If You’re a Pirate Fan, Rob Manfred Is Not Your Friend

The title of this piece probably isn’t much of a revelation to any fan of a small market MLB franchise.  After all, Manfred’s primary focus as Commissioner has been to protect and strengthen an economic system that various analysts argue has resulted in growing competitive imbalance in MLB based on payroll disparities, with an increasing correlation between payroll and winning.  The problem is especially evident in the post-season; as I’ve pointed out before, teams with payrolls in the bottom quarter have won exactly zero post-season series in the two-wildcard era.

All baseball fans have some notion of the impact of the free agent market (which is felt well beyond actual free agency as more teams lock up key players) and the vast revenue disparities between teams, but I think Manfred’s sinister reach extends well beyond the basic economic structure of the major league game.  Some recent reporting (sub. req’d) by Baseball America provides another warning sign of Manfred’s efforts to reserve the post-season, as much as possible, for the nine teams that ESPN believes make up all of MLB.  The article discusses Minor League Baseball’s decision to change its negotiating team in its attempt to reach a new Professional Baseball Agreement with MLB.

Some recapping is in order.  As I’m sure all of you know, MLB has proposed cutting affiliated minor league baseball to 120 teams, which would eliminate over a quarter of the existing franchises.  Each team would be left with four full season affiliates, plus whatever it chose to field in the “complex leagues” (the Gulf Coast and Arizona Leagues) and the Dominican Summer League.  MLB has advanced various easily debunked justifications for this, but the real motivation clearly is a combination of cost-cutting and a covetous eye toward the rapidly increasing value of MiLB franchises.

MiLB staunchly opposed MLB’s proposal, but the current pandemic has left MiLB in desperate straits, with many franchises facing bankruptcy.  Although no negotiating was taking place, reports indicated that many MiLB owners were ready to agree to the cuts and also to allowing MLB to take over operation of MiLB.  The change in negotiating teams, according to BA, resulted in a team that’s more closely aligned with current MiLB CEO Pat O’Connor, who of course would lose his job if MLB took over operation of the minors.  BA suggests that it’s the lower-level franchises (which are more financially vulnerable) that would prefer to have MLB run the show, while the AAA teams would prefer to remain quasi-independent.

The change obviously was intended to increase MiLB’s chances of remaining as a separate entity, but it’s doubtful it’ll succeed.  In fact, BA has called (sub. req’d) the takeover attempt “likely successful.”  MLB held most of the cards even before the pandemic and now it has to be an overwhelming favorite to get its way.  Assuming that happens, two unhappy consequences seem likely.  One is the loss of a lot of what makes the minor leagues fun.  The other is dramatically increased penny-pinching.

On the first point, MLB is likely to do for the minors what corporatization of the internet has done for blogs.  MiL baseball is quirky and often . . . well . . . tacky.  Beer gardens, goofy promotions (toilet seat night?) and dopey team nicknames (Rumble Ponies) are just some of the things that make it what it is.  Maybe this will go on, but some of the more endearing qualities of MiL baseball are bound to die.  We already saw this with MLBAM’s takeover of all the MiL web sites.  When MiL teams ran their own sites, some were pretty useless, but some teams, like Altoona, took them seriously.  The Curve once had real coverage of the team, similar on a smaller scale to the way major league teams are covered.  Under MLB’s “guidance,” the sites are one-size-fits-all, with little to no content beyond ticket and merchandise sales.  For a while, MLB even had bots writing the game accounts.  Literally.

More disquieting are MLB’s fanatical efforts to cut costs wherever possible.  I’ve had the sense that for a long time, MLB owners largely ignored the minors.  That was evident from the fact that larger market teams took a number of years to catch on to the value represented by a strong farm system.  This delay created a window of opportunity that small market teams not saddled with Dave Littlefield were able to take advantage of.  Owners probably went along with most of what their baseball ops folks wanted to do because it wasn’t a lot of money compared to MLB payrolls and they didn’t want to be seen as not trying to succeed.

BA, which has done a great job covering these issues, has even suggested (sub. req’d) that Manfred’s office wants greater centralized control over many functions so owners won’t spend money due to peer pressure.  (This issue specifically arose over teams’ decisions whether or not to pay their minor leaguers during the pandemic.)  BA also reported earlier that most baseball ops people were opposed to reducing the size of the minors.  Manfred wants those decisions being made with as little input as possible from actual baseball people.

The problem with centralized control, as BA notes, is that it stifles innovation.  The impact on lower revenue teams could be significant.  This is nothing new.  We saw MLB’s hostility to teams like the Pirates trying to succeed by spending big in the draft.  We also saw Manfred contemplate restrictions on shifts, which of course first drew a lot of attention due to their use by teams like the Rays and Pirates.  BA further states that some people think, given control, MLB will reduce the minors to 90 full-season teams, just three per MLB team.  This would inevitably make MLB payroll even more determinant of wins and losses than it already is.  Innovation is the small market teams’ only remedy for their lower spending power at the major league level.  Take it away, and wins and payroll will move more and more closely into alignment.

Personally, I think this is exactly what MLB wants.  A huge portion of its revenue comes from post-season broadcasts.  That’s been evident from the deliberations over the form of the pandemic-shortened season; MLB’s primary focus has been doing whatever it takes to get to the post-season.  And Manfred, as well as ESPN and the other networks, are undoubtedly convinced that the post-season is a bigger hit with the Yankees and Dodgers going deeper into it.  I’d bet that, somewhere, MLB has an estimate of how many more jerseys Aaron Judge sells as a Yankee than he would as a Royal.

Another example of MLB’s insistence on controlling costs centrally was the decision to restrict scouts’ attendance at games this year.  According to BA, no front office people they spoke to believed it was a health-related move.  It was strictly penny-pinching; it was reminiscent of an MLB initiative about 6-8 years ago to try to persuade teams to scrap their scouting staffs and rely on a centralized scouting bureau.  Can’t have another Howie Haak helping the Pirates build the sort of outstanding farm system they had in the ’60s and ’70s.

What Manfred really wants is for the Pirates, Rays, A’s and Royals to accede quietly to serving as the Washington Generals.  Revenue sharing and central MLB revenues guarantee them healthy profit margins if they don’t try to compete with the big boys in payroll.  And, frankly, I think Bob Nutting is perfectly happy to do that, as long as it doesn’t get too embarrassing for him, as it did in 2020.  I realize a certain local writer has repeatedly pondered why Nutting doesn’t speak out for a salary cap.  Leaving aside the question whether that’s really an answer to MLB’s competitive balance problems, the best answer is the simplest one:  Nutting likes the current system and doesn’t want it to change.  So don’t expect him to oppose anything Manfred wants to do.