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Would baseball be better with an independent First Division?


DrungoHazewood

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From a recent Ask Bill post on billjamesonline:

I think we're near a point at which we're going to need to expand again. It's been about 20 years, and I think the greater danger now is getting behind the population distribution. I also think that baseball would be stronger if the top minor league cities were "free" teams, able to compete vigorously at the limit of their capacity, rather than being operated by the major leagues for the benefit of the major leagues. But I think it is easier to see Birmingham in the second category than as an expansion site.

This got me thinking. Would it be better if baseball had what in other sports might be called a "First Division"? Basically a free and independent league of roughly AAA quality, clearly better than the Atlantic League but not MLB-quality. They could have 20000 seat stadiums in places like San Antonio and Montreal and Vancouver and Orlando. They could have TV deals with some of the newly emerging sports networks like Fox Sports 1 or NBC Sports.

They wouldn't have to try to compete with the Yanks and Dodgers and the like. They would have their own niche. They wouldn't be trying to convince governments to build them $1B stadiums, just help out with $50M stadiums.

They would have much smaller budgets than the majors, but maybe still big enough to be an alternative to borerline MLB players, former stars, guys defecting from Cuba while they're getting things straightened out. Maybe even a testing ground for players to go prove their worth before signing with a MLB team - guys like Urrutia or Cespedes might bump up their value by playing for a half season or season in the First Division.

Jamie Moyer might still be active in the First Division, because they just don't care if he's still "MLB quality". Brian Roberts might play the next four years there. Players might have a choice between risking the Norfolk shuttle or scant playing time, or going to the First Division and getting 600 PAs for a little less money.

Cities could get a chance to prove their worth as future MLB expansion teams.

MLB could use first division stadiums and teams as leverage to get places like Oakland to pony up cash for a new stadium (pay or we go to San Antonio!)

The fanbase could potentially get invested in success and in players. There might be real pennant races, with trades and signings geared towards winning. Maybe no more calling up a AAA team's best player with a week left in the race because the Padres need him to pinch hit.

Or would no one care? Is there so much entertainment out there that this would get lost? Does no one want to root for a non-MLB team? Would a team full of Brian Robertses and Ryan Flahertys and Wladimir Balentiens get no love?

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And how would it co-exist with existing AAA?

I don't know, but I think it's interesting, and it might work.

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I want to go all the way...promotion and relegation. Seven teams around New York City, four in Chicago and L.A.

That was what I was trying to avoid. North American sports have a 130+ year history of being closed leagues that tightly control their membership and rules and players. Franchises are owned by rich guys, not 100-year-old sports clubs. And those rich guys didn't buy into their MLB team just to see it relegated and have it lose 50% of its value overnight. As cool as it might be to have promotion/relegation in MLB it just isn't happening without some kind of unforseen seismic event that overturns the whole system.

And while I think multiple teams in big cities would eventually help level the playing field, it would be many, many years before new teams in those places got anything like the market power of the Yanks or Cubs or Dodgers or Angels or Sox. Like 30-50 years. One of the reasons five or six teams compete successfully in London in the EPL is that they've all been established there since the 1800s and have rabid fanbases that multiple generations have been part of.

So... my thought was an independent tier that's not trying to compete with the current system might be a way to get some of the benefits of an open system without the battle-to-the-death that trying to fully implement that would entail.

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I don't think it would work because players would not want to play in the league if they were contractually obligated to stay with that team all season. Many of the AAAA players sign player friendly deals that basically allow them to play in someone AAA until they have another major league opportunity. If they allowed players to leave when they are wanted by a major league team, the fan bases of those cities are not going to want to be invested into a team or player that may leave at any moment.

In my opinion, I don't see why the major leagues needs to expand or why this is a problem? The minor leagues is a win-win situation. Smaller cities and towns get an opportunity to watch some baseball at fan friendly prices while possibly catching a prospect or two on his way up. Most minor league fans fall into three categories.

The family entertainment fan: Brings the kids out for some cheap fun entertainment for the night. They may leave by the 7th inning or at the first drop of rain. They are into the between inning entertainment, get up about 19 times during the game, and literally could not tell you whether the team has prospects or not most likely.

The prospect hound: These people are usually male and pay very close attention to what the prospects do. They prefer for their team to win but in the end, they want to see the prospect do well.

The locals: These people are usually older and maybe even retired. They may house players or provide them post game meals. They are usually part of the boosters. They care about the prospects, but they more importantly want their team to win. They may "love" the hustling organizational guy and they usually know a lot of the players personally.

Unfortunately for your "Independent First Division" idea, there are not too many of these folks. Most of the fans that attend are not checking the box score every night to see how the team did last night. From my experience in the minor leagues, most of the fans are there for entertainment for that night and are not really invested in the team overall.

But the good news is this model works well. The prospects get to play at a level appropriate for their current skill level and thousands of young men get to play professional baseball while millions get to enjoy a fun night at the park all over the country.

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I don't think it would work because players would not want to play in the league if they were contractually obligated to stay with that team all season. Many of the AAAA players sign player friendly deals that basically allow them to play in someone AAA until they have another major league opportunity. If they allowed players to leave when they are wanted by a major league team, the fan bases of those cities are not going to want to be invested into a team or player that may leave at any moment.

In my opinion, I don't see why the major leagues needs to expand or why this is a problem? The minor leagues is a win-win situation. Smaller cities and towns get an opportunity to watch some baseball at fan friendly prices while possibly catching a prospect or two on his way up. Most minor league fans fall into three categories.

The family entertainment fan: Brings the kids out for some cheap fun entertainment for the night. They may leave by the 7th inning or at the first drop of rain. They are into the between inning entertainment, get up about 19 times during the game, and literally could not tell you whether the team has prospects or not most likely.

The prospect hound: These people are usually male and pay very close attention to what the prospects do. They prefer for their team to win but in the end, they want to see the prospect do well.

The locals: These people are usually older and maybe even retired. They may house players or provide them post game meals. They are usually part of the boosters. They care about the prospects, but they more importantly want their team to win. They may "love" the hustling organizational guy and they usually know a lot of the players personally.

Unfortunately for your "Independent First Division" idea, there are not too many of these folks. Most of the fans that attend are not checking the box score every night to see how the team did last night. From my experience in the minor leagues, most of the fans are there for entertainment for that night and are not really invested in the team overall.

But the good news is this model works well. The prospects get to play at a level appropriate for their current skill level and thousands of young men get to play professional baseball while millions get to enjoy a fun night at the park all over the country.

I understand that it works on some level, and I also know that these theoretical parallel universe threads are just that.

But I also know that people respond better, more rabidly, more enthusaisticlly about teams that they have a stake in, a history with, in winning something. I think it didn't have to work out that the minors are just about family entertainment and prospects and old guys hanging out at the park. It could have worked out where the minors were just baseball teams that were trying to win their pennant, much like NCAA basketball and football are lower-quality, smaller-market versions of the NFL.

Maybe it wouldn't work out in today's environment, but I think it's possible that you could go back and tweak some things that happened in the 1920s and 1930s, and the minor leagues would have stayed largely independent and the MLB player development/acquisition model would be very different. And the minor league teams would be fighting for wins to fill the seats and get the viewers/listeners, just like MLB teams on a smaller scale.

Somewhere deep down it irks me that we have hundreds of minor league teams for whom the schedule and standings and playoffs are really a sham. The players may try their best to win each game, but the supervising organization really couldn't care much less about the on-field performance of their affiliates. That's pretty unique in pro sports - entire leagues that don't care about winning.

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Sometimes I wish that MLB would have something similar to what Drungo is talking about. Have a league of about 10 independent teams in cities bidding for an expansion team. Then if a MLB team has a sub .500 record for more than 5 years or finishes last for three years in a row. Said MLB team would be demoted to the independent league and the team with the best record in the independent league would get promoted to MLB.

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