How I’d “Fix” Baseball (Without a Salary Cap)

December 24, 2008 | Thyrl Nelson

If you think that it hurts to be an O’s fan today in the wake of the Mark Teixeira signing, imagine how it feels to be a Rays fan. As Orioles fans, we at least “enjoyed the luxury” of having zero expectations in the first place. Furthermore, we have a decade of mismanagement that simply can’t be ignored when trying to figure out why the O’s are hopeless. But the Rays have done “everything right” when it comes to running a small market club, yet they have to be seriously concerned about their chances going forward in this division now too.


When it comes right down to it, spending doesn’t always, or even usually equate to winning a World Series. The Yankees have spent nearly $2 billion on payroll since they last popped the champagne bottles, and a number of smaller market teams have gone away with the hardware in the meantime. But in order to play for a championship, you have to get to the post season first. And more often than not, over the course of 162 games, the big spenders usually come out on top.


Based on the current landscape of the AL East, it’s safe to say that it’ll be tough going for the Orioles no matter what they do over the next 3 to 5 years. The Yankees are reloading, and are still actually under last year’s payroll number, the Red Sox are always willing to spend, and have proven to be one of the more adept teams at developing their own young talent too. And the Rays have a stockpile of young talent that should keep them in the hunt for the foreseeable future at least. It’s a safe bet that someone in the division could win 100 games and still miss the playoffs in the next year or two.


There will likely be lots of talk of a salary cap in the upcoming days and weeks. And depending on how much more these Yankees are willing to spend, and how much success it affords them, we’ll probably be discussing it well into the future too. I’d guess, that much like a playoff in college football, although a salary cap in baseball makes total sense to most fans, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see it happen.


Salary caps aren’t perfect either though. The NFL is all but ready to scrap theirs, despite the success that the league has enjoyed under the system. And the salary cap in the NBA is a confusing mess that makes for silly trades and even phantom contracts in order for teams to stay within its bounds.


There are a number of ways that I’d like to “fix” baseball, but here’s a simple one. It alleviates the need for a salary cap and still levels the playing field, without messing with the tradition of the game. I also think that it would benefit enough teams to make it viable. And as I said, it’s simple.


All you’d have to do is put both leagues back on a balanced schedule, determine a date, let’s say March 1st, and sort the leagues into divisions by payroll. There would still be an American and National League, but instead of East, West and Central divisions, they’d have a high, middle and low payroll division.


Going back to a balanced schedule would mean that the schedule could be released as usual, without regard for divisional alignments. And they could even name the divisions after legendary players.  


Since the leagues have different numbers of teams, structuring the divisions could be tricky. In the AL, I’d take the top 4 payrolls and put them in one division. This would give back a little bit of benefit to the teams who are willing and able to spend, as they’d have a better mathematical shot at making the playoffs. The median and low payroll divisions would each have 5 teams in the AL.


In the NL, I’d put 4 in the top payroll division again, and put 6 teams each in the other two divisions, or they could elect to put 5 teams in each of the top and median divisions and 6 in the low payroll division.


This system would still reward teams for spending money, as they’d compete in the smallest division, and the balanced schedule would insure that divisional alignments wouldn’t give any team an advantage for the wildcard because of the division that they’re in.


Strategically, teams would have to make decisions based on whether acquisitions or deals are likely to place them into a division where they have a better chance at getting to the postseason. It would put every team’s spending out on Front Street, making them answerable to their fans. And it would even allow baseball to do away with their farcical luxury tax if they chose to.


Most importantly, doing it that way would insure that teams in cities like Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Cincinnati and other modest markets wouldn’t be forced to compete with spending power that they could never hope to match. Further, it would reward teams who are able to stockpile talent despite modest payrolls like Tampa and Milwaukee recently, while rewarding those who choose to spend big money too.


Sooner or later, they’re going to have to do something, or baseball will surely begin to suffer. Maybe that’s the problem in a nutshell. Until baseball sees that the average fan is fed up, despite the fact that their numbers say otherwise, there’ll be no reason for them to do anything. And in once proud baseball cities all across America, fans are hoping for a reason to hope, while in a few select cities, the playoffs are all but assured already.