Mismanagement, Minor League Problems, and My Master Plan to Fix Them

Rockies owner Dick Monfort looks on during a press conference.

Photo courtesy of Denver Post.

Rockies owner Dick Monfort looks on during a press conference.

Adam Pohl, Staff Writer

Major League Baseball has a serious problem. It’s not pace of play, as commissioner Rob Manfred would have you believe. It’s not blackout restrictions, and it’s not a lack of nationally recognized superstars. Sure, those issues may have stunted the growth of the sport to younger audiences, when compared with the booming popularity of basketball and football. But while Manfred has instituted changes to begin combating those problems, the real issue isn’t something that the owners, whom Manfred represents, have any interest in changing. The force behind the “baseball is dying” trope is owners who care more about money than winning.

It’s hard to believe that the allure of a World Series title isn’t enough incentive, but many of these billionaire owners who are too cheap to build a winning team couldn’t care less. The practice of buying a team simply as a business investment is unfortunately all too common in the sport, and it’s killing the game.

There is no better example of a team prioritizing money over winning in recent years than the Colorado Rockies, who have had only two winning seasons in the past 10. Year after year, the team falls short, yet their upper-level management—most notably owner Dick Monfort and general manager Jeff Bridich—refuses to improve the team and sign meaningful free agents.

This is now more apparent than ever, with the embarrassing trade of superstar third baseman Nolan Arenado from Colorado to St. Louis this offseason. Arenado was perhaps the best thing to happen to the Rockies in recent history, as he ascended through their minor league system to turn into the five-time All-Star, four-time Silver Slugger, and eight-time Gold Glove winner that we now know. So when Bridich built an opt-out clause into Arenado’s extended contract, so that the phenom would be encouraged to leave town just three years into his eight-year $260 million contract, and subsequently traded him before the opt-out could even be reached, it became more and more clear that winning wasn’t a priority of Colorado’s management, so long as Monfort’s pocketbook didn’t get any lighter. The resulting trade saw the Rockies sending Arenado, along with $15 million to the Cardinals for a lackluster package of prospects, shocking the baseball world. That’s right, Bridich paid $15 million to get rid of the Rockies’ homegrown generational talent.

This kind of transaction shouldn’t happen. Simply put, the fans deserve better. But until a radical change is instituted, owners like Monfort will continue to dampen the sport’s potential.

The Solution

I would not call myself a soccer fan. I watch the World Cup every four years, and I indulge in the occasional highlight that ends up in my social media feed. But to be honest, it’s just not for me. However, there is one aspect of the European football leagues that has interested me for years: relegation.

Relegation is the process by which teams can be transferred between leagues depending on their performance. At the conclusion of each season, the lowest placed teams in a league are consigned to the division below, while the best teams are promoted to a higher division.

This system brings with it two critical benefits that Major League Baseball, and American Sports in general, are lacking. By punishing clubs that underperform, teams have a significantly increased incentive to improve. In avoiding spending to improve their team, owners would risk an even larger cost: being forced out of their league entirely. And on top of this, relegation provides excitement at the very bottom of leagues among teams that would otherwise be playing for very little by the end of the season.

But this practice has two major problems in the context of the MLB. A system of leagues in the mold of English football couldn’t exist in America because Major League Baseball holds a legal monopoly on professional baseball, dating back to 1922 when the Supreme Court ruled that the business of baseball was exempt from the Sherman Antitrust Act. This exemption has allowed the league to assign teams exclusive rights to their home market, therefore legally preventing unaffiliated leagues from moving into their territory.

But wait—there is still more than just one level of professional baseball. Why couldn’t the MLB institute a new system of relegation and promotion in collaboration with the Minor Leagues? 

This comes down to the matter of affiliation. Because while leagues below the majors exist, from Triple-A, just one step below the Show, to Low-A, which mostly contains young players drafted directly out of high school, every last team in these lower leagues is affiliated with an MLB organization. This is simply due to the nature of baseball, where prospects need significantly more time to develop than basketball or football players, many of whom can become professional superstars directly out of college. More simply, teams at different levels of professional baseball are bound together under one front office with the goal of developing players.

So it just wouldn’t work to relegate and promote within baseball until the ties between Major League teams and their Minor League affiliates are severed. But I still think it’s possible.

The Master Plan

Through fate, karma, or some kind of sorcery, I have been crowned God-Emperor of American baseball. My word is law, and baseball’s owners bend to my will—don’t worry, I only have good intentions.

It’s finally time to introduce relegation to Major League Baseball, and I’m going to completely overhaul the Minor Leagues while I’m at it. Yes, the Minor League system of affiliation is a roadblock to my master plan, but it’s also deeply flawed in its own way.

I’m going to all this trouble for one reason: to fix the problem of teams not playing to win. But this same problem persists within the minors for a different reason. With their objective of developing young talent, winning takes the backseat. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. With the system currently in place, this practice certainly gives young players the best chance to find success and reach the majors. However, it’s hard to be a Minor League fan when your team doesn’t have winning in mind.

But as God-Emperor, I intend to make winning a priority again, even while increasing a minor leaguer’s ability to have a fruitful career. The process might take years, but the result will be worth it.

My first step will be to end Major League Baseball’s stance as a monopoly, before cutting the ties between Major League affiliates. Triple-A, Double-A, and the rest of the minor leagues’ teams will be financially stimulated to jumpstart their separation from their affiliate and become members of fully autonomous and functional professional baseball leagues. Their seasons will resemble the majors, but with some changes. Lower leagues will play fewer games and potentially have a pitch limit, in order to prevent the overstressing of young players, particularly pitchers, now that the teams are autonomous and playing to win.

While the process of separating MLB teams from their Minor League affiliates will admittedly be unfair in the short term to Major League teams with better farm systems, it will be crucial to the longevity and health of the sport, causing a massive increase in fan interest in the on-field product of the lower leagues. Not only will winning become important to the minors once again with the promised prize of promotion to a higher league: a team and its fans will no longer live with the fear that its star player will be called up to a higher level affiliate simply because that team suffered an injury and needs a replacement. Minor League cities like Indianapolis, Jacksonville, and Las Vegas, among countless others, will now have a reason to embrace their teams, increasing baseball’s popularity in these areas.

This increased fan interest will begin fueling a self-sufficient machine, as increased attendance and viewership will cause minor league profits to soar. This, in turn, will solve yet another horrifying problem of Minor League Baseball. Currently, minor leaguers are paid shockingly low salaries: the average income of a minor leaguer for the first seven years of their career is only ~$7,000 per year. They have to deal with awful living conditions and food, in addition to working part-time jobs on top of the full-time workload of the baseball season, all so they can have a shot at one day making a Major League roster.

But as minor league teams become autonomous and grow in popularity, baseball players will finally be able to earn a living wage in the minors and even potentially have the ability to play an entire Minor League career for a reasonable salary without ever necessarily making big money by reaching the majors. And with increased pay, the quality of play will increase, as players will now be able to devote their offseasons to training, as opposed to working multiple jobs.

Interleague transactions will be allowed, but limited to the offseason to maintain the competitive integrity of the season. My new system will resemble college baseball in this way—while teams may lose their stars at the end of the year, they will still play a full competitive season with the team. This will end the players’ nightmare of service time manipulation, as a player’s clock to become a free agent will begin as soon as they enter any professional league, not just the majors.

The MLB draft will no longer be necessary, as individual teams will take up the role of recruitment and player development, and rosters will be expanded to compensate for the loss of teams’ minor league prospect pools.

Interleague transactions will become the primary way that Major League teams will acquire new young talent. MLB teams will end up trading large sums for minor league prospects in the offseason, which will in turn fuel Minor League teams’ own player development. At first, large market teams like New York and Los Angeles will see an advantage as they shell out cash for prospects more ambitiously, but small market owners will be forced to narrow the gap in order to compete and escape the threat of relegation. In this self-contained way, a kind of trickle-down economics may just work.

So now let’s take a step back and assess the situation. Is this new system good for the players? Absolutely. By increasing minor league salaries, many players will already be thrilled. Some players might not love being stuck in one league for an entire season as they attempt to climb to the majors, but the promise of becoming a free agent sooner and avoiding service time manipulation will be well worth it.

Is this system good for the fans? In the long term, yes. While fans of MLB teams might gripe about the immediate power imbalance, just as fans complained about the expansion drafts of 1992 and 1997, the changes will ultimately increase the popularity and excitement of the sport. Additionally, fans in Minor League cities will now have real, competitive baseball within their reach.

Is it good for the owners? Well, no, not if their intent was to make money. But the point was to incentivize owners to stop running baseball like a business, after all. Besides, who knows—in the long run, owners might actually reap benefits from the increased popularity of the sport.

At the end of the day, baseball is a game. It looks completely different from any other sport, and I wouldn’t want it to be any other sport. At times, we take it deathly seriously, but the fact is, the goal of baseball is to have fun. The owners who disregard that fact make it worse for everyone.

And as I watch the changes unfold from my throne while an attendant feeds me ballpark nachos, I’ll reflect on how baseball was saved by becoming more like soccer.