A New Plan for Finding Competitive Balance In Baseball

Dave NicholsSenior Analyst ISeptember 25, 2009

ANAHEIM, CA - SEPTEMBER 23:  Third baseman Alex Rodriguez #13 of the New York Yankees sets in the field in the game with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim on September 23, 2009 at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California.  The Yankees won 3-2.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

With the season winding down and the playoff races settled—barring an unforeseen collapse—it's a good time to look at Major League Baseball and see if we're satisfied with the product.

This season has seen the perennial powerhouses, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, dominate the competition once again.  Big market clubs in Los Angeles will both march in the postseason parade, and defending champion Philadelphia feasted on its weak sisters in the senior circuit.

But something J.P. Ricciardi said yesterday drew my attention, and baseball fans should pay attention, too.

The Toronto General Manager (for now) said what the other teams in the A.L. East know all too well:  The Yankees and Red Sox operate under conditions that the other teams simply can't.

Here's what he actually said:

"Let me make this clear: It doesn't matter if J.P. Ricciardi is the GM, or Joe Blow is the GM. Two years from now, five years from now, seven years from now, the reality that we face in Toronto is the division is not going to change," Ricciardi said in an interview this week. "The Red Sox and Yankees are not going away. If the Yankees want to, they can take their payroll to $300 million.

"The biggest thing that people forget is that when Toronto won the World Series, they had the highest payroll in baseball. There's a direct equivalent to that. If we're going to play in the big man's division, and we're not going to spend that money, it's going to be really hard for us to compete with those teams."

Romanticists will try to play this off as sour grapes, a statement by a man perilously close to losing his job.  And there's a grain of truth to that.  But the biggest picture is that fat teams are feasting on the lean, and there's very little anyone can do about it, especially under the division format as structured.

It will be a long time coming, and only for a short window, when Toronto, Tampa Bay, Baltimore, Washington, and Florida can compete in their division.

Not only do super-markets New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia benefit from added television revenue and a national fan base, allowing them to operate with more money in their pockets, but with the unbalanced schedule, they get the bonus of beating up on the lesser teams in their divisions more often.

The Yankees went 41-25 in their division; Boston was even better at 45-21.  Philly, St. Louis, and the Dodgers all enjoyed 40-win seasons in their division.  All these teams are allowed to pad their win totals at the expense of the weaker teams.  How can anyone expect Baltimore, Washington, et al. to get a leg up?

Not only are the super-markets free to spend more (on free agents, international signings, scouts, facilities, etc.), but they also play the less-extravagant teams up to 19 times a season.

If baseball won't accept a true salary cap (and basement), I say balance the schedule!  Dissolve the divisions!  Even the leagues number-wise and spread out interleague play!

Here's my proposal:

Start by moving an N.L. team to the A.L. to give us even leagues of 15 apiece.  I'll suggest Milwaukee since it started there, but it really doesn't matter that much. 

Then, balance the schedule by having each team play every league opponent eight times per season, each team in the opposite league three games, and their "geographic rival" three more times.  With an uneven number in each leauge, it means interleague play every weekend.  So what?

That gives us a 160-game balanced schedule.  Traditionalists might cry a little, but they didn't like the Wild Card and that's been nothing but positive for baseball.

Then, go with Peter Gammons' suggestion by adopting one more wild-card team, sending the five best teams in each league to the playoffs.  That puts one-third of the teams in the playoffs, still lower than the NFL at 37 percent, preserving the "sanctity" of the baseball playoffs.

Make the fourth and fifth teams play a three-game series in three days, then give that team the privilege of playing the first place team in their league.  It also gives the top three teams in each league a chance to rest for a couple days, and starts the "real" playoffs on the weekend.

Balancing the schedule won't eliminate the disparity of revenue between markets, but it will allow all teams to compete with the same schedule, giving teams—and fans—the knowledge that the team that finished first really is the best team in the league, having played the same schedule, and received no unfair benefits, schedule-wise anyway, as everyone else.

This plan won't keep New York or Boston from having $300 million payrolls as Ricciardi suggests, but it can help level the playing field by ensuring that everyone plays the same schedule.