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Drungo's 2011 Offseason Nothing Better to Do Thread #1


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On both Bill James' site and Tom Tango's blog there are ongoing conversations about strengthening the minor leagues. All hypothetical, all 99.99% unlikely to happen. But I love these kind of alternate universe discussions.

These conversations led to a post talking about how the NFL has a wildly popular and successful minor league - the NCAA. There are 10 or 12 NCAA teams that out-draw every single NFL team. There are ~100 NCAA teams that draw at least 30,000 or 40,000 fans a game. And most of those fans are rabid - wearing team colors, driving hundreds of miles for the game, chanting in unison, etc, etc.

Contrast this to baseball's minor leagues, where the very best AAA teams in the biggest markets don't draw 20k a game, and the vast majority of teams draw 3, 5, 6-thousand fans a game. And if you've ever been to a minor league game you know 80% of the fans are there for the ice cream, the inflatable slides, the beer and the fact it's something to do for $6 a head. The baseball is secondary, and the competition or the championship is almost an afterthought.

There are several reasons for this, in my mind:

1) The competition isn't real in baseball. It is, but it's not. Players are obviously trying, but winning isn't the #1 goal. Because any player can be transferred to another team at any time, and players often have artificial limits on their performance (like 75-pitch counts for starters) the league standings and playoffs lose most of their meaning.

2) There's no continuity in baseball. Lots of NCAA football players stay for four years, most of them actually. Unless you're not very good you stay at a minor league stop for less than a season and never return.

3) Minor league players are largely anonymous. NCAA players are household names. Real competitions, players who stick around for years, this leads to people becoming familiar with the players, which feeds back into more popularity through TV and radio and ESPN, the internet, and the like.

So... stay with me, I know this is starting to drag on... what if there was an alternate universe where baseball's minor leagues were either independent and age-limited, or funded and staffed by the Majors as a whole instead of individual teams.

You would have a situation much like NCAA and the NFL. Where players were assigned to the minors, with some exceptions, until they turned 21 or 22, at which point they'd be eligible for the Major League Draft. With real competitions, real pennant races in the minors you'd start to get more popularity. Really good players would stay in AA or AAA for multiple years, possibly being able to petition for early draft status, but often just staying in the minors and helping their team win championships. This would lead to them becoming popular national stars, and the Major League Draft becoming a huge thing. Instead of the O's drafting a 17-year-old Billy Rowell and hoping and praying he develops in four or five years, they're drafting the equivalent of a college star who'll be able to almost immediately step in and play.

Obviously there would be a lot of issues to work out for this to happen, maybe too many to work. Rival leagues might start up, players would complain about delayed paydays, a million other things.

So what do you think? Clearly this isn't going to happen, but it might be really interesting if it did.

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I think the best scenario, which obviously will never happen, would be for everyone to have to go to college for three years similar to college football. You already have built-in connections among the fanbase and there's real competition.

This is a bit off topic from the main discussion, but Peter Gammons has called for MLB to work with the NCAA to promote collegiate baseball for years. With scholarships being reduced it only means less opportunities for younger players and increased odds that players will jump to the majors. I believe Gammons has called for MLB to start funding collegiate scholarships or at least make donations to try and ease the financial burden on programs. Unfortunately baseball is one of the sports being squeezed by Title IX.

One other thing, there is one negative aspect to independent minor leagues that also occurs at the collegiate level. With no pitch limits and managers whose job it is to win, you're most likely going to have overuse of pitchers.

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I think theres more to it. Theres tons of high school football programs that have enormous stadiums that sell out year after year, especially all over the South. How many high school baseball programs have a similar following. There are some, buts its much more rare.

Even at the collegiate level, Football is the most popular sport. At the University of Delaware theres virtually no following for stellar programs like the Women's BBall Team, Volleyball, Lacrosse, all of which are successful year after year. Baseball is the same way. Football, however, is the biggest draw. Of course Football is played once a week for a few weeks a year while there are dozens of games in the other sports with no regular (same day every week) schedule.

Maybe the way to "fix it" or make it more like the NFL/NCAA relationship would be to cut the amount of minor league teams associated with each system. The NFL has only the practice squad outside of the main team, you either make it or you don't. Then again an NFL team is only drafting 6-9 players a year. Maybe cut down the system, and let the NCAA take on that load.

I don't really like an age system, because in the rarity of a player being good enough to crack a MLB team when hes 19-20 years old, he should be able to. The fans of the big league team should get to see him and his career should not be delayed.

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I know I've brought this up before, and it's based a lot on what Drungo has suggested over time, but I think the way they could make the minor leagues "matter" is to actually give them something to compete for if they choose. Find a way to have both farm teams and competitive promotion/relegation at the same time, so if (for example) the Single-A San Jose A's wish to try they can rise through the ranks and challenge for a major-league membership.

I actually wonder of the age of the "anonymous" prospect is ending. With the explosion of the Internet it is suddenly easy to find whatever information you want about whatever player you want. There are draft websites all over the place, and the draft itself is now televised. We could even be entering a time of live webcasts from every game.

The reason college football and basketball caught on like they did is because those sports never had the minor league reach that baseball always has had, and so the only place you could watch those sports was at the local college or high school. This allowed them to become intertwined with the whole alumni tradition in those places, which is why there are so many rabid fans of those sports versus scholastic or minor-league baseball.

I think that instead of focusing on what they are not and contriving a way to emulate those other sports, baseball should focus on what they have: a nation-wide system of professional leagues where fans can watch the players that will eventually make the majors.

They should use the uniqueness of the system to its fullest advantage. Let people know that unlike the college systems of questionable ethics and labyrinthine rules, these are fully professional clubs based and supported locally. If they can make things more competitive, that's how they counter football and basketball.

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I think you are missing a key point, i.e., that in basketball and football the "minor leagues" are associated with a college. Nobody cared about the Continental Basketball League, and nobody cares now about the NBA Development League, and nobody bought the USFL or the XFL.

So the real issue is, why doesn't college baseball have the same type of following as basketball and football? And I think the reasons are historical. College football and basketball existed long before their professional counterparts. If you wanted to see the best competition there was, college was the place to see it, for a long time. But baseball always had the minor leagues, and college baseball has always been inferior to upper level minor league ball. So, it just doesn't have the same kind of following.

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