Expansion, Is There Enough Talent?

Determining talent level in a professional sports league a very difficult thing. By what measurements do you evaluate talent? Is the athlete today better than past athletes? Has football, basketball, and soccer  taken away talent from baseball? It is easy to say that talent is watered down in baseball, but how can you tell? At what point would the talent level need to decrease for people to stop watching? These are all difficult questions but somewhat important to a fans concerned about MLB expansion if it ever was to come back under discussion.

First to evaluate talent we should have a baseline. Lets take 1950 in the middle of one of baseball’s golden eras when baseball was the most popular sport around. If baseball can be as good as the baseball in the 1950s it can’t be too bad. Right?

In 1950 the United States population was  just over 150 million persons today it is over 300 million, over double what it was during baseball’s golden era. In 1950 black players had just started to break into the major leagues, latin players were almost unheard of in the major leagues and in Japan baseball was just getting restarted after the war. Major league baseball consisted of only 16 teams in 1950 but to say that would be misleading. The Negro leagues while beginning their decline still existed and on the west coast the PCL had eight teams with talent that may have been major league and if not, very close to major league.

The book “Baseball and Billions” by Andrew Zimbalist approached the question of expansion in the early 1990s and he based his conclusion mostly on the population increase. Zimbalist’s most conservative estimate was that baseball could support at least 40 teams without dropping below the level of talent of the 1950s. This is an estimate from almost 20 years ago and yet baseball has only expanded by 4 teams(1993 and 98)  Today based on simply on the odds of people alive to major league jobs, it is much harder for a boy to become a major leaguer than ever before.

But, you say what about basketball and football? Those sports are more popular than before and take athletes away from baseball. Well first the athletic requirements are somewhat different for football and basketball. Baseball while the size of the ballplayer has increased does not usually have the 6’6″ and above players that basketball has. Football does take some athletes away for example Russell Wilson and Dennis Dixon who both played minor league baseball and Golden Tate who was a decent outfielder in college. Still I would find it hard to believe that football and on a lower scale soccer would draw potential baseball players away at a rate that equals population increase.

When we talk about baseball players though it isn’t just the population increase that creates the talent pool. The international talent that has entered the game has fundamentally changed the game. The increase of Latin American talent, the Korean and Japanese players and some players from Australia and the Netherlands are adding to baseball’s talent pool. Clearly there is more than enough talent to stock four to six more teams.

When we look at the play on the field we have further factors that make the game better today than it has ever been. In the 1950s to 60s ballplayers often spent their winters working or playing baseball. Training techniques and rest schedules were not discussed. Spring training was the time to get in physical shape, now most players show up in shape. Instead of barnstorming across the country, players work out and try to get into the best shape for the season. Not all players do this of course, but enough that there is a noticeable difference between the athlete of the early 80s and today. This is true even when you consider the years of abnormal athletes with the use of PEDs. One of the things the PED era showed was that physical fitness could make a better ballplayer. This sounds basic but as a kid many of the baseball training books said not to get big muscles because it hurts flexibility. The fear of weight training was a real thing in the past.

So if baseball were to expand what would happen. Well we would see some bottom of the bench guys who have less power. Maybe some players who can hit but not field as well. Possibly some guys pitching with less speed. After the initial years of bad expansion teams (not necessarily as Arizona was in the playoffs their second year) the talent would balance out and the lower talented guys would be back of the bullpen guys and bench players.

Bad teams are going to be bad. A team like the Astros isn’t a result of lack of talent on the big league level. The Astros have less than their share of talent because they have traded it away, failed to develop it, or failed to bring in talent. They have purposefully traded away some older talent for younger talent. It is not that there isn’t enough talent, it is that they don’t have the best talent. I believe that if you took this Astros team and sent them back twenty-five years they give the Twins or the Cardinals a run. Doubt me? Of course you do. We can’t measure speed of pitches from 1987 or speed of hits. What we can look at though is physical listings. A look at the rosters of 1987 Twins and the 2012 Astros shows exactly what you would expect, players are slightly taller and weigh more.

The Twins pitchers averaged just under 6’2 and 198lbs the 2012 Astros average just over 6’2 and 208lbs. Overall the 1987 Twins average player was just over 6’1 and 196lbs. The average Astro in 2012 is a half inch taller and over 208 lbs, this is including 5’5 160lb, Jose Altuve. Now this numbers don’t tell the whole story but they show what we already know. If you put the 1987 Twins on the same field as the 2012 Astros the Astros would look physically bigger. With todays training techniques you can assume that the players are not fatter just more muscular. Without getting into the PED discussion, the point is the players are bigger which probably means stronger.

I have written nothing we don’t already know. I don’t need to go very in-depth to say that baseball players have gotten better, and that the talent level is at an all-time high. In fact without massive expansion it will probably continue to improve. This is of course, good for the game.

An argument that will probably be brought out is that players are not as good at the fundamentals as they used to be. This is the standard line old fans always say about the new generation. This really is impossible to measure. True defensive metrics are still in development, but from what I have seen, great defense is on display every night. Bunting and hit and run plays have come under scrutiny as to their true value, and how much enjoyment does a bunt really add to watching a game? Quick, name a player you want to watch bunt. Maybe Ichiro in his prime but come on really. And speed, well we now know you need to have about a 75% steal percentage to be valuable stealing bases. Not only have the players gotten better, but new thinking on strategies has made the game better (if only more mangers considered new ways of leveraging players). Fundamentals are always going to be there, if a guy is missing the cutoff man or getting tossed out on the basepaths he probably will either fix it, or not be around long (unless he can really hit). What the hell are fundamentals anyway?

The main point of this post is that without saying anything earth shattering it is evident that the talent level of baseball could withstand expansion. Fans would hardly notice the difference 100 new players make if baseball expanded by four teams or even six. The question of why baseball should expand is more difficult and will be considered more in-depth later.

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Contraction, Why Does This Keep Coming Up?

Jerry Reinsdorf recently stated that he thought it would be better if baseball contracted two teams. He also stated that expansion was not on the horizon. While baseball has always been slow to adapt it is in this area that short-sighted profit maximization hurts the game. Lets examine this.

Why Some Owners Want Contraction

Supply and demand is not a difficult concept. The demand for ownership of a major league team is scarce since few can afford the price but supply is even more scare. There are only 122 professional major league sports franchises (MLS is not major league) and they don’t become available every day. Sports franchise ownership is an exclusive club that people will pay dearly to join. But, demand for a major league team though is not just measured by ownership groups but also by cities. City governments want major league sports but some are not willing to pay for it. Paying for a major league sports team for cities comes in tax benefits and more importantly contributions to building a state of the art arena/stadium. With fewer teams comes maneuvering power for stadiums.

The fact that Tampa did not have a baseball team was a great advantage to baseball in the 90s. Even before the city began building the Suncoast Dome (Tropicana Field) in 1986 the city was used by major league teams as a possible destination in negotiations for new ballparks. The Giants were almost sold to a Tampa Bay owner in 1992. Earlier the White Sox had used the Tampa threat to get a new stadium built. If not for the amazing run of 1995 in Seattle, Griffey, Arod, and Lou would have been able to live much closer to home. Three teams used Tampa as a threat to get a new ballpark.

This does not seem like too much of a big deal since all the teams except Oakland and Tampa have renovated or newer ballparks or historical ballparks, but it actually is. Rogers Centre, US Cellular and Camden Yards are all at least twenty years old, while they still seem in great condition a desire for public money to pay for renovations or further concessions with local governments. The threat to move may be used to better the chances for that. Reinsdorf has used this tactic before and with the Cubs lobbying for ballpark funds to do a much needed renovation of Wrigley, this could be on his mind. Here a far-fetched crazy idea, eliminate the As. Ok so that leaves Northern California all to the Giants. Next, Reinsdorf threatens a move to Sacramento (now a more viable market without the A’s and which has just lost their AAA team to contraction and basketball team to wherever, lets say Seattle) unless he gets upgrades to his ballpark. What upgrades they could be is anything from more luxury boxes to upgrades to the area around US Cellular. Sure, the field was renovated in a series of projects from 2001 to 2005, but that just shows that upgrades are always wanted and needed. I am not saying this will happen but less baseball teams allows for this. It is important to stop thinking in the near term and look at what changes those first of the new generation stadiums are going to need. I know basketball is a different situation but when the Sonics could move saying their arena was not good enough less than 15 years after the renovation, it is imaginable for a baseball team to attempt this manuever 20-25 years after. See I just imagined it. Just because most teams have great stadiums does not mean owners are going to stop wanting money for improvements.

More likely what owners in favor of contraction want is increased franchise values.  This is the simple case of supply and demand. Or it can be made more complex but I am not smart enough to explain it.  As supply goes down price goes up. If you didn’t learn that from high school economics you learned it from buying gas. Despite the downturn in the economy there are still enough wealthy sports fans to have interest in buying a baseball team, while others of us wish we could just afford tickets. The recent sales of teams show how valuable teams have become. The Padres are in the process of selling for  800 million and the Dodgers sale price was over 2 billion.  These high prices clearly show that there are people out there who will pay extreme amounts of money to own baseball clubs.

Baseball’s national TV contract ends after the 2013 season. Despite all the talk of lower TV ratings at the All-Star game, it is thought that the next national TV contract could be in the range of 10 billion for 7 years. If contraction were to occur that would be split among fewer teams, it is no wonder some current owners would like to see contraction. The national TV networks don’t pay for the bottom teams as long as they get the Dodgers, Yankees and Red Sox, the existence of the Rays, A’s and Marlins really adds nothing to the new contracts.

Contraction is nothing to worry about yet. It is prevented by the current CBA, contraction cannot occur until after the agreement expires in 2016. Although bankruptcy could end a team this is highly unlikely even in today’s economy. What is likely to happen is owners are going to start saying they want to contract around the next negotiation in order to solidify their bargaining position. The players will have to fight the owners’ desire to contract instead of bringing up expansion which is really what the game needs.

Simply contraction puts more money in the owners’ pockets at TV contract time and at the time of sale. Next time I will look at the benefits of expansion.

Links for references and interesting stories.

Forbes Links

On the Padres Sale

New national TV deal

Royals and their local TV deal. Interesting read.

CBA at Biz of Baseball

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Mariners for Sale?

Not so fast. Maury Brown posted this article on Baseball Prospectus citing the reasons why the Seattle Mariners are in a good position to be sold. As he says over and over, there has been no sign that the team is up for sale. He simply points out that the team is in a very good position to be sold.

Brown gives five main reasons for why the Mariner’s are potentially for sale. The reasons he focuses on are: 1) the financial situation of the current owners, 2) the debt to value ratio, 3) the shredding of player payroll, 4) The television contract renewal, 5) the sale of the Dodgers and its impact on the market. These facts combined make the Mariners an attractive team to be on the market.

Much of Brown’s information comes from Mariner’s beat writer Geoff Baker’s ongoing stories reporting minority owner Chris Larson’s divorce. The story as presented by Baker is that Larson was thought to eventually buy out Hiroshi Yamauchi and Nintendo as majority owner. Larson’s financial troubles (as much as someone with nine homes, exotic cars and a 6 million dollar memorabilia collection has financial troubles) combined with a very expensive divorce has made his ability to buy out the current majority ownership unlikely to say the least. Instead of a transfer of power from within, the Mariners might now be looking to be sold to an outside buyer.

Most of the factors that Brown and Baker present are not signs of intent that the owners will sale. They are simply the results of events not under the Mariners control. The financial situations of the owners has been caused by economic and personal factors. The somewhat surprising high price of the Dodgers was also out of the Mariners control. The TV contract is just timing. The only area that could signal intent of the owners is payroll cuts and lack of large long-term contracts.

Until recently the Mariners have not been shy about spending. They are not the Yankees or Red Sox but they have spent. For example the large contracts they gave to Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson prior to the 2005 season, as well as Ichiro’s deal and locking up Felix Hernandez early on. Chone Figgins’ contract while not a huge deal, was also a sign that the team is willing to spend.

On the other hand the Mariners did not appear to go after any high-priced free agents this year. This could be considered a sign that the Mariners are keeping payroll down to make the team attractive to buyers or it could that the team is just rebuilding. For now it is impossible to tell if the owners are thinking sale.

The Mariners deny that they are for sale and it is likely that they are not on the market. Still, if there is a billionaire or a group out there that wants to make an offer that the Mariners can’t refuse it would seem that it would be a good time to sell. If the ownership is uninterested in the team (as some have said) now seems like a good time to get a good return. The window for a Mariners sale is just starting to be open. The TV deal negotiations don’t come up until 2015, and the young core (Smoak/Ackley/Carp the rest even later) of the Mariners will not start to hit arbitration until 2014. In other words the Mariners payroll is going to stay low. The only problem will be as this team continues to struggle is attendance. It seems if the Mariners are going to be sold it will happen before the TV deal is renewed. Clearly the potential for the Mariners to be sold is something to be watched but for now is only a possibility.

Now on to the pure speculation part. This information opens  a few areas to consider when thinking about a potential Mariners change in ownership.

Vocal Mariner’s fans want Howard Lincoln (teams chairman and CEO) and Chuck Armstrong (team president) to just go away. Some fans and reporters in Seattle see their leadership as the reason for the recent failures of the club. While most of the blame could go to former general manager Bill Bavasi the fact that Lincoln and Armstrong hired him angers some fans. They led the team in the good years but the last tem have been fairly ugly. A change in leadership at the top may be what the Mariners need.

Another issue is Ichiro. Some reports have said that Ichiro has a strong relationship with Yamauchi. If the Mariners were to be sold what would happen to Ichiro? He is a free agent next year and coming off of a down year last year. Coming into this year he had 2,428 hits and if he wants to get to 3,000 he needs at least three seasons and probably into the fourth to do it. The current ownership may be willing to keep him signed and keep him on the field even as his performance slows down. If the team were to be sold would the new ownership be so accommodating?

At least there is one thing that Seattle fans don’t need to worry about, if the team is sold they are  not going anywhere. Safeco Field is still a wonderful ballpark capable of making money. New owners could hardly use the ballpark as a reason to leave. Further, there really are not any more attractive markets to move to. Part of the attractiveness of the Mariners is that the TV market is so large. The cities often brought up in conversation for new teams are typically Charlotte, North Carolina and San Antonio, Texas and Portland, Oregon (not likely as they can’t even keep a triple A team) which do not have near the appeal of Seattle. While the Sonics moved despite fan support, Key Arena was not up to NBA standards and the buyer was committed to moving the team. Baseball also has greater restrictions on the movement of franchises allowed due to baseball’s antitrust exemption. Finally the last time an MLB team left Seattle the league was taken to court and the Mariners were born as a result. I have already spent too many words on something that should not be an issue. But then the Sonics really didn’t have a great reason to leave.

Since there is little fear of the team moving new ownership does not seem like anything to fear. Some will look forward to the time when it will happen and others know that it could be worse. While the Lincoln and Armstrong duo has not been great, the team’s future seems bright. I hope Ichiro can be productive and stick around for hit number 3,000 but if the team is better because he is gone then most fans will be ok with that.

The current Mariners are pretty bad but they are building with young talent. Unlike teams like the Pirates, the Mariners if they follow their past behavior are not going to trade away young players once they reach arbitration or free agency. The team has displayed the willingness to spend and if the young core becomes good it is likely that any ownership will pay to keep them. While some of the young prospects may be traded, it will be to acquire talent rather than for monetary purposes. The determination of success than will be based on Jack Zduriencik’s performance and not the ownership’s. If he fails then blame goes on the owners for hiring him.

Overall the Mariner’s ownership could be an issue in the next three years. As they are NOT for sale right now that could change despite what Armstrong and Lincoln say. For some this is wishful thinking and for the rest of us a just wait and see.

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