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Could MLB move to a system of promotion and relegation?

Tanking is a problem in MLB. Pro/rel could fix that, but is the cure worse than the problem?

MiLB: APR 23 Class AAA - Durham Bulls at Charlotte Knights
Could the Durham Bulls be a major league team? They could under this system.
Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon SMI/Corbis via Getty Images

The problem with “tanking” in MLB has been in the news lately and some, such as agent Scott Boras, have suggested that it is a big reason for the slow market for talent this winter. Too many teams are actively not trying to make the postseason in 2018, settling for rebuilding their farm system through high draft picks and trading away high-priced veterans. This is modeled after the Cubs and Astros rebuilds that ended up winning the last two World Series. (Although it should be mentioned that even at the darkest point of the Cubs rebuild, they signed Edwin Jackson to a four-year deal. I can promise you that Theo Epstein did not make that signing thinking it would make the Cubs lose more games, even though it did.)

“Tanking” is bad for baseball. When eight or so teams decide at the beginning of the year that they are going to put the worst team on the field that they can reasonably get away with, it makes for bad baseball. Fans of those teams tune out and may never return, at least not with the same enthusiasm. For other teams, their fans often get treated to bad baseball when a “tanking” team opposes their favorite team. On top of that, it can mess up the postseason races. When Wild Card berths are decided by the best record among three teams, a competitive team in a division with two or three tanking teams can load up on wins thanks to the unbalanced schedule.

Boras made several suggestions to deal with the issue, but the one that caught my eye is his suggestion of a system of promotion and relegation, or “pro/rel” as it is often called in the soccer world. It’s something that I’ve been thinking about lately and it would definitely end the problem of teams putting a non-competitive team on the field immediately. But would it work in baseball?

Here’s the “too long, didn’t read” answer. It could work. Most parties involved would hate it. (The players probably wouldn’t. Nor would the agents, naturally.) It will never, ever happen.

What is Promotion/Relegation?

Promotion and relegation is the system that most soccer (and other sports) leagues throughout the world use. (And for football snobs, I’m going to refer to it as “soccer” to avoid confusion.) Each country’s soccer leagues are arranged in a “pyramid” with each league on a different level. (Things can get complicated at the the bottom of the pyramid—I’m going to simplify things, football snobs.) So to use England as an example, at the end of each season, the three teams with the worst records in the top Premier League are “relegated” to the second-division Championship League and the three best teams in the Championship are “promoted” to the Premier League. (Again, simplifying.) This goes all the way down to the smallest club teams. Theoretically, you and your buddies could start a team and play your way all the way up to the top division, one year at a time.

The good news here is that baseball already has a pyramid. It’s called the minor leagues. For the Cubs, the Northwest League is below the Midwest League, which is below the Carolina League. The top three teams in their pyramid play in the Southern League, the Pacific Coast League and the National League, respectively.

So if baseball were to adopt a pro/rel system, the worst team in each major league would have to play in Triple-A the next year. They would be replaced in the majors by the champions of the International League and the PCL. And so on down the line.

What are the benefits of this system?

For one, it would end tanking. No franchise would ever risk getting sent down to the minors by not putting their best team on the field at all times. At the trade deadline, instead of the teams at the bottom of the standings trading away all their best players, most of them would be adding players to avoid relegation.

That’s another benefit of the system. Remember in 2012 and 2013 when it was hard to watch a Cubs game because who cared if they won or lost? Under this system, you’d better believe you would care. If you think a pennant race is nerve-wracking for fans and players, just wait until two bad teams start fighting for their very survival in the majors at the end of the year.

Another boon of this system is that fans in smaller cities have a chance to see major league baseball in their city. Wouldn’t it be neat for the fans in Des Moines or Knoxville see their cities be in the major leagues competing against the Yankees, Dodgers and Cubs? Even a smaller city like Peoria or South Bend would have a chance. For example, Hoffenheim in Germany is a little village of around 3,000 people and it has a team in the top division, thanks to the patronage of a German software mogul. Even the larger metro area of which it’s a part has a population fewer than 40,000. Would you like to see Mark Cuban buy a team in Rockford and take them all the way to the majors? Fans in Rockford might.

Also, minor league games would mean something. A manager wouldn’t put in a struggling pitcher in a critical situation just because he needed to get his innings in. Minor league teams would try to win just as hard as major league ones.

Another benefit of this system is that teams would no longer be able to extort major league cities for publicly-funded stadiums. When the Expos left for Washington, the people of Montreal could have just started a new club and within four or five years, be back in the majors. The Rays are threatening to move to San Antonio if they don’t get a new ballpark? Good luck in Texas. We’ll just start a new team.

Also, teams wouldn’t have “territories.” If New York can support five top major league teams, one for each borough, then three teams would rise through the ranks and rival the Yankees and Mets. Maybe the Kane County Cougars would be Chicago’s third team with a fanbase to rival the White Sox.

Wait. Go back a second. How would that work in Des Moines? How can the Cubs and Iowa be competing in the same league? Aren’t they a farm club of the Cubs?

OK, now we’re getting into why it will never happen. The short answer is that it wouldn’t work. The minors would have to be freed, reverting to how it worked before the Great Depression. Back then, if a team wanted a player from the minors, they couldn’t just call them up. They had to either buy or trade for the player. The minor league Baltimore Orioles sold Babe Ruth to the Red Sox. Their owner always felt he didn’t get a fair deal for Ruth, so a few years later he refused to sell Lefty Grove for four seasons until he got the money he thought he deserved.

Iowa, and every other minor league team, would have to sign and pay their own players, rather than having a major league affiliate do it for them. They would try to turn a profit by then selling those players to the majors.

One possibility is that a major league team could be give a 40-man roster and they could be allowed to “loan” 15 of those players to the minor leagues at a time. Those players could be recalled when needed during the season. But if the team wanted anyone else, they’d better get out their wallet.

By the way, the American and National Leagues hated this system when it existed. That’s why when the Great Depression started sending minor leagues into bankruptcy, the majors insisted on ending it as a condition of bailing some of them out. (The majors had actually been chipping away at this system for years before that, but again, simplify.) At first they just insisted that any player could be purchased for a set low price. Eventually they just took over their rosters entirely.

Minor league players would mostly love this pro/rel system. With most of them free from major league control, minor league teams would compete for the best of them in order to secure promotion to a higher league and the share of broadcast revenue that comes with it. They wouldn’t be pulling down the same salary as major leaguers, but they’d be living off a lot more than a $1,100 a month.

Could minor league teams afford to pay their own players?

Good question. The hope is that with a real team and something to play for, minor league games would become more like college and high school football. Sure, it’s not the best level of competition, but fans get attached to their local teams and support them. That would in turn lead to bigger television contracts for the minor leagues, at least for the upper levels. They would also have the money from selling players to the major leagues (or higher up in the minors), although a chunk of that money would have to go towards purchasing replacements. But it’s all just a guess at this point.

That would require a fundamental shift in the way minor league baseball is marketed and its fanbase. Right now, the minors exist as a business venture mostly to provide affordable family entertainment. Most minor league fans don’t care who wins. They just want to cheer, eat ballpark food and watch the goofy contests between innings. Fans would have to start looking at their local minor league team the same way they look at their local university football team, and that’s a whole different kind of audience.

One of the things they don’t like to talk about in European soccer is that teams can and do go bankrupt. Sometimes even top division teams can’t pay their bills. What happens then varies, but it’s never good for owners, fans or players. They’re not in the top division anymore, that’s for sure. Players and team employees often don’t get paid.

How would this work with the draft?

Again, mostly it wouldn’t. European leagues don’t have drafts, so this system isn’t designed to answer that question. I suppose MLB could work out a two- or three-round draft where the two promoted teams get the first two picks and then the rest of it would work as it does now. But since teams wouldn’t carry huge farm systems of hundreds of players, having a 40-round (or even a 10-round) draft wouldn’t make sense.

When a team gets relegated, what would happen to their players?

That would be up to the team and the contracts. Some players would undoubtedly have a clause in their contracts that allows them to become free agents in the event of relegation. But for the most part, team revenues would no longer support major league salaries and they’d have to sell most of their players to make payroll. They also better hope they don’t have an “unmovable” contract in that situation.

This is why such a situation might provide a brake on major league salaries. Teams would likely be hesitant to give out any big contracts without some sort of buyout clause in the event of relegation. You could see someone like Matt Kemp being traded late in the season to a team getting relegated because they could then terminate his contract at the end of the year.

Wait. The International League and the Pacific Coast League have specific territories with the IL having the Eastern Time Zone and the PCL having everything else. What would happen if the two relegated teams were the Mariners and Padres? Would they both go into the PCL?

Who knows? This isn’t a problem in Europe, as none of the countries, save Russia, are so big that you can’t easily get from one city to another by bus or train.

America is big. It’s even bigger when you add Canada. Asking a team on a minor league income to make road trips from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon just isn’t going to happen. Perhaps this could be subsidized with a general fund created out of broadcast revenue, but it’s a problem that isn’t easily solved.

This wouldn’t just be a problem at the highest levels. If the Eugene Emeralds got promoted out of the Northwest League, currently the closest minor league team at the next level is the Cedar Rapids Kernels. Honestly, most teams would just refuse to accept promotion in that situation and if that’s the case, why have a pro/rel system at all?

Without much of a draft, would prevent the Yankees (for example) from buying up all the minor league talent?

Not much and in fact, that’s pretty much what happened before there was a baseball draft. I guess they’d be limited by how many players they could own at any one time, but they’d likely be able to snap up the best talent as soon as it came on the market.

There could be a salary cap, I suppose. That doesn’t work in Europe for many reasons, but the Japanese and Korean leagues would likely not be able to buy up top talent whose salary was limited by a salary cap. But the players won’t like that.

One of the problems with the European model is that for all the talk of a team rising from the lowest levels to winning the top league is that it almost never happens. When it does happen, it’s because some billionaire decides to sink his personal fortune into making a winner. That’s why Leicester City’s Premier League title in 2015-16 was so shocking. They were a little team that had just been promoted to the top league a couple of seasons earlier. They didn’t have any sugar daddy writing huge checks. They found a few huge undiscovered diamonds on the cheap from other countries and then got really, really lucky. But that almost never happens and Leicester hasn’t challenged for the Premier League title since.

So this system doesn’t bring better parity?

For the most part, each top European league is dominated year-in and year-out by the same two or three teams. (The English Premier League has five or six.) Occasionally a middle-class team will step up and become one of the big boys and a giant slides down out of the elite. But there isn’t a lot of mobility. Fans of smaller teams generally set goals short of a league title (like sixth place out of twenty) or try to win cup tournaments, which are mostly single-elimination tournaments like the NCAA basketball tournament where upsets happen far more frequently.

The other problem is that while teams never out-and-out tank in a pro/rel system, many teams simply shoot for safety. They know they can’t compete with the super teams so they just try to put a good enough team on the field to finish in the middle. So while this system would put an end to the truly wretched major league teams, it would likely produce many just average ones. At least, that’s what happens in European soccer.

Give me the tl/dr summary. Why should baseball go pro/rel?

—No more tanking. Every team will try to put a good team on the field.

—Minor league games will matter.

—MLB would not be able to hold cities hostage for stadium deals or expansion fees.

—Minor league players will get paid.

Why shouldn’t baseball adopt this system? (tl/dr)

—It would require a massive change in the way we are fans of baseball.

—A few super teams would likely dominate.

—North America is too large for easy promotion and relegation between leagues. Travel could be a logistical nightmare.

—Much more financial instability. Many teams would go bankrupt and cease to exist.

This will never happen, will it?

Nope. The owners would never agree to it as most of them would be the big losers in this system.

So why did you waste all this time writing this piece?

Because I find it to be a fascinating alternative history of the sport. You know those stories where the Nazis win World War II or the South wins the Civil War? This is what baseball would probably look like today had William Hulbert not decided in 1875 that the National Association wasn’t working and founded the White Stockings (Cubs) and the National League. Before that, control of the game was in the hands of the players. They were clubs and they were run like a club is run. Hulbert decided that teams should be organized like a corporation and the league be set up as a monopolistic trust. For the next five seasons, the Western teams (plus Boston) and Hulbert battled the Eastern teams for control of the game and the West eventually won. (A big reason for that was that Hulbert and the N.L. had the power to expel dishonest players and teams. The National League was considered honest whereas the other leagues weren’t.)

But had the Eastern teams won that battle and were able to get their corruption problems under control, it is not hard to imagine that this is how baseball would be organized today. In 1876, the National League was just one of many leagues fighting for supremacy. They claimed to be the best league, but that was not universally accepted. It is easy to see that if the N.L. had not been able to establish its supremacy, that they would have come to an agreement with the other leagues that would have set up a system like this.

So think if you could have remained a Cubs fan if they had sunk down to Triple-A or even Double-A in the 1950s or 1970s. Would a team like Kane County have risen to take their place? Or would P.K. Wrigley have actually spent enough money to keep the Cubs in the N.L.? I don’t know, but it’s fascinating to think about.