Personnel management in MLB is screwed up. Everyone agrees on this. Most teams aren't actually trying to get better in a given offseason. To the extent that they are, they're not aiming for the current season; they're acquiring assets they hope they can turn into more assets later. The disinterested Tigers might end up second in the division just by being out-disinterested by the rest of their rivals.
Far too much of a premium is placed on team-control players. Their incredibly cheap salaries, combined with the luxury tax-that-is-really-a-cap, means that teams feel they have to try and aim for a window of competition - a sweet spot where they have enough team-controlled salaries performing like all-stars. Pile up too many bad contracts, and competing for championships is out of the question. And sitting at mediocrity is the worst thing you can do - you have no chance at the Bryce Harpers in the draft, and no chance of beating the Evil Empires, either. Really, really bad teams like the Royals and Astros have had their moment in the sun. Mediocre teams like the Reds and Padres have done nothing but depress everyone.
Worse yet, as fewer buyers and more sellers enter the picture at the trade deadline, it becomes harder to dig out of the hole. You have to rely on your own farm system, because you can't easily replenish it with other people's prospects. This puts even more of an onus on the draft.
Meanwhile, perfectly good ballplayers like Mike Moustakas, Yangervis Solarte, and Marwin Gonzalez languish unsigned. The Tigers are far from the only team not putting out any interest. Tigers fans hurl all kinds of vitriol at the front office for being cheap..... but it is only coming from Tigers fans. A national media that had no problem pillorying the very deserving cheap-ass Jeffrey Loria is entirely silent on the Tigers. Why? Because everyone else is doing it too. Baltimore won 47 games last year and has signed zero free agents. The Tigers are only doing that which most makes sense. The Evil Empire route to success is only open to a couple teams. The rest have to hope they're better than everyone else at drafting and developing.
How can we fix this problem? What can we do to make sure teams stop leaving good players on the cutting-room floor, and spend each offseason igniting the hot stove in hopes of actually getting better?
#1 - Reverse the draft order
I have heard all the arguments about how the player picked 15th is not guaranteed to be worse than the player picked 5th, and so on. There is still no way to legitimately argue that you have a better chance of getting a good player with a higher pick than with a lower pick. Given a free choice of where to pick in a draft, every general manager would want to pick first.
Ergo, especially in the age of "build through the draft", nobody is going to be OK with finishing last, if that gives you the 22nd pick in the draft instead of the 1st. Do you think the Orioles would be sitting there signing nobody after a 47-win season?
The first and second picks should go to the two wild-card losers. (No, players are not going to tank that game. They have their own reputations to protect.) The third pick goes to the best team to miss the playoffs, and so on down. The playoff teams will then make their picks - the DS losers from 23 to 26, and so on.
You can bet that crap teams like the Orioles and Royals will be trying like hell to move up. Marwin Gonzalez might all of a sudden be an Oriole. Or a Tiger. Or a Padre. If a mid-level free agent can get you two WAR, teams will try and scratch out those wins. Right now, teams are OK with sucking because there's NO punishment for it.
Better yet, .500 teams that would have been sellers are now buyers. Expiring-contract players like JD Martinez will still be on the move, but if a consolation prize for just missing the playoffs is the #1 pick in the draft, the list of buyers gets a lot longer, and rebuilding teams can accelerate their rebuilding cycle.
This is an idea with a little momentum behind it (although not remotely enough) and there are essentially no downsides.
Oh, and yes, allow draft picks to be traded. It's dumb you can't do that.
#2 - Fix revenue sharing
Right now, teams pay a 31% tax on their local revenue (gate, concessions, merch, etc.) and that tax money is shared out equally. This dulls the incentive to attract fans - no, scratch that. Worse yet, it incentivizes low attendance.
Nothing is quite so sensitive to the ups and downs of the standings as ticket sales - and by extension, merchandise and concessions and so on. TV revenue, on the other hand, is more sensitive to market size than to competitiveness. A better model would be to share 100% of TV money, whether from local or national networks. This graph suggests that the average local TV revenue is around $50 million, so that's about what teams would get, plus national money from ESPN and Fox and whatnot.
With current revenue sharing money around $80 million, this would not shake up the economics much. But it would change the incentive structure. Now, if you suck, you're going to feel it in the wallet a great deal more.
#3 - Change the luxury tax penalties
The way the tax is set up now, teams are penalized more and more for every consecutive year they're over, and eventually, draft pick penalties come into play. Teams do everything they can to avoid those draft pick penalties. (More evidence that reversing the draft order would work.) This has turned the tax into a cap.
Rather than penalizing teams more for every year they go over, they should simply be penalized more by the dollar - and no draft pick penalties. Going over the tax should not be seen as a heinous crime, such that we need to penalize it out of existence. It should simply be seen as another vehicle for revenue sharing. Make the luxury tax more onerous, on a graduated scale, the further you are above the threshold.
And who gets the money? Right now, a little over half goes to player benefits. The rest should go, not to the cheapest teams, but again distributed to the teams with priority in the same as draft order. Try to get better and you get more money.
#4 - Create an international draft
The whole idea of an international bonus pool is silly. College football teams have enough trouble trying to figure out which 15-year-olds will project to be the best football players in four years. It's absolutely asinine to take some 15-year-old Dominican kids and figure out who'll be the best baseball player in ten years.
Instead of spending all this money on bonus checks for teenagers, let's set up some academies in various countries so that promising players can get educated in both baseball and the three R's. They have these in the Dominican. How about Venezuela, Panama, Mexico, Puerto Rico? Draft them when they're 18, don't sign them when they're 16. And then, let's set up agreements with junior colleges in the US so that players can get visas and develop stateside, if not drafted high enough when they're 18. MLB would pay tuition and hopefully get draftable players out the other end.
#5 - Abolish team control
And get rid of service time rules, at least as it pertains to free agency. The MLBPA is mad at teams like the Cubs for gaming service time systems, but that's the system the PA agreed to - it's no use bellyaching after the fact.
Still, it's silly. And the incredibly long "team control" period only exacerbates the "competitive window" issue. Not to mention it's not especially fair anymore to the players. You have players who'll be team-controlled well into their 30s. This is how you get players in their prime making major league minimum and then a tiny handful who are looking to cash in with mega-contracts.....and teams reluctant even to sign them as superstars so they don't get handcuffed to a horrendous contract on a 38-year-old fossil. The Tigers are definitely a cautionary tale for the rest of the league, and it's why Bryce Harper is unsigned less than a week from spring training.
I get it: Teams got tired of investing a whole bunch of time and money in scouting, drafting, and developing, only to watch their prize players flounce right off the moment they're offered a big contract by an Evil Empire. That's why we have the system we have now.
Unintended consequences abound, however. So let's change this.
When you draft a player out of high school, you get seven years with him, counting the year you draft him. College, five years, again counting the year you draft him. This is their rookie contract. After that, he's a free agent. The minute he sets foot in the majors, he gets the prorated major-league minimum (as is the case now) and he goes to arbitration the following year.
(This might discourage September call-ups, but I actually doubt it. Arbitration is no guarantee a player will get more than the league minimum. If, say, Christin Stewart went to arbitration this offseason asking for more than a million or so, he likely wouldn't get it.)
So that teams have a better chance of keeping their investments, a couple incentives go into place:
- Re-signing your own drafted players counts 50 cents on the dollar toward the luxury tax. Those rights stay with the player as long as he's with the team that drafted him, no matter how many new contracts he signs; or, those rights can be traded along with the player if he's traded during his rookie contract. So, the Tigers, by trading for Daz Cameron, also get his rookie rights.
- Any team that was over the luxury tax the prior season would have to sign these players at $1.50 on the dollar toward the tax.
This should allow teams to make bigger offers to their own players and discourage the Evil Empires from bagging them all up.
The net effect of all this is hopefully to achieve the following:
- Encourage teams to work hard on improving every offseason, by introducing rewards for doing so, punishments for not, and tying team profitability closer to success.
- Remove the "window of competitiveness" aspect to ring-chasing.
- Employ the middle class of free agents and help drive up salaries overall using a competitive free market.
- Stop overvaluing younger, cost-controlled talent.
- Make it easier for teams to spend $Texas dollars if they want to, and allow the rest of the league to benefit from the profligacy of the Evil Empires.
- Simplify the system. This is a simple game.
One thing that is purposely missing from the list here: a salary floor. In no place where a salary floor has been instituted, has anyone ever said "this will increase competitiveness." That was never the goal and never will be. It's just a concession to the PAs, in exchange for a salary cap. If the NHL formula is used, the Tigers would've been above any salary floor last year and will come close or surpass it again this year without any further moves. This is not a method to encourage competitiveness, only a method to guarantee a certain percentage of revenue to players.