Major League Baseball has a problem on its hands. Not necessarily a new issue, but one that is certainly more pronounced this season than in years past.
Average fan attendance is down nearly 2,000 fans per game across all ballparks. The Opening Week TV ratings drew 32% fewer viewers than last year. And while the usual suspects surface in terms of reasons why- cold weather, length-of-play, high ticket prices- I think it boils down to something more systemic.
The MLB is seeing a movement now, in which teams seem quicker to rebuild, or downright tank, as opposed to signing big ticket-free agents and try to “win now”. The thought process here being that, in many cases, while a power-hitting third baseman or a shut-down closer are great pieces to have, very rarely will one guy take a mediocre team and propel them into the playoffs. Instead, teams seem more apt this season to bide their time, avoid mid- to high-level free agents, and play with what they got until their farm system produces the next wave of guys.
The aforementioned process is more of a true “rebuild”. But real tanking is taking place out there too, headlined by the Miami Marlins, who during the offseason took the best outfield in baseball (including the game’s best home run hitter) and traded ALL three of them away (as well as SS Dee Gordon) for minor parts and prospects.
And how do we know this is happening league wide? Average player salaries and average overall payroll both dropped this season for the first time in 14 years. Teams just aren’t spending the same money they have been in years past. Team performances lean in a similar direction. Sixty percent of the league (18 out of 30 teams) finished with a losing record last season. This year? Currently, there are 14 teams below .500, but six of them are close to the 100-loss pace. SIX. We could have an average of 1 team per division this season lose 100 games. Has that ever happened before?
Let me be clear. I don’t blame teams for the fire sales. I don’t blame them for the rebuilds, and taking a pass on big-name free agents. It’s perfectly within the rules of the league to hold off on acquiring top-tier talent, and instead lose games to try to pick higher in the draft. Look at the recent World Series winners. The Astros and Cubs spent season after season in the early to mid-2010s finishing last, stockpiling draft picks, and selecting high when the draft finally rolled around. They cultivated this home-grown corps of players, and within a few seasons, both these teams found their way to the promised land. It’s no wonder other teams around the league would take a similar approach.
So the MLB is now at a crossroads. The more that teams tank, the more the overall product suffers. This means fewer people tuning in or buying tickets. And it doesn’t help the players much either. If teams decide to rebuild, or straight up tank, they won’t bother signing a free agent like Eric Hosmer or Lance Lynn to sizeable money. The value on the free agent market goes down across the board, but especially for mid-tier free agents. The players’ union won’t like this a whole lot either.
So what can the league do? There is certainly not a “clean fix” to prevent teams from tanking. But if I were the league, I’d consider the two following ideas:
Alter the Draft Order
Like in all other professional sports leagues, MLB teams who choose to throw in the towel on a given season do so in the hopes to get a favorable spot in the draft. Baseball currently orders the draft selections in reverse order based on performance- the team that finishes with the worst record at the end of the season picks first, the second worst team goes next, etc. But altering how the order is shaped could help to deter teams from falling back on the draft as a reason to tank. I’ve heard some people suggest having the first 10 spots in the draft flip- so that the worst team in the league, instead of picking first, would pick tenth, and the team that finishes 21st picks first. One way that I personally like would be to incentivize games towards the end of the season. Perhaps the first pick in the draft would go to the non-playoff-team who won the most games after the All-Star break. Whatever it is, the league needs to find a way to get teams to compete all season long, and view wins always more valuable as losses. It’s hard for clubs to do that if the top pick in the draft is a prize reserved for the worst of the worst.
Instate a Salary Floor
The MLB should look into creating a mandatory floor if they want to make it harder for teams to tank. Essentially, a salary floor (for those who don’t know) is a minimum total payroll a team needs to meet or exceed, or else face a penalty. In the case of the MLB, they could set up penalties to be fines, the loss of draft picks, really whatever they want. I’m not exactly a finance guy, so I don’t know how a salary floor would best be calculated for the MLB, but perhaps a percentage of each team’s revenue would be a good place to start (that way, teams like Oakland or San Diego wouldn’t get screwed).
With a salary floor in place, teams wouldn’t be able to ship off big-ticket players or avoid signing free agents in order to tank. Because in doing so, such teams would have a hard time reaching the salary floor. Teams would then need to rely on signing at least a couple free agents each season, or extending key players to lucrative contracts, in order to avoid facing team fines and penalties. With that, teams would (theoretically) become more competitive, and the players would benefit as well. A guy hitting the free agent market wouldn’t need to worry about getting passed over by teams choosing to tank instead.
Whatever the league decides to do, I can’t imagine they stand pat on this issue for too much longer. If revenue starts to decline, and attendance and TV ratings continue to hurt, the MLB won’t be in the mood sit back and “trust the process”. Agree? Disagree? Let’s hear it.