Many months back I sent an email to my editors here at Banished to the Pen pitching the idea of relegation being brought to Major League Baseball. They were receptive, but then in my research, I noticed a lot of other articles on the idea and my enthusiasm for the project waned. However, as this MLB season has progressed I got the bug to write the article again, and here we are. Relegation is something that would dramatically change MLB. For good or bad, well, that’s up to you to decide.
For starters, let’s define relegation. In this instance, relegation is being taken from the European football model. Relegation isn’t just a European model, nor is it limited to football alone, but that is the model I am most familiar with. Essentially there are a series of interconnected leagues and teams can play their way into the league above via winning their league while also running the risk of being relegated down to the league below if they finish in the cellar. That’s a very simplified explanation, but it should do us well here.
Why the need for relegation in MLB? I’d say first we need to take that question a step further and ask, why the need for relegation in MLB and Minor League baseball? Winning is the easiest answer. The unwritten contract between a team and its fans is that the team will try to win and the fans will support the team because of their effort.
MLB teams were always going to go after the most profits, but they did so under the guise of truly trying to win. In 2019 the reality is that half the league is tanking under the false hope that they will be able to turn themselves into a winner 5 or 6 years down the line. Then there are a handful of teams who have decided that while they could win it would really be for the best if they didn’t do that right now, but a few years from now. There are no rules against this sort of approach and that’s why fans can dismiss the chances of over half the league to actually win before the All-Star break has even occurred.
MiLB isn’t an organization where winning has mattered for years. It takes a huge backseat to player development. I get the need for player development, but one of the reasons that lots of MiLB teams suffer from empty stadium syndrome is because the local fans feel no need to go out and spend hard-earned money on a team that doesn’t truly care whether they win or not. In between pitch counts, innings restrictions, playing time rules, and other development based measures MiLB has become a series of leagues where essentially meaningless games take place.
Where relegation fits into all of this is to take these various leagues and make winning the most important thing once again. Some restructuring, that I will get into later, would need to take place, but baseball would continue to be played at just about every major and minor league stadium, only now with a meaning behind the games. The Miami Marlins wouldn’t be so quick to throw away yet another season if they thought finishing in last place would mean they are relegated to a lower level. Conversely, the Sacramento River Cats would go all in knowing that winning a title meant they would be promoted to a higher level.
Here would be the levels or leagues for the United Baseball System:
That’s it, those are all the levels, and obviously, this is going to require some major shakeup. Each league would consist of 20 teams. Starting with the ML, for the first season simply grants the playoff teams from the previous MLB season automatic entry to the league. The remaining teams can compete in a round-robin style tournament for each where the 10 teams with the best record after whatever number of games are played also gain entry into the league. That leaves ten teams on the outs, relegated to a lower level.
This method will create a trickle effect because now Class AAA has those 10 previously MLB teams and only has room for 10 more teams from within its ranks. Initially, the same method that was used in ML can be used at Class AAA. Take the 10 teams that have been relegated from ML and add in the 2 champions from the former International League and Pacific Coast League the previous year. Those 12 teams make up your initial Class AAA teams with the remaining clubs playing a round-robin tournament where the 8 teams with the most victories also advance to be included in the Class AAA level.
A couple of notes before we continue, some teams will have to be renamed. The days of the Iowa Cubs and Syracuse Mets are over. No more taking the name of an MLB team and using it as your own. The MLB will be no more, and the teams at the other classes want to make it to the ML and they should do so using a team name that is distinct to them. Also, I haven’t forgotten about Liga Mexicana de Béisbol, rather I want them to be removed from any association with this system. They have their own great league, it doesn’t need to be drawn into this. Let them do their own thing and continue to try and win on their own. That goes for any unaffiliated league, they get to remain unaffiliated because there will always be room for unaffiliated baseball in my world.
Back to the meat of the issue. I’d use this same beginning relegation system for every level. This will create a logjam, there’s no avoiding that. We’ve just now reached the Class AA level and there are way more teams than there are spots. This is where things get a little creative. Instead of the teams relegated from the former Triple-A being granted automatic spots they will be entered into the Class AA playoffs with the other teams, minus the 3 championship teams from the former Double-A leagues who get automatic entry. This won’t help clear the logjam, but it will make it so teams have an incentive to keep winning the year before the new system takes place. This process will then be repeated for the former Class-A leagues, excluding the short season leagues.
Short season and rookie league teams are where roster construction becomes involved. Initially, every single MLB team will be allowed to protect 5 players they currently have rostered on a present MiLB team. It doesn’t matter if that team makes it into ML or Class AAA, they get to protect five players from within their system before those playoffs even begin. The short season and rookie league teams sit out the round-robin playoffs and are without players. Once all the round-robin playoffs have concluded and all four levels of the United Baseball System are set with 20 teams per level and each team with a roster of 26 active players and 5 protected players, they can begin to negotiate with the teams who did not manage to qualify for any of the four levels as well as any and all players from those teams, short-season league teams, and rookie league teams.
They are now all free agents, players and unqualified teams alike. I get that teams in the UBS will still need farm teams for younger players and rehabbing players. To that end, each UBS team will be limited to 2 farm teams, consisting of rosters of 26 players each. They can choose to sign whichever players they want and can feel free to retain any of the unqualified team’s facilities for use as a farm team facility if they can come to terms on an agreement. The free-agent players and teams will be able to negotiate though, otherwise, there’s no point to the UBS. There will be no draft because players deserve the right to negotiate for fair pay. There won’t be any international or amateur draft in future years either, for the very same reason.
Okay, now for the easiest part, the year is 2028 and the first season of the UBS is coming to an end. Advancement and relegation will depend on placement within the league. The three teams in the ML with the worst record will find themselves relegated to Class AAA. The same goes for Class AAA to Class AA and Class AA to Class A. Meanwhile the champion from each of the lower classes automatically moves up a level. The teams that finished second through fourth in each level will then hold a round-robin playoff where the top 2 teams each advance to the next level while the third team remains at its current level. Class A will end up being the most do or die because the teams that finish in the bottom three will end up booted from the UBS and could then either attempt to negotiate to become a farm team or join an unaffiliated league. (It should be left up to players and teams to enter into contracts for whether they would stay with a Class A team that is booted out of the UBS or become free agents.)
I understand this is a pipe dream. Relegation will never happen, but that doesn’t mean a man can’t dream. I want to see teams trying to win again, and I know that relegation would bring that about in the swiftest and simplest manner. Teams across the MLB and MiLB ranks have no incentive to win as the system is structured today, so let’s change that and truly shake everything up to make the games mean something again and make it where teams have to honor their end of the unwritten contract by trying to win.
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