relegation would be the right incentive for teams to at least be competitive. This would put an end to the boom-and-bust cycle teams like the Rays, Indians, Diamondbacks, and Padres have favored, wherein fans are subjected to seasons of putrid dormancy in exchange for the hope that their prospects might develop simultaneously into a one- or two-year contender. Would it change the pecking order at the top of the league? Hardly. But the level of competition throughout baseball would rise.

Additionally, relegation would create interest in late season games for the majors' worst teams, morbid as it may be. Don't crumple up those September season tickets just yet, Oakland fans. Those games might just decide your fate for next season.

Could this happen?

Of course not. Besides being a radical shift from the dogmatic traditions of baseball, many people making quite a bit of money from the current structure would stand to lose too much for this to be entertained. And to be fair, it doesn't seem right to tell an owner who paid major league money for a franchise that his club might be demoted to the land of bus trips and fast food per diems. But as the disparity between the haves and have-nots of MLB starts to look more like the gulf between Chelsea and West Ham than that between Redskins and the Jaguars, we should probably start taking such changes more seriously.

Besides, I'm told we're on the verge of the American futbol revolution. Can it be long before America's pastime starts to look like the world's game?

Comments and Conversation

July 21, 2009

Kyle Jahner:

Interesting concept, with some cool little elements. Albeit as you readily admitted, very flawed.

Two other big questions:

So what happens to luxury tax and revenue sharing money? Do teams get it upon earning rights to be in the bigs next year? After all, we are trying to level the playing field; you wouldn’t do away with the one thing that baseball actually has that levels the playing field even a little, would you?

Also, you would never have equality. The top teams in the top cities would dominate even more. They would never have to be relegated even in a bad season early on, and that hole would be far too big to claw out of, as the revenue from a season in the minors would be crippling.

Plus, if a team gets promoted, does it now get to have a JV system? How does it get stocked? All the best 22- and 25- year olds are already reserved by MLB teams. Plus with their stadiums they could never make big league revenue, even with revenue sharing.

The bottom line is that to fix up a system where the problem is too little competitive balance, you’ve chosen to implement ideas from a league and a system with even less competitive balance than any American sport.

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