On Friday, I spoke briefly about a bullet point in Peter Gammons’ blog. According to the ESPN writer, contraction may be back on the table.
In 2001, the plan was to contract two teams. At the time, baseball owners claimed they were losing money. A threat by the Players’ Union, a decent revenue sharing system, lucrative TV deals, and a rise in attendance over the last four seasons has shown that to be a bit of an exaggeration. But now Selig and Co. may be targeting four teams for contraction.
As long as the Players’ Union retains its clout, contraction is about as likely as the Royals winning the 2006 World Series. Let’s look at the teams that could be on MLB’s contraction draft anyway.
Why They Will Be Contracted: The Marlins are a team in trouble. In a few seasons, they will be out on the street as their agreement with Wayne Huizenga for the use of Pro-Player Stadium expires. Florida has failed to guarantee funding for a new stadium, and the team has announced its intentions to explore relocation. Portland, San Antonio and Las Vegas are trying to court the team.
Furthermore, the attendance figures for what was a young and exciting team are disappointing. In 2004, the defending World Champions ranked 26th in attendance, drawing just 22,090 fans per game. In 2005, the Marlins, in the Wild Card hunt until the middle of September, drew just 22,792 fans per game, good for 28th overall. While South Floridians are disappointed their team may leave, the fans have hardly come out in droves to see them.
This winter, the Marlins had to sell off their assets, and their 2006 payroll will be around $16 million. Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, and Derek Jeter will all make more individually than the entire Marlins roster. This is a sad state of affairs for a team that is just a few years removed from a World Series title and has captured two championships in its short existence.
Why They Won’t Be Contracted: Despite their uncertain geographical future, the Marlins have arguably the most potential of any baseball team. GM Larry Beinfest turned their collection of Major League talent into an awesome collection of Minor League talent. With power arms and top position prospects filling out their farm system, it’s not a stretch to say that the Portland or San Antonio Marlins could be the team to beat as early as 2008 or 2009. Would Major League Baseball really give up on a team with such a promising future?
Kansas City Royals
Why They Will Be Contracted: To put it nicely, the Royals are awful. The team has had one season above .500 since 1993 and haven’t made the playoffs since I was two in 1985. They are averaging 97 losses a season over the last four years.
Worse yet, they have no plan. The Royals in 2005 were the 28th ranked organization. Early reports have them at the bottom of the charts again. As Baseball America put it:
That time period corresponds directly with the tenure of Allard Baird as general manager, which began in June 2000. While Baird has played his part, David Glass also must assume culpability. The former Wal-Mart president and CEO became Royals chairman of the board of directors in 1993. He stepped down from his Wal-Mart duties in 2000 before becoming Royals owner. The Royals have topped the .500 mark only once since his affiliation with the club began (an 83-79 finish in 2003) while the team has operated much like a discount store. Glass allowed Baird $22 million to spend on free agents this off-season, but retreads Paul Bako, Elmer Dessens, Scott Elarton, Mark Grudzielanek, Joe Mays, Doug Mientkiewicz and Reggie Sanders aren’t going to reverse Kansas City’s fortunes.
Meanwhile, attendance numbers for the Royals are nearly as bad as the team itself. They ranked 29th overall last year, averaging just over 17,000 a game. While the Royals need some creative General Management and a generous owner, the current leadership isn’t working.
Why They Won’t Be Contracted: Because contraction won’t happen. Period. While recent negotiations in Kansas City have given the Chiefs and the Royals hope for extensive stadium renovations, the Royals do not have much in their corner. The fans are gone; the organization is in shambles. If contraction were to happen, the Royals would be the first to go.
Why They Will Be Contracted: No owner. No Minor League system. A tenuous stadium deal.
The way Major League Baseball has handled the Nationals/Expos debacle should be a huge scandal. To briefly summarize, the 29 MLB owners bought the Expos from Jeffrey Loria a few years ago and announced a move to DC. Once in DC, they have tried to force the District to foot the entire bill for a stadium that will cost over $600 million.
In the meantime, MLB has constrained the Nationals’ payroll to such an extent that a good draft class is nearly impossible and high profile free agent signings are out of the question. They have two second basemen and numerous questions surrounding the team on and off the field. Contracting the Nationals would solve a lot of problems for Major League Baseball.
Why They Won’t Be Contracted: While it would be a convenient way for MLB to sweep their problem under the rug, the Nationals won’t be contracted. Let’s see why.
1. Money. Major League Baseball will sell the Nationals for over $400 million. After buying the team for $120 million, the 29 owners will all make a handsome profit over the deal. They won’t give up this money.
2. Stadium Deals. As of this evening, Major League Baseball has agreed to a lease deal with the District of Columbia. All that remains is for the city council to sign off on a few key provisions, and it seems unlikely that they will delay the deal any more. MLB is getting its publicly-funded stadium once and for all.
3. Politics. If MLB were to move the Expos to the Nation’s Capital and then fold the Nationals a few years later, it would be a huge political debacle for a sport already under Congressional scrutiny for its shady dealings with steroids. Major League Baseball does not want to encourage any more ill will from Congress.
So this team is safe.
After these three teams, there are no really obvious candidates for contraction. But let’s speculate.
Colorado Rockies The Colorado Rockies are an experiment in baseball at high altitudes. So far, it’s failed. They have never won more than 83 games, and it may be time for this experiment to end. Considering the seemingly secure future for the Nationals, I would put the Rockies as the darkhorse candidate on a contraction list.
Minnesota Twins The Twins suffer from poor attendance but they have a devoted fan base. Furthermore, they were one of the original America League teams. While their hopes for a new stadium have stalled, it’s hard to see the Twins being contracted even though they were the subject of original contraction rumors.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays The Devil Rays are a team with bad attendance and no historical success. They have yet to cross the 71-win barrier in their existence. But a new ownership group seems to have a plan. They’ve built up a solid young core of players and a vibrant Minor League system. While they could use a new stadium, Tropicana Field is probably there to stay.
Summing Up Contraction
While it’s tempting to speculate on contraction, in the end, I don’t think contraction will happen.
First, the Players’ Union won’t allow it. If four teams were to be contracted, 100 Major League players would be out of jobs and countless Minor Leaguers would be organizational-less. While this contraction would help strengthen the talent pool, it’s hard to see the Players’ Union agreeing to this deal. Owners are unlikely to agree to the 28-man regular season rosters that would help recapture these lost jobs. The Union is just too strong for MLB to strong-arm a four-team contraction plan.
Second, the owners won’t like the monetary aspect of this plan. For Major League Baseball to contract four teams, the rest of the owners will have to buy the four teams from the current owners. These transactions would cost Major League Baseball owners literally hundreds of millions of dollars. No owner is going to want to spend this to buy the teams in addition to the millions it will cost to expand the rosters to accommodate the anticipated demands of the Players’ Union. Contraction simply costs too much money.
So in the end, Gammons’ source may be right. Major League Baseball may have a contraction plan in place. But in the end, it’s doomed to fail. While teams may move, I think Major League Baseball is stuck with 30 teams for better or for worse.