Monday, February 8, 2016

A new look at MLB realignment, six years later

Six years ago I posited how MLB would handle expansion if they added two new teams. I figured they would follow the NFL's lead and switch to eight 4-team divisions, with the playoffs consisting solely of each league's four division winners.

That would still work today, but since that 2010 post, MLB made the move to two 15-team leagues with perpetual interleague play, and Houston ended up moving to the AL. This obviously renders my San Diego to the AL recommendation obsolete, though it still allows for a new expansion team in each league.

Also, while I had recommended Charlotte as a likely expansion candidate, the city has since built BB&T Ballpark, a 10,200 seat stadium that is decidedly not suitable for a larger MLB crowd. Having committed to minor league baseball, Charlotte is now out of that running.

Omaha's TD Ameritrade Park remains a suitable MLB-friendly ballpark (even given doubts about their market). But now the 2nd expansion candidate goes back up in the air. However, groundswell has grown in recent years to bring back the once-eliminated Montreal Expos, and now it seems they would be the most likely expansion candidate should MLB expand to 32 teams.

All this throws a wrench in the realignment plan I originally proposed in 2010. So I gave it a look and realigned my realignment plan, which again focuses on geographically grouping teams as best as possible to reduce overall travel time within the division. And again, the playoffs are division champs only, making the division winner-take-all and eliminating the somewhat unfair roll-of-the-dice wildcards.

Here is how a solid realignment would look today:

AL West - Seattle, Oakland, Anaheim, Omaha

Texas and Houston would move to a more regionally accessible division, while the expansion Omaha club would join the remaining AL West teams. This unfortunately means the division has a long-travel partner, but the AL and NL North divisions were both quite loaded and no other AL teams were in easy reach of the three incumbents. So the expansion team unfortunately drew the short straw. However, travel between the West Coast teams and Omaha is a little short than travel to either Texas team, and to a less crowded airport hub, so that helps.

This division will feature three relatively competitive rivals, which for poor Omaha means their early tenure will most likely mean some 90-110 loss seasons. You also lose the hitter friendly Texas parks, swapping in Omaha's hitter friendly TD Ameritrade Park but still making this a pitcher-friendlier division.

AL North - Minnesota, Chi White Sox, Detroit, Cleveland

Most of the AL Central remains intact in the new AL North, losing only World Champion Kansas City (and boy did none of us see THAT coming in 2010). Given each team's current state of transition and development, this division would be wide open for the taking among four fairly competitive rivals. Losing hitter friendly Kauffman Stadium with KC makes this division a little pitcher friendlier, with only the White Sox's US Cellular Field being a hitter friendly park in the division.

AL South - Houston, Texas, Kansas City, Tampa Bay

Both AL-West-departing Texas teams would join World Champs Kansas City and the AL-East departing Tampa Bay Rays in a new and quite competitive AL South. Houston of course has become young and quite good, KC is now quite good, Texas has had some struggles but is still fairly good, and Tampa Bay even on a downswing is still at least a .500-caliber team. This may become the new toughest division in MLB.

On top of that, Rangers Ballpark is a launchpad, Kauffman Stadium in KC is hitter friendly, and upcoming changes to Minute Maid Park in Houston will make it more hitter friendly. If not for Tampa Bay's crappy but slightly pitcher friendly Tropicana Field, this would be the Launchpad Division. Hitters will love it, the division becomes a pitcher's nightmare, and each team's hitters could expect a sizable boost in their season stats.

AL East - Boston, NY Yankees, Baltimore, Toronto

The AL East loses only Tampa Bay (who heads to the more regionally friendly AL South), and remains one of baseball's toughest divisions. The loss of the wildcard turns both the South and the East into two of baseball's best pennant races. Plus, all four teams play in hitters parks, and Tampa's pitcher-neutral Tropicana Field goes away. Pitcher just got a little tougher in the AL East.

NL West - San Francisco, LA Dodgers, San Diego, Arizona

With the past realignment, San Diego no longer needs to jump leagues, and a revised NL West only loses regionally unfriendly and largely uncompetitive Colorado. The winner take all division now gives greater weight to the always competitive Giants-Dodgers rivalry. Also, losing Coors Field makes this one of the most pitcher friendly divisions, with only Chase Field in Arizona not being a strong pitcher's park.

NL North - Milwaukee, Chi Cubs, Colorado, Pittsburgh

Cubs-Cards fans may howl at splitting up the two bitter rivals. But St Louis is more of a southern team, and fits better geographically in the new NL South. Plus, it also makes it possible that the Cubs and Cards could meet in the playoffs, whereas sharing a winner take all division means a playoff rematch would be impossible.

In any case, Pittsburgh and the Cubs' rise to power with young talent have made this a tough division, which leaves the Brewers and Rockies in a difficult position.

This becomes a very hitter friendly division, with park-neutral Milwaukee being the only non-hitter's park.

NL South - Cincinnati, St Louis, Atlanta, Miami

A new NL South would pair Cincinnati with three southern teams. In terms of travel and maintaining as many rivalries as possible, bringing Cincinnati is probably the best arrangement for MLB. A rebuilding Reds team joins the rebuilding Braves, the middling but improving young Marlins, and the strong veteran Cardinals. This division is probably all St Louis for now, as long as their veteran core remains strong. But should the Cards age and decline, this division could be wide open.

It's also one of the more pitcher friendly division... definitely not on the scale of either West division, but Busch Stadium plays pitcher-neutral, Turner Field (ATL) plays pitcher neutral, and Marlins Stadium (MIA) is neutral, while Great American Ballpark (CIN) is the only hitter's park. Given how many hitter friendly divisions we end up with, pitchers may prefer this division.

NL East - Philadelphia, NY Mets, Washington, Montreal

The reborn Montreal Expos would fit nicely in the revised NL East, joining the Mets, Phillies, and the former Expos now known as the Nationals. Montreal's new team would have it somewhat better than expansion Omaha, as Philly is not doing well, the Mets are good but still improving, and the Nationals while very talented have underachieved. Montreal would still enter as the likely doormat, but they'd probably be a little more competitive.

This is also the most diverse mix of parks in any division. Philly's park is a hitter's launchpad, Citi Field is a bit pitcher friendly, Nationals Park is neutral, and while it's anyone's guess how Montreal's new stadium would play, they'd likely play for now in weird and hitter friendly Stade Olympique.

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So that's what a solid MLB realignment would look like if MLB quickly added two ready-to-play expansion teams to expand to 32. Losing the Wildcards would give added weight to each division's pennant race, and each smaller division would take on intriguing personalities of their own.

Friday, February 5, 2016

MLB's qualifying offer system needs to change, but it doesn't need to go.

MLB's qualifying offer system is the latest attempt to even the playing field for smaller market teams who can't afford to retain their free agents. However, like the Type A/B system that preceded it, the system is ham fistedly simple. You can submit a default qualifying contract offer of one season for about $15M, and if the player declines it to sign elsewhere, you get a sandwich draft pick (end of 1st round) and the signing team loses their top qualifying draft pick.

However, this vastly discourages teams with departing free agents from making the qualifying offer, since they now add a relative ton of money to the payroll if the player re-signs with them (which they may not want). It also vastly discourages other teams from signing such a player since they lose a prized draft pick if they do.

The system also has rules in place preventing offers to midseason acquisitions, which increases the organization hit to a team acquiring such a player, since they can't recoup a draft pick.

Agent-friendly baseball writers recommend the system be scrapped entirely, forgetting why such a system exists in the first place. Prior to its existence, MLB's richest teams stockpiled talent at will and left lesser teams to flounder, watch their developed young talent leave via free agency, or both.

What the qualifying offer system needs is nuance. Neither the Type A/B system or the QO had much nuance at all. Type A/B somewhat arbitrarily attached a label to a subset of free agents that could net sandwich picks, while the QO gives teams a single blunt instrument offer to levy in exchange for a draft pick. And both systems heavily penalized the drafts of any team that signed such a player.

First of all, the blanket 1st/2nd round sandwich picks and 1st/2nd round draft penalties need not be so ham fisted. It should be possible to open up lower picks in the draft, from the 3rd round down to the teens, to exchange and compensation. The expected value of these picks are far lower, and would levy a substantially smaller penalty to teams that sign a qualifying free agent... yet still aiding the draft of an organization that loses a player.

I think the $15 million qualifying offer is not a bad number... as a maximum. You should be able to offer smaller qualifying offers, that net lesser draft picks in return should the player sign elsewhere.

This can be determined by, say, average WAR per draft pick in each round over, say, the five years prior to the last six years (the span of a team's initial control over a prospect). For this season that period would be 2006-2010. This allows a complete picture of the recent relative value of picks made in that round.

Using WAR as an approximate barometer, you can make the qualifying offers relative to that $15 million total.

For example, a $15M qualifying offer would cost a team their highest available pick (top 10 picks are protected, so if a team's 1st selection is protected, they'd lose their 2nd pick). But then a team could offer, say, $7M, and if that player signs elsewhere the new team could lose their 3rd round pick. The compensated team gets a sandwich pick for that round. Or, you could offer $6M, and losing the player nets you a 4th round pick while the signing team loses theirs, and so on.

Eventually, you'll want to set a minimum qualifying offer amount, maybe $2 million or so, but you could go as low as the 10th-20th rounds in terms of compensation if you wanted, depending on how much of a qualifying offer is levied.

If the signing team has already lost their pick in the relevant round, they can exercise one of two options:

- Forfeit the next round's pick as well in this draft. If you're slated to lose a 4th round pick that you've already lost, you can choose to lose your 5th original pick as well. (Any sandwich picks you have gained are protected, so if you got a 4th round sandwich pick while losing your original 4th round pick, you won't lose the sandwich pick)

- Defer the lost pick to a future draft, losing the relevant pick in the next draft after this coming one. So in this case you could just decide to lose your 4th round pick next year.

This would soften the blow to your draft in signing a QO player. And it would make sure the team losing such players could offer more flexible QO's and get some compensation for more of their losses. A team rebuilding could load up on picks, without ruining the draft of whoever signs their departing free agents. It's much easier to lose a 3rd or 5th rounder than your top pick.

I realize this would dramatically increase the number of qualifying offers, and would send draft picks and draft orders flying all over the place. This would level the playing field, and also better encourage teams to sign these players, rather than discouraging them as the current system does.