Two issues have dominated this offseason. First, and the one most fans are paying attention to, is the number of quality players that remain unsigned. Second is the commissioner office’s attempt to address professional baseball’s slowing pace of play, most startlingly by adding a clock to a game that’s never had one. What everyone is missing is that both those problems are children of one problem that nobody is talking about: zombie franchises.
What is a zombie franchise? A zombie franchise is an organization that seems forever stuck in baseball purgatory. Never quite good enough to contend for a championship, these teams become the homes of what were once called “AAAA” players, but are today usually referred to as “replacement level players.” They’re identified by keeping their major league payroll low, the quality of play only slightly better than a good AAA team and for shipping out their decent players in the continual rebuild. The people who own these teams are not to be blamed for this; after all, like any business they need to turn a profit. The players union isn’t responsible for the situation, either – after all, it’s sole reason for being is to protect the jobs of those men lucky enough to call themselves professional baseball players.
But zombie franchises slow the pace of play down by fielding inferior teams. Seriously, try to watch a game between, say. the Reds and Marlins. You’ll need massive doses of caffeine just to make it to the third inning. Most of the pitchers on these teams would either be toiling in the minor leagues or out of pro ball entirely. The same goes for many of the position players. Either they simply lack the talent to compete with their peers, lack the seasoning that comes with proper time in the minor leagues or were once capable major league players just playing out the string. The result is pitchers who cannot throw quality strikes and hitters who can’t hit quality pitches (or lay off bad ones), fielders who make ridiculous mental errors and teams in general that need tons of in-game coaching just to play nine innings. No wonder the games are not only taking longer, the amount of time between each play is taking longer. Now throw in a lot of time where nothing is happening (after all, what is less exciting than a two out, bases empty 6 pitch walk?), and the commissioner is right to be concerned.
This is also affecting the current free agent and trade markets. Players who were king dogs on their old teams are discovering that they just aren’t good enough to justify the type of money they were led to believe they deserve. Mike Moustakas is a nice player. Lefty bat, some home run power, solid if unspectacular defender. Same goes for his former teammate, Eric Hosmer. JD Martinez? Good hitter, lousy defender, slow as molasses runner. They are all universally regarded as good, but complimentary, players. If your team is only going to win 70 games without them, none of those guys is going to to suddenly turn you into a pennant contender. For a pennant contender, they play positions that aren’t needed. But these guys have heard for two or three years now that they’re “franchise players” in the media, from their agents, from their former teams. So it’s understandable that a Martinez is looking for 6 years at $25 million each. It has to be hard for him to hear from teams now that he isn’t that good.
The same goes for the free agent pitchers. The reason teams loaded up on middle relievers at the beginning of free agency is simple: the starting pitching market isn’t very good. The top two available, Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish, are good pitchers but hardly great. Neither would be called an “ace” on a contender. Arrieta has been around for 8 years. In that time, he’s posted two very good seasons (the last three seasons ago), two slightly better than average years – and four seasons that wavered between bad and horrendous. As for Darvish, he can strike guys out. But when he isn’t striking out hitters, they’re hitting him and hitting him HARD (see his postseason history). Again, both guys aren’t bad, but neither is worth 7 years and $200 million.
Part of the problem for these guys is they get so many opportunities against zombie franchises, which lets them pad their stats. Darvish got to pitch 22 times against a zombie franchise in 2017, going 8-7 with a 3.49 ERA, and 83 OPS+ allowed, while averaging almost 7 innings per start – good (although not exceptional) stats. He made 9 starts against actual contenders, going 2-5 with a 4.86 ERA and 131 OPS+ allowed. Not surprisingly, he was generally gone before the 6th inning in those games. As for Moustakas, he batted .283/.317/.537 in 347 at bats against zombie franchises, while hitting .248/.291/.489 in 251 at bats against contenders.
If I’m a GM, I’m looking a lot more closely at those numbers against contenders than against the zombie teams. Why? Well, as we saw in the postseason, Darvish is much closer to the 4.86 ERA pitcher in terms of talent than the 3.49 ERA. Moustakas is closer to the .780 OPS talent than a .850 talent. And that’s how I’m going to pay them.
So how does baseball solve this problem? It seems the best way would be to contract the size of the leagues, probably by four teams. We’ve seen for almost two decades now that teams in Florida just do not work. The Marlins and Rays have never drawn fans. Oakland hasn’t been able to for over 30 years. How can baseball honestly say having teams, especially bad teams, in those cities is doing anyone any good? Other teams ownership groups probably need to be looked at closely, those for the New York Mets, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, San Diego and Baltimore. Teams that have not indicated an interest in actually trying to contend for a title, despite being in markets that historically have supported their teams.
This would obviously get tons of pushback. For starters, the players would hate it, because going from 30 to 26 teams would mean 100 fewer jobs for their number. The owners would hate it, because it’s essentially telling people who have been successful in their other endeavors that they’ve failed in the most public of forums.
But, there might be an easier way to address this problem – one that appeases the players and let’s some owners realize nobody’s ego can be greater than the health of the game. Baseball has a de facto salary cap, the “competitive balance tax.” The payroll level at which the tax applies was negotiated in the most recent collective bargaining agreement (for this year, it’s $197 million. Next year, $206 million). The reason this is acting in the same fashion as a hard salary cap is that every dollar over that limit is taxed at increasing amounts, depending on how many years a team has been over the limit – up to 50%. Now, this hurts players who might be targets of the teams that traditionally spend large amounts – the Yankees, Dodgers, Cubs, White Sox – because those teams not only don’t think that Todd Frazier or Eduardo Nunez is worth $13 million a year, they especially don’t think paying a Frazier, et al., a 50% premium adds any value to their team.
What the players should have done was bargained for a payroll floor. I think it could be established along the same lines as the competitive balance tax. Require every team to have a payroll that is at least 50% of the tax threshold (for this year, that would be $98.5 million) and for every dollar they are below that lower limit, fine them a sliding scale amount based on how many consecutive years they’ve been below that level. Do it over a three year period: 20% of the difference in the first year, 50% for year two and 100% for years three and on. Now here’s the thing: those “for the good of the game” clauses the commissioner is threatening to use to install a clock are the same ones he can use to install a payroll floor.
Why is this important? This season alone, 10 teams are currently projected to have payrolls below $98.5 million. Only one – Minnesota is expected to be a contender, and they’re less than $2 million below the proposed payroll floor. The other 9 teams are not only pretenders, they’re not even pretending that they’re anything other than pretenders. If you think otherwise, ask yourself who’s a better player, Mike Moustakas or Maikel Franco. Ask yourself if you would rather have Jake Arrieta or Tim Adelman anchoring your rotation. While we’ve established that guys like Moustakas and Arrieta are not the franchise cornerstones worthy of their contract demands, they are infinitely better than some of the players who do have jobs.
So, some of the marginal players currently employed for no reason other than they’re really cheap would be forced out of the game, or back into the minor leagues. Fans in cities that are lamenting their teams dumping quality players because they make too much would have some hope. Pace and quality of play improves, simply by having better players on the field. And the insanity of trying to turn baseball into basketball with wooden clubs ends.
For ownership, it would force a reckoning. Any fanbase can understand a season or two of mediocrity in the event a total rebuild is needed. They’ve looked around baseball and seen the Astros, Cubs, Yankees, Rockies and Diamondbacks do just that and field high-quality teams. What no fanbase should expect is that the owners of their team will continually put subpar talent on the field in the name of controlling costs. Quite frankly, in an industry that shares profits and raked in over $9 billion, there is no excuse for any ownership group not to be able to make a profit with a $98.5 million payroll.
If they can’t – they don’t deserve to own a team.