Every so often, someone will mention that baseball parity might be improved through the use of “relegation,” common practice in European soccer leagues such as England’s Premier League. The English method wouldn’t exactly work in Major League Baseball, for a number of reasons, but apropos of Major League Baseball’s takeover of the Los Angeles Dodgers — as well as the impending sale of the Houston Astros and part of the New York Mets, teams owned by two of the worst owners in sports — it’s worth re-examining the tools that baseball has to ensure that clubs remain competitive and well-run.
In general, relegation only affects the very worst teams in the league, who get relegated to a lower division while the best teams in the lower division get promoted. The teams in the highest division, like those in the Premier League, get the privilege of competing against each other for the most prestigious championship. They also get access to the highest revenue streams through television and advertising. (The Premier League itself is sponsored by Barclays; many of the lower leagues are sponsored as well.) Last year’s “floating realignment” suggestion — in which Bud Selig proposed that teams could be temporarily reassigned to different divisions, a Byzantine solution to the problem of the AL East — brought a number of responses discussing or recommending relegation. However, I’d prefer to propose it not as a competitive measure, but as a punitive measure.
I think it’s pretty obvious that yearly relegation would be a bad idea for American baseball — the owners and players would never agree to it, and it would only make the rich teams richer and the poor poorer. (Since 1992, only four teams have won the Premier League: Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal, and one-year wonder Blackburn. Eleven different teams have won the World Series.) I’m not interested in relegation as a yearly way to promote parity. I’m interested in relegation as an occasional punishment, rather than a yearly realignment — a way to disincentivize owners from running their teams into the ground or refusing to field a competitive team while pocketing profits from revenue sharing.
Since 1992 — back when there were just 26 teams — 19 different teams have won a league championship and played in the World Series, including all four expansion teams. Of the 11 who have not played in the World Series, six have made the playoffs in the last five years. (Those six include the Athletics and Dodgers, two teams whose ownership situations have affected their ability to win — the Athletics because their payroll is tiny, the Dodgers because the McCourts’ overspending and divorce proceedings have made the team a ward of the state.)
You can guess the other five, of course: the Mariners, Orioles, Pirates, Royals, and Expos/Nationals. These five teams have been dreadful for most of the past two decades. The Mariners’ 302 wins from 2001 to 2003, and mere nine-year playoff drought, are downright enviable compared to the others, and so we’ll strike them from the list. The Orioles haven’t been to the playoffs in 13 years, the Pirates haven’t been in 18 years, the Royals haven’t been in 25 years, and the Expos/Nationals haven’t been in 29 years. If any team were to be relegated, it would be one of them.
I view relegation as a financial punishment, designed to strike meddling ownership in their pockets, but the financial implications are wide-ranging. For one thing, as FanGraphs’ Leo Martin told me, the fear of relegation and possible benefit of promotion can lead teams in England to spend themselves nearly into bankruptcy: in the words of Joe McLean, a financial analyst quoted in The Guardian, the desire for promotion can “lead clubs to being seduced by what could be coming and take risks that they could later regret.” (And the Mariners probably wouldn’t have wound up on the above list if Bill Bavasi hadn’t been seduced by Erik Bedard.)
But, if anything, we want these teams to spend more. The chief reason that the Royals, Expos/Nationals, and Pirates have been so bad for so long — and the chief reason the Astros have been so bad since their 2005 league championship — is that skinflint owners have prevented their teams from spending money wisely or well. If they could be seduced by the prospect of higher revenues, or scared straight by the threat of much lower revenues in a lower league, that would be to baseball’s greater advantage.
The chief structural problem with relegation in baseball is that there’s only one major league. In order for a scheme like this to work, you need at least two: a league into which teams will be relegated, and a league into which they will be promoted. In old baseball parlance, that would be somewhat akin to the old first division and second division, though obviously relegation would make it a great deal more official. The affiliated minor leagues can’t host relegated teams or provide teams to be promoted, because player promotion and demotion is strictly controlled by the clubs who own the respective teams, and because a promoted farm club would be owned by one of the other 29 teams.
However, Bill James wrote an article in his recent “Solid Fool’s Gold” in which he suggested a number of tweaks to limit player promotion, thereby ensuring that minor league teams had more integrity and more meaningful playoff races, thus making the minor leagues a more independent entity and better for fans. That would be a way for the minor leagues to be a possible destination for a relegated major league team. (Obviously, you would have to relegate an even number of teams, and possibly realign the divisions, to ensure that there remained an even number of teams in the majors and at least four teams in each division.)
In our conversation, Leo Martin raised one other caveat: fans of relegated teams might permanently defect to other sports. That’s a good point, and it’s another reason that relegation should only even be considered as a last resort — as a punishment for a team that has screwed up so severely that contraction or relocation might have otherwise been considered. But in those cases, it’s hard to alienate the fanbase further. After all, in Pittsburgh, the fans have largely already defected, and here in Washington, other than Stephen Strasburg’s first start, they basically never came. The Royals are second-to-last in the majors in attendance, the Pirates are fourth-to-last, the Nationals are eighth-to-last, and the Orioles are ninth-to-last. Losing teams lose fans, but their ownership can be insulated from these losses — and from the incentive to stem them by investing in a winning team — thanks to the revenue sharing funds. Relegation would strip that insulation.
I have pursued this thought exercise while fully realizing that it’ll never, ever, ever happen. As annoyed as many teams might be by watching owners pocket their revenue-sharing money — George Steinbrenner loudly condemned the revenue-sharing system for just that reason — I’m sure that most of the Pirates’ rivals have been happy to rack up the wins against these doormats all these years. Moreover, unless the prospect of relegation were specifically adopted in the Collective Bargaining Agreement, which of course it wouldn’t be, Bud Selig might not have the legal authority to tell the Nationals, Royals, Orioles or Pirates that their major league team is going to play in the minor leagues. But it’s an appealingly simple idea. Maybe a Quad-A team shouldn’t have to stay in the majors.