In 1988, in his last Abstract, Bill James wrote an essay called “Revolution”. I would link to it, but our copyright laws mean that a 31 year old essay is not yet in the public domain, nor never will be. In it, James suggested freeing the minor leagues from their farm status and having them compete as independent leagues. Some would accept their levels as minor leagues, some would try to build up and from a 3rd major league, some would fold. It would allow more teams to exist as every town could have a team and compete at their proper level, with proper levels of pay (none to very little). There was a lot of good stuff in the article but when I was reading it, in April 1988, I was struck by what he left out…relegation and promotion. There was no way for a team not in the majors to get there, other than expansion. It was the obvious flaw in the article. It is one I have been thinking about ever since, and despite tinkering around, my solution keeps coming back to the same one I thought of 31 years ago.
Ignoring the relegation/promotion question for now, why would we want free minor leagues? Have you been to a minor league game? The decision making is less than spectacular, but it is because the managers literally aren’t playing to win. They are rewarded for developing players, not winning games. If that means playing Joey Votto in left field instead of 1B, because the Reds don’t have an opening at first, then so be it (this is not a hypothetical. And yes, he was a far worse outfielder than you can possibly imagine). Your AAA team has made the playoffs? Great, we will call your best player up to the majors so he can pinch hit once a week in September.
There is no real rooting for your home team. At best, if you are a fan of their affiliated major league team, you get to see players that you will be cheering for later one. As a Reds fan and Cardinals hater, when Louisville was a Cards franchise, I had trouble cheering for my local team. Fortunately, they switched to the Reds (with a brief detour thru Milwaukee). If the teams were independent, they would be playing to win. And attendance would go up, not down, in the post season.
For those not fans of European sports, what is relegation and promotion? I will use English soccer as my example, as it is the best known to American, but I am sure Pie can fill us in on how it works differently in Romania. At the end of the season, the worst teams from one league are relegated down to the next lowest league, and the best teams from that league come up. For example, the bottom 3 (18th thru 20th) in the English Premier League are relegated to the Championship League, and the top 3 (actually top 2, plus a playoff winner of teams 3-6) are promoted from the Championship to the Premier League. Below the Championship is League 1 and League 2. Below them is the National Conference, and then it starts getting interesting. At that point, instead of a straight 1 to 1 correspondence, we get branching, as the leagues form “The Pyramid”. Below the Conference is Conference North and South. Below them are 3 leagues, Northern, Southern, and Isthmian. And below them are more and more branches. At the lowest levels you get county leagues. Its just neighborhood teams playing against each other, with better ones moving up and playing against the other better teams. Think of it as like A-league vs B-league softball.
If you really care, here is a nice image:
Now that we are all on board, what would the American system look like. First, we have to accept that 1969-1976 had the correct setup for MLB. Each league had 12 teams, divided into 6 eastern and 6 western teams, with 18 games played in division and 12 played out of division with no interleague play.
Perfection! Then it all got screwed up by letting Toronto in the AL.
While we can’t go back, we can replicate that. We will expand the majors by 18 teams, and form two levels of 24 teams. The Major Leagues D1 will have 4 6-team divisions: NL-East, NL-West, AL-East, AL-West playing the schedule they did in the 70s. Major League D2 will also have 4 6-team divisions, but will save on travel costs. There will be two leagues, the Eastern League and the Western League, each with a National and American division. They will play the same 18-12 breakdown, but wont cross over to the other half of the country.
Sixth place in each D1 division will be relegated to the appropriate division in D2. The winners of divisions in D2 will move up. Below is my initial layout. I chose the 18 teams from current minor league baseball (17 of the 18 are in AAA) based on 2019 attendance and not being located within the DMA of a major league team. The 6 MLB teams in D2 were based on geography and 2019 records. For assigning minor league teams to National or American, I mostly went with their historical affiliations with some adjustments for balance. Its just an example. The west starts at Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, and the UP. And whatever that is in Canada – Albertoba or something.
Here is your 2020 breakdown:
|Atlanta||St Louis||NY Yankees||Minnesota|
|NY Mets||Chi Cubs||Boston||Oakland|
|Pittsburgh||San Fran||Baltimore||LA Angels|
|Buffalo||Paso||Rochester||Salt Lake City|
That is a start of the system, we could keep the rest of the minors around as farm teams, instead of each MLB team having about 6, each of the 48 would have 3. But once we go down this path, this won’t last. There will be more expansion off the bottom of this, We will start the American Baseball Pyramid. I don’t know exactly how it would develop, but I think it would start with 4 regional leagues, Northeast, Southeast, Central, and West Coast. Maybe 5, with a Midwest league also, Yeah, probably so. I don’t know how they would decide the 4 to promote, so maybe it would be 4. But whatever, you get the idea. And below that would be 8 or so leagues, and below that state level leagues. Below that city level leagues, where neighborhoods play against neighborhoods – probably much shorter seasons with a game or two thru the week and then weekend games on Friday, Saturday, Sunday.
This would give a place for that guy you played little league with, who was a AAA all-star and then spent 2 weeks in the Majors with an ERA over 10, a place to continue to play (this is also not a hypothetical). Now, there are two types of guys in the minors, young kids who have potential to be major leagues, and guys kept around because they help the young guys learn and may be a coach someday. As soon as you lose that prospect status, you are generally out the door. They don’t want a 32 year old at A ball. But with an independent system, if that 32 year old can help the A league team win and get promoted, he is worth having around. And they will still develop the 19 year old, so they can sell him to a Major League team and rake in the profits.
So why hasn’t this already happened? It might have in the 19th century. It would have prevented all the failed competing major league attempts, like the Players League and the Federal League and the American League. The PCL was very close to a 3rd major league and might have become one if the Dodgers and Giants hadn’t moved west. There were a few players who refused Major League contracts to stay in the PCL.
Now it won’t happen for the obvious reason: $$$. I team dropping to MLB-D2, or even lower, would lose out on lots of money. With the cost of a team, owners can put up with being bad, they can’t put up with being in a lower league. And the second monetary reason is leverage. Although expansion has put a stop to most of it, teams can get shiny new stadiums out of cities by threatening to leave. Get Las Vegas a D2 team and the threat goes away. Vegas isn’t going to try to become the new home of the Twins, they can just spend money on players and get promoted.
The system seems great to libertarians, the best 24 franchises will rise to the top and bad owners will watch their teams fall. Good fan bases will support their team, providing the money for teams to rise to their appropriate level and stay there. Bad fan bases will get what they deserve. And we can also see why crony capitalist wouldn’t like it.
So yet again, I end an article with a section on why my awesome idea isn’t feasible.