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December 18, 2001

The Daily Prospectus

Contraction Inaction

by Derek Zumsteg

Many people think that the owners came up with contraction as a bargaining chip, a way to force the players to negotiate the next Collective Bargaining Agreement at a marked disadvantage. Commissioner Bud Selig has been adamant that this is not the case, going so far as to vow that baseball "will contract." Selig was lying, and the owners' conduct proves it.

Let's say that the owners got together and believed that contraction was the right thing to do and the best way to solve the problem of the owners' profits only being unseemly rather than unbelievable. Let's also say that they also believed it could be accomplished for the 2002 season.

There's a lot of baseball business that has to go on in the off-season. One of the things that's frequently overlooked but important to a team's success is their organizational depth, built through non-roster invitations to spring training, the signing of minor-league veterans, and so on. Having good backups at Triple-A who can fill in for season-ending injuries keeps a team from having to trade valuable prospects or take on bloated long-term contracts. Signing the right minor-league free agents can provide role players or even regulars that can help a team to a title. If the owners were really going to contract, they would have needed to do so right away. No team would want to see a player they want to be their fourth outfielder, for instance, sign with a team that's not going to exist come Opening Day.

That's only the spare parts. We can assume that teams facing contraction wouldn't be huge players in the free-agent market, and if their players were to be dispersed, that would have a significant impact on the construction of rosters across the league. Signing Moises Alou to a long-term contract looks less attractive if there's a possibility that Brad Wilkerson is going to fall into your lap.

If baseball was really going to contract, they would have been prepared. The announcement, ill-timed as it was, would have been specific and followed by a detailed schedule of events, along with the means by which players and minor-leaguers would find other teams. Certainly, the decision would have been contested by the Players Association, and the means might well have changed radically, but if baseball was going to have any chance of making it happen, much less convincing the public to take it seriously, they needed to have their story straight from the start. They obviously did not.

Announcing that two teams would be contracted, but not naming them, was the most telling piece of evidence. Even if you want to believe that the owners meant to contract, that they didn't have a plan because they knew one would have to be negotiated; even if you think the idea dropped from the clear blue sky one day and they blurted it out before they were ready to do so, there's only one reason not to name the two teams: there was never any intent to contract.

Here's why. If you name two teams, those two communities file their lawsuits and you head to court. If baseball believed they clearly could legally shutter two franchises, they should have been confident that they would emerge victorious, and eager to get the lawsuits over as soon as possible.

If you don't name anyone, everyone sues you preemptively, which is what we saw. MLB faced a whole volley of suits in Minnesota, where the storied Twins may have been under threat, but also in Florida, where communities were afraid that either the un-storied Devil Rays or the ruins of the Marlins might have been closed down. Legal fees go up as baseball defends itself in any number of communities, and Florida's substantial political weight lines up against MLB in Congress.

The reason the teams weren't named was so all the so-called troubled franchises could continue to recruit and sign players to long-term contracts. The Twins could tell that local kid they drafted, Joe Mauer, that they were only shaking down the state for a new stadium, and that it was the Expos and the Devil Rays that were actually in trouble. The D-Rays could point to Minnesota and Montreal. Montreal could...well, everyone figured they were #1 on the list, so they got screwed in this whole thing.

When I started thinking this through, I began writing a piece on how not settling things early, not being "transparent," as people are saying post-Enron, was a sign that Selig intended to carry out his threats, that this was part of his M.O. all the way back to stealing the Seattle Pilots way back when. But even then, Selig had a plan--steal the team--and it all came out at once.

There's none of that here. The more analysis that is done, the more it's apparent that contraction solves nothing, and is not and was not ever a serious threat. It serves as an example of the stunning, unintentional genius MLB has for mismanaging its own affairs, and their dishonesty and willingness to sink to vile threats in their attempts to screw the players.

If the MLBPA gives up anything to delay this phantom threat, I will be shocked, for they must know this as well as we do.

Derek Zumsteg is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

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