Cooper: Teams Fear MLB Decisions Are Squashing Innovation

Major League Baseball has a growing competitiveness problem.

This isn’t an in-game issue. It’s not about parity or banging garbage cans. It has nothing to do with runners on second base to begin extra innings or three-batter minimums.

It has to do with rules of how the game is structured. Whether it’s in-person pro scouting, the prospective Arizona Fall League season or the structure of the minor leagues, front office officials see a worrying trend.

Instead of allowing teams to carve their own paths and letting the free market of ideas demonstrate what works and what does not, MLB appears to be heading in the direction of a command economy, where decisions are made at the top to ensure that all teams abide by the same set of rules and structures. 

It’s a one-size-fits-all approach in a sport that has long encouraged non-conformity.

Many great ideas in baseball, such as Branch Rickey’s development of a farm system and racial integration of the game, Bill Veeck’s promotions and Ewing Kauffman’s Royals Academy, have come from free-thinking iconoclasts. Now, there is a push to ensure that everyone operates identically.

The clear goal is for everyone to operate under the same rules, but the subtext is just as important. Teams that want to operate in a more efficient (i.e. cheaper) way don’t want to permit other teams to take a different, more expensive approach.

Look back at the drawn-out decisions over continuing to pay minor leaguers weekly per diems. Owners in several cases didn’t want to spend the money, but they also didn’t want to seem cheaper than their peers.

The decision to not allow pro scouts in MLB ballparks when the season begins is the most recent example.

In the middle of a novel coronavirus pandemic, there are legitimate health and safety concerns about allowing more people into the stadium. But it’s impossible to say that pro scouts are being banned for their own health; if so, then amateur scouts would be banned from attending the myriad tournaments and showcases they are at this summer, almost all of which have nothing like the social-distancing and health checks that take place at an MLB stadium.

The health concerns revolve around whether adding pro scouts will raise the risks for players and coaches to contract the coronavirus. That’s an understandable worry for MLB, which fears outbreaks that force the season to shutdown more than anything.

But not one of the general managers, assistant GMs or pro scouting directors BA spoke with after the decision to restrict pro scouts from attending games was made said they believed the decision was based solely on health concerns. There’s a financial and philosophical point: there are owners who simply do not want to spend the money it would cost for pro scouts to travel to do their jobs. (And, in some cases, spend the money required to bring furloughed scouts back onto the payroll.)

Some teams wouldn’t send pro scouts out to MLB games even if it were permitted. They would do all the work of advance scouting and evaluative work through video and analytics. So, they see no need to allow other teams to send their scouts to games.

That’s a choice teams are free to make. But instead of letting other teams take a different approach (i.e. in-person scouting), some are opting to block other teams from taking that tack. It’s not a competition to see which approach is best. It’s a decision that forces teams onto one, uniform path.

The fate of a potentially expanded Arizona Fall League may hang on a similar decision. Front office officials throughout the game acknowledge the health and safety concerns could shelve the league because Arizona and Florida—the proposed site of another expanded fall league—are two of the biggest hot spots for the virus right now.

But multiple officials also worry the desire of some teams to avoid spending the $1-$1.5 million it would cost to house, feed and pay the players, as well as hold instructional league for other minor leaguers, could force the 202 AFL season to be scrapped.

The obvious answer would be to make the AFL optional this season. Teams that don’t want to spend the money can simply pass. Others who see the value in getting pitchers innings and hitters at-bats can make the investment in their minor leaguers.

But that’s not how MLB has been working recently. Doing this would potentially embarrass some MLB owners by showing they are unwilling to match the efforts of their peers, and cause them to fall behind other teams in player development. As such, there’s a possibility the league could be scrapped this year simply because of the objections of a minority of teams who do not want to spend the money.

Many of the same objections have been raised about MLB’s plan to cut the number of minor league teams for 2021 and beyond. There are teams who want to reduce the structute to four full-season clubs plus one complex league team in the U.S. and one team in the Dominican Summer League. But there are others who want to have a short-season or Rookie-level club, or more than one. Some of these teams who would rather scrap their Arizona or Gulf Coast League club than give up on the New York-Penn, Pioneer or Appalachian Leagues. As they describe it, complex ball is best experienced in small doses.

As one GM explained it, asking a player to spend two years in his team’s Dominican complex followed by two more years in a team’s Arizona or Florida complex makes the jump to low Class A seem massive. His team prefers to have smaller steps along the way that help ease a player’s development and acclimation to life in the minors.

This isn’t a big market vs. small market argument. There are large-revenue teams and small-revenue teams who don’t want to see the minors cut to 120 ticket-buying, affiliated teams. As it stands right now, the teams with nine minor league affiliates include the Dodgers and Yankees as well as the Rays and Royals. 

The larger minors proponents would like to see a free-market approach. Teams would not be required to have more than four minor league clubs (and maybe even fewer), but teams would be free to have as many additional teams as they like. Or, if that is untenable, they would at least be allowed to have an additional short-season or Rookie club.

The proponents of an unfettered minor league system want the marketplace of ideas to settle the dispute. If teams that want to reduce the minors are correct in their belief that they can more efficiently produce big leaguers without additional minor league teams, they would be free to do so. As their idea is proven correct, other teams would follow suit.

But if these big minors proponents are right, they would be free to prove so by continuing to have six, seven or eight minor league clubs. And if the extra $1-$2 million in yearly costs produces $10 million or more in major league value, as some teams believe, they would be free to do so.

That is not the approach today. The June draft was slashed to five rounds and stricter bonus limits were placed on nondrafted free agents to ensure not only that the stingiest clubs could spend less money, but also to ensure profligate teams couldn’t spend more.

Reducing the minors to a strict 150 North American clubs (four four season teams plus a complex team) would direct everyone to one-size-fits-all approach. It will definitely be more efficient—each additional short-season/rookie club costs between $500,000-$1 million per year—but multiple front offices also see it as an approach that would limit innovation.

The message of these teams is simple: may the best idea win.

Right now, that approach is losing.

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