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so far, so good, so what?

One thing I've noticed about prolonged high blood sugar -which for me is anything in triple digits, these days- is that it aggravates/causes ADD in my brain. That's the excuse I'm using as to why this baseball post took a while to find its way out of my brain and into LJ.

I signed up for a public Yahoo fantasy baseball league and so far am holding my own, despite being too lazy to prioritize my draft roster properly (or not having time thanks to the end-of-spring semester, crush, take your pick) and thus winding up with half a dozen catchers on my roster, including Joe Mauer, Victor Martinez, Carlos Santa, Pudge, and Wilson Ramos. It's been good enough to keep me in the upper division of the 12-team league so far, and usually in the top three. Right now I'm in sixth, and that's okay. It's a long season.

The Nationals, on the other hand, are playing just under .500 (20-21), thanks mostly to a 6-4 run against the NL Central and a 3-1 record against the West. This is good enough to keep the Nats out of last place, one game ahead of the snakebit Mets.

Anyway, back during tax season, I read Bill James' Solid Fool's Gold*, and it had an essay on the minor leagues which I was going to address but haven't gotten around to until now.

The minor leagues as they exist today are an abomination in the sight of the Lord - no, wait, wrong essay. "Revolution" was originally published in the 1988 Baseball Abstract and was a discussion of the unhappy relationship between the minor league farm teams and their major league patrons. It covered a fair chunk of the history of the minor leagues, threw in an interesting comparison to the NFL, which at the time was in the middle of an unsuccessful players' strike, and explained why the MLB owners could never hope to pull off the same union-crushing tactics against the MLBPA. To some extent, "The Minor League Pyramid" is a sequel to "Revolution" and covers some of the same ground, but now James is approaching the minors from a different perspective. The pyramid he's talking about no longer exists, having long since been boiled down to a pipeline from the short-season rookie leagues to the majors, and for various reasons, he suggests that the major league teams expand their farm systems.

Well, that's not going to happen. The major league clubs are already unhappy at the amount of money they spend on minor league salaries and equipment, and if I remember correctly, there are rules that prohibit the major league teams from owning multiple teams in the same league. James also proposes a rather complicated transaction system that would allow players to move between different levels of the pyramid, which he changes from the current AAA/AA/A/R system to an A-D system. Whatever. Anyway, I'm staggered by James' failure to realize that the minor leagues aren't nearly as structured as they used to be. In addition to the existing pipeline, there are also the independent leagues. Most of these don't fall neatly into any level of the minor league pyramid, being as they are mixtures of rookie, "limited service" players with 2-4 years of pro experience, and veteran players with five or more years experience, who may or may not have major league experience. The exceptions to this are the Frontier League, which had always required their teams to carry mostly rookie players on their rosters, and the Atlantic League, which has always concentrated on signing six-year free agents, former major leaguers, and other veterans. The rest fall somewhere between high-A and AAA, depending on the players on the various league rosters.

What the independent leagues do for MLB is provide an alternative source for rookie players and roster fillers, as well as a supplement to the AAA teams, which right now have the dual functions of developing players and providing a taxi squad that can replace injured players on the major league roster. Okay, the independent leagues also provide some minor league baseball to places that wouldn't have it otherwise, but that's not really germane to the discussion here, so we'll just take it as a given.

So what you really have is a sort of hourglass, or maybe even a wider pipeline: you have the rookie leagues at the bottom, the Frontier League and short-season A leagues next, low-A and high-A full-season leagues, AA and most independent leagues**, AAA and Atlantic Leagues. The independent leagues aren't part of the farm systems, but players move between the independents and the farm systems and also between the independents and the major leagues on occasion. If you really wanted to expand this into a proper pyramid, you'd have to do two things, and I'm not sure which would be the bigger pain in the ass for the major leagues and their affiliates, at least initially.
First, MLB would have to set the minor leagues free. Make all the farm teams independent, except for the Florida State and Arizona Leagues, about which more later. Stop the minor league draft and change the rules so that high school kids can only sign with the Class D (rookie) and Class C (short-season A) leagues, while the college kids can sign with the Class C and Class B (low-A) leagues. This will get rid of the insane multi-million dollar bonuses being paid to kids who may never pitch one ball or have one at-bat in the majors, because teams like Evansville, Hagerstown and Lowell can't pay that kind of money. Players are signed for one year with a team option for one additional year, can be released at any time, and can be traded between teams at the same level. Players cannot be sold between teams of different levels during the season, but they can be traded, and when they are, the gaining team at the higher level has to buy out the option year of the contract. This allows teams to make money trading and selling players up the line, and if you give the players a 10% piece of the action, they probably won't squawk too much.

As for the Florida State and Arizona Leagues, those become the taxi squads for the major league teams. Players sent to them make less than the major league minimum, but more than players signed to AAA contracts, most likely. With this move, we save the major leagues a buttload of money on signing bonuses, minor league player salaries, equipment, and other minor-league expenses; we also set the minor league teams free to sign the best players and managers they can get instead of just settling for whatever the parent club hands them. We also open up the system a little bit and remove some of the expectations laid on rookie players as "hot prospects" or "no prospect" roster fillers. The major league clubs will now be drafting from a pool of AAA players who have been playing for two to six years, whose abilities are fairly well known, and who don't have million-dollar price tags attached. This will also exert some pressure on player salaries at the major league level, since now there will be more options for major league GMs to pick from.

Finally, I would like to see MLB go after the NCAA with a vengeance. College baseball and its aluminum bats teach a lot of bad lessons to pitchers and hitters, and if you can't get rid of college baseball, then something needs to be done about those damn bats. This business of the summer collegiate wooden-bat leagues is a crutch holding up the move back to wood bats at all levels, and is an exploitation of college players besides. College students who want to play professional baseball in short-season leagues should be allowed to do it, get paid for it, and not be hassled by busybodies from the NCAA; there is no earthly reason why the colleges can't spin off their teams into the new Class C and D leagues and let the kids play all summer for pay between the spring and fall semesters.

Whether any of this will ever happen depends greatly on the common sense of the MLB owners and GMs, which is a frail reed to lean on, but one would think the appeal of naked greed and the long history of hot prospects who flamed out for one dumb reason or another would give them plenty of incentive to stop throwing good money after bad. Also, the expanded supply of players and lower salaries to be obtained thereby might stop all the whining from the small-market teams for a while. Why Bill James didn't see this, I don't know, but I think my proposal is a lot simpler than his, and definitely cheaper.






*Longer review of it here.
** You could make a convincing argument that most independent leagues, especially the Northern League from 1995-2000 and its successors/spinoffs, were between AA and AAA: most of the hitters were probably good enough to hit in a AAA lineup, but most of the pitchers were probably not quite that good. This isn't the place for that argument.