Theo’s got a tough job ahead of him.
A fun game since Theo Epstein was named a MLB consultant is “recommendations Theo Epstein should make.” While Epstein is wise enough to have ideas, and has some MLB lobbying ability, the game’s serious problems likely have to be negotiated between owners and players. Epstein has one aspect of professional baseball he can champion as well as anyone, but it’s likely to go unfixed.
To discuss the problem, let’s go back to the mid-1980s. When players were drafted, there was no fanfare. Or MLB TV coverage. Players received an official telegram notifying them of their selection. There were no bonus pools. The player agreed (and signed), or didn’t (and went on with his life).
In the late 2000s, teams had specific dollar amounts attached to selections. They couldn’t go over said limits without running it by the Commissioner. This threat prevented many teams from aggressively shopping on draft day. This was the draft-day culture when Epstein was hired by the Cubs. Before his first draft in Chicago, draft spending had been firmly handcuffed.
Specific choices were assigned certain slot values, and exceeding the total team amounts by a specified limit would subtract future draft selections. No team has challenged that. What limiting spending has wrought is either shocking, or entirely predictable. Not only do teams with horrific records select first, they get the most to spend. Lose 100 games, eat at a posh buffet. Win 95, select late every round, and be limited to $4.5 million in bonus spending. Since owners enjoy cost-controlled talent, do the math.
Epstein’s Cubs (and Red Sox) each struggled on occasion. He grasps the importance of developing talent well, whether he nailed it or not. A step to limit so-called tanking could be to stop rewarding teams for being bad. While some prefer somewhat severing draft order from win-loss record (I’m not entirely opposed), I’d prefer to sever draft spending from win-loss success. Let every team spend up to $8 million in signing bonuses, unless they’ve lost draft picks (through free agent compensation or other punitive measures, like the Astros). Acknowledge the importance of the draft, and let the better front offices gain the full benefit of more spending power. Let teams that select earlier spend a million or two more in total, not twice as much, or more.
If a team is totally sunk for the season in late September, adjust playing time because of it. Planning “losses with benefits” shouldn’t kick in in July. Or March. Or December. With an international draft likely due soon, the teams at the bottom may soon have the first shot at all the best talent. I doubt that will be a temptation. (Laughs hysterically.)
While I dig the idea of normalizing spending, it won’t play. The fear is, as always, envy. The smaller markets, and teams with less-efficient development pipelines, would run frightened to Mr. Baseball One, Rob Manfred. “But, then, the teams that want to win will draft and sign hard-to-sign preps in later rounds.” And, they’d be right. Teams that want to win will push envelopes. Billionaires committed to $80 to $120 million payrolls would lose a coveted edge.
To find a solution to “fix” baseball, 23 owners have to agree with 50 percent-plus-one of the players union. That’s tough to do, as both sides want the larger taffy portion on their half of the apple.