What if baseball took a lesson from soccer?

Shhhh… don’t tell anyone this, but occasionally, I cheat on baseball by watching Fox Soccer Channel. I picked up the soccer habit a few years ago, and now my wife always knows when I’ve been watching TV, because the channel will be set to 35 when she turns it back on. A few years ago, baseball decided to do something very much borrowed from soccer when it put on the World Baseball Classic. It was meant as something of a World Cup for baseball, to be held every four years. Even though the players were in Spring Training mode, some of the matchups had that “An All-Star game that counts!” feel to them. It was beautiful. Soccer does this every four years and has since 1930, and it looks like baseball is about to follow suit, even if the ratings weren’t so good for the first time around. (You win a cookie if you can tell me… without using Google or Wikipedia… who won the championship game and who the winning pitcher was.)
For the benefit of those who don’t follow soccer (I can hear all you snobs out there wanting to yell at me for not referring to it as “football”), there’s a rather unique structure to most soccer leagues in Europe. There are several “levels” of competition, in that there is a highest-ranking league in the country (the Majors?) and several lower leagues in descending order of importance (AAA, AA, A, etc.) The names of the leagues are different in different countries, but the idea is the same. In England, the top level is the Premiereship, followed by the Championship League, and then League 1 and League 2. In Italy, they go with the much more alphabetical Serie A, Serie B, etc. In soccer, all of the teams are independent of one another, and there are no minor league affiliates as we understand them, although there are “reserve teams.” Teams also often have player development academies, in which young players are groomed for the senior squad, sometimes from the age of 9! These serve as something of a minor league system, although baseball caught on to this idea too, and many teams have academies in places like the Dominican Republic to feed them talent (but they can’t do that in the U.S.)
Here’s the thing: at the end of the season, the teams at the bottom of the standings in the highest ranking league (usually 3-4 teams depending on the country), are kicked into the lower league, a process called relegation. The top3-4 teams in the league below come up to take their place. So, imagine if the worst four teams in MLB last year were politely excused from further participation in MLB, while the top four teams from AAA were “called up” to the majors! The incentive? Generally, people want to see top flight sporting action and the television revenues for the highest ranking league are a lot higher.
I present to you a thought experiment. I realize that this will never ever ever ever ever happen, but I’m curious to see where it goes. Suppose that baseball operated like European soccer. In addition to awarding a championship, there was something to play for in not being at the bottom of the standings. Suppose that baseball used soccer’s system of player allocation, the “transfer” system, as well. In soccer, it’s rare to have a straight-up trade of player for player. It happens sometimes, but it’s much more common for a team to buy their players from other teams. So, say that the Twins decided that it was in their best interest to get rid of Johan Santana for the money that he would bring in. Instead of the Yankees and Red Sox bidding on him with players (Hughes, Cabrera, and Tabata vs. Ellsbury, Lester, and Bucholz), they would simply be bidding against each other for his services in dollars. The Yankees/Red Soxwould then write a check to the Twins. The Twins could then do whatever they would with the money. They could buy other players or simply spend it on salaries. Or doughnuts. It isa good system in that it does reward teams who develop players.
Problems that this would solve:

  1. The Florida Marlins couldn’t use their dive bombing methodology for attempting to win a World Series. If they attempted to have a fire sale after winning the World Series, they would soon be banished to AAA. In other words, Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis would still be wearing teal and black.
  2. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays and all 35 of their fans would have been banished to AA by now. In fact, that whole nasty “contraction” debate could have been avoided a few years back. The teams that are awful and whom no one wants to support are simply removed from the league.
  3. The trading deadline would get a little more interesting. In soccer, there is a window mid-season (the month of January) in which teams can buy players. Not only are the contenders looking to improve their squad, the ones battling against relegation are as well. They have a reason to not throw up the white flag.

Problems that this wouldn’t solve:

  1. All you salary cappers who like to complain about a lack of competitive balance… well… in England, it’s generally a matter of which of the top four (richest)teams will win the league that year (Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Manchester United) and has been for about 15 years. Lyon has won the French League 6 years in a row now. In Holland, things are worse: Either Feyenoord, Ajax, or PSV Eindhoven have won the Dutch League title for all but one season since 1964! This is a system that rewards the rich owners. The Yankees and Red Soxwould be in contention every year by default.So, really, nothing would change.
  2. Related to the above, teams with promising youngsters would probably end up losing them to the rich teams. A few years ago, a young striker appeared in England who, at 16, was starting in for his club and everyone recognized was “The Next Big Thing.” His name was Wayne Rooney, and he played for a team called Everton (based in Liverpool), who were a respectable middle-of-the-pack organization. A few million dollars later (well, British pounds later), he was wearing the Red Shirt of Manchester United. Man Utd won another title last year, although Everton has become a slightly-better-than-middle-of-the-pack team of late.

Some intriguing things that could happen:

  1. All the folks who harken back to the days when New York City had the Yankees, Dodgers, and Giants, you could get your wish for a three-team NYC again. A town in England can have more than one team playing in a league. (London has something like 5!) Think the Cubs-White Sox thing is rough? Imagine if there were four teams competing for the hearts of a city!
  2. One other feature of European soccer is that in addition to the league games, there is a simultaneous cup competition, which is a single-elimination tournament and anyone can enter. Minor league clubs play against the biggest teams in the country. The big boys usually send out their scrubs in this sort of a situation.

Again, I present this as just a neat little though experiment to start adiscussionon a cold day in the off-season. If you have a little bit of familiarity with both sports, I’d be curious to what you might think would happen if by some random chance, baseball were to actually adopt a European soccer-style structure.


7 Responses to What if baseball took a lesson from soccer?

  1. Evan Brunell says:

    I know Japan won. Was it Dice-K that was the pitcher?

  2. jinaz says:

    Since we’re talking fantasy, I feel ok mentioning this:
    I experimented with this kind of thing a few years back when playing fictional leagues in Out of the Park baseball. I basically had two leagues–an A league and a B league, and the bottom two teams from the A league swapped places with the top two teams from the B league each year. A-league teams got ~$30 million more to spend on free agents (via differences in TV contracts) each year, which meant that teams moving from the A to the B league sometimes would hit such bad financial troubles that it could take a few years to recover and compete, even in the B league.
    Overall, it was a lot of fun. Not sure I’d actually want to see it in MLB, but it made for a fun way to play a fictional baseball sim. 🙂

  3. Pizza Cutter says:

    Evan wins the cookie!

  4. dan says:

    The league changing thing would essentially eliminate the current idea of the farm system. One of the many problems with this is that I bet you the Devil Rays would absolutely tear through the International League en route to a championship, no matter how bad they are in the AL.

  5. Pizza Cutter says:

    There are a lot of yo-yo teams in European soccer. They get sent down, then pulled back up… perhaps this might be an instance of the Quadruple-A team?

  6. dan says:

    Good point. But think about the stadiums selling tickets. Obviously the Rays right now wouldn’t sell out a minor league stadium, but if the Reds were demoted (Hi, Justin), then two things would happen. One, they’d have that big beautiful stadium selling tickets like a minor league team does (a few thousand). Two, the team that replaces them would have a small stadium and major league demand to see them. I haven’t looked it up, but i don’t think Louisville’s stadium is big enough to support a major league fan base.
    A way to solve this would be to have teams moving around, but I don’t think anyone wants that either.

  7. josh says:

    A big problem is that it would prevent small market teams from developing young talent. If, say the Rays had a lot of great prospects, they could play them, go 72-90 for a couple years, then contend, or they could sell them to the Yankees, who could hide them on their bench, and sign a bunch of mediocre free agents in an attempt to go 78-84, and not be demoted. Given the likely financial payouts of being in the “premier league”, I don’t think I need to tell you what would happen. Without minor leagues affiliates, this problem becomes much worse. And even with some minor league affiliates where teams could protect prospects, you would get teams like this year’s Rockie team winning 115 games in AAA, then getting to MLB for only part of their “window of opportunity”.

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