A few days ago, super agent Scott Boras grumbled about the inaction in free agency this offseason, telling The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, “We have to get rid of the noncompetitive cancer. We can’t go to our fan bases and sell the promise of losing to win later. That is destructive to our sport because it has removed one-third of the competition.”
What Boras is really suggesting is that this is destructive to his clients. His charge is teams aren’t interested in signing, say, Mike Moustakas because not enough of them are trying to win, not because they might be unwilling to overpay for a player who posted a .314 OBP and was worth just 1.8 WAR and, oh, costs you a draft pick if you sign him.
There’s no doubt some teams aren’t trying to win. Last season, you can certainly classify the White Sox, Phillies, Reds, Padres and maybe the Braves as teams not going all-out to build a playoff contender. But that’s only five teams, not one-third. The Tigers, Giants and Mets were terrible, but that wasn’t by design. The A’s, Rays and Pirates were working within their usual self-imposed budget constraints.
While we had three 100-win teams for the first time since 2003, I wouldn’t necessarily suggest competitive balance is skewed more than other times in recent history. One way to view this is by considering the number of consecutive losing seasons each franchise is sitting on. If more teams are trying to lose, we should see more teams with lengthy periods of losing seasons.
The Marlins have the current longest stretch with eight consecutive losing seasons, followed by the Padres with seven and the Phillies and White Sox with five. If we add up all the consecutive losing seasons from all 30 franchises, we get 51. Is this unusual? Let’s look at five-year intervals:
By this measure, you can argue we have better competitive balance right now. I’m not sure this is the best way to measure this; it’s one way. In 2012, however, the total was skewed by the Pirates, who were sitting on 20 consecutive losing seasons (they ended that streak in 2013). The only team with more than four straight losing seasons was the Royals, with nine. Those clubs had suffered from both front-office incompetence and small-market disadvantages.
In 2007, the Pirates were at 15 losing seasons, the Rays and Orioles at 10, the Reds at seven. The Royals, with four, were the only other teams with more than three. In 2002 -- near the height of Bud Selig’s complaints that small-market teams had no chance -- the Pirates and Brewers were at 10 losing seasons, the Tigers at nine, the Royals at eight, with the Orioles, Marlins and Rays all at five. There was certainly less competitive balance then, although I think we’ve learned that in those pre-Moneyball days, there was a vast disparity in the competence of front offices that doesn’t exist now.
The two obvious cases of teams “not trying to win” this offseason are the Marlins and Pirates. The Marlins have traded away an All-Star outfield of Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich (plus Dee Gordon), while the Pirates traded Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole. The Pirates never play in the free-agent market anyway -- the biggest foray in franchise history was re-signing Francisco Liriano for $39 million -- and while the Marlins have dabbled in the past with bad results (see Wei-Yin Chen or Jose Reyes), that wasn’t going to happen with the new ownership group.
Those two teams -- along with the Rays trading Evan Longoria to the Giants -- have clearly affected the free-agent market, however. If the Yankees don’t trade for Stanton, maybe they go after J.D. Martinez. If the Astros don’t trade for Cole, maybe they go after Jake Arrieta or Yu Darvish. The Giants fixed a glaring hole at third base with Longoria rather than sign a free agent such as Moustakas or Todd Frazier. The Cardinals acquired Ozuna rather than spend on a risky free agent. These deals have had an impact on Boras’ clients remaining out there.
Still, let’s take Boras’ words as truth: The integrity of the game is suffering because not all teams are trying to win. How do you solve this? You need to provide more incentives for winning -- or penalties for losing. Here are some ideas on what the game could do:
Relegation. “Congratulations on your 64-98 record, Giants. You’ve now been relegated to the Pacific Coast League. The Memphis Redbirds will take your place in the NL West.” There are people who propose this all the time. Hey, it would be a great solution! You want to play with the big boys, then you'd better win. Of course, Major League Baseball doesn’t have the same structure as the Premier League, so quit proposing this idea as a realistic scenario. Although I'd love to see some rich person from Cedar Rapids buy a Midwest League team and make it all the way up to the majors.
Expand the playoffs. If you added a sixth playoff team in each league, maybe a team like the Pirates wouldn’t feel as compelled to trade McCutchen and Cole. Or maybe the Blue Jays or Rangers spend a little more in free agency. A rebuild becomes less necessary if you have better odds of reaching the postseason.
On the other hand, adding the wild-card game hasn’t provided all that much extra incentive. Frankly, a one-and-done scenario in the postseason isn’t all that appealing for teams to make risky free-agent signings. If you expanded the playoffs, I think you’d have to do something like this:
• The two best division winners get a first-round bye.
• The other four teams play a best-of-three series (maybe the third division winner gets all three games at home).
• If you start the series on a Monday after the regular-season ends, you’re not even adding any extra days to the schedule (although you’d have to eliminate tiebreaker games).
Change the draft rules. To discourage tanking, I’d make the draft order based on a cumulative three-year record, not just the previous season. If you’re going to tank, you will really have to tank to earn that top pick (and get more pool money to spend). The Tigers traded Martinez and Verlander, went 6-23 in September, and get rewarded with the first pick. That’s stupid. The Giants went from a playoff team to 98 losses and get the second pick. That’s a big-market team that had one bad season and they could end up with a superstar. How is that fair? Alternatively, you could simply institute some form of a draft lottery. The Brewers missed the playoffs by one win, but maybe they get the same odds of the top pick as the Tigers and Giants.
Salary floor. Good luck getting the small-market teams to agree to this. Plus, I don’t believe there’s any evidence this actually helps competitive balance. Rebuilding teams won't improve by forcing them to spend on mediocre free agents.
Per-win revenue-sharing payout. If you make the playoffs, you get X dollars. If you finish in the next 10, you get X dollars. Finish in the bottom 10 and get no (or much fewer) dollars. So the Marlins want to tank in 2018? Fine, but if they finish 57-105 instead of 77-85, they get less money handed to them from the Yankees and Red Sox.
Limit the number of players on rookie/pre-arbitration contracts. This would kind of act like a de facto salary floor. A team like the Marlins wouldn’t be able to carry so many young players making the minimum salary. Plus it would extend the careers of bad veterans!
Free beer! Once a team loses its 90th game, all ballpark concessions are free the rest of the season. Call this a reward for making the fans watch your crappy team all season.
Make Scott Boras commissioner. “We kicked people out of the game when they tried not to win,” Boras said, referring to the 1919 Black Sox scandal. Imagine the ratings each offseason for the annual “You’ve been kicked out of the game” telecast. It could be like “The Bachelor.” You get a rose, you get to stay in the majors. Run it over several weeks and the tension will become incredible. The final episode comes down to Derek Jeter and Pirates owner Bob Nutting. Who gets the rose?