Welcome to the Spring Training Tournament

A spring training tournament would make it harder for teams to manipulate service time of young players like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (via Joel Dinda)

Tanking is bad. The last couple of baseball offseasons? Also bad. Spring training? Sure, it might feel good at first, but in the end? Bad. None of it feels as if it carries real stakes, because it does not. But what if there were a way to cut down on tanking, spice up the offseason once more, and make spring training into something more meaningful than the overextended harbinger of games you’ll actually care about?

This sounds like a sales pitch—and it should—because the plan would require selling Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association on some wholesale changes to the game. Thankfully, they’re in the middle of considering plenty of those changes on their own right now. What’s one more little adjustment?

The short of it: Introduce a spring training tournament played by baseball’s worst teams from the previous season. Where clubs place in this tournament will determine their draft position that summer. The more successful a team is in these spring games, which now have a purpose beyond getting your timing down and your curve balls curving, the earlier it picks in the draft come June.

“But, Marc,” you say, “the season is already unreasonably long to begin with.” That’s true! There is nothing that feels as long as the baseball season of a losing or, even worse, boring team. Here’s the thing, though: Spring training is awful. It serves a purpose, but if you tell me you actively enjoy watching the games for any other reason than they briefly remind you you’re still capable of feeling joy, I will not believe you. After the initial, Groundhog Day-esque feeling that spring and the regular season are here, you remember you’ve got like, six more weeks of interminable winter left.

Making those games and those days feel more important wouldn’t lengthen the season so much as breathe life into an unavoidable chunk of it. And if more teams are trying to keep themselves in a position to succeed in this tournament, it will help reduce the number of clubs putting on unwatchable regular season baseball in the late summer, too.

What does this tournament look like?

Ten teams make the postseason each year thanks to the two-Wild Card setup, so we’ll have the 10 teams with the worst records enter this tournament. You could argue limiting it to a smaller group instead of having every team that misses the postseason participate is unfair to the teams that played relatively well, but you want just the worst of those clubs fighting it out.

For those other teams, there would now be more incentive to spend money or deal prospects to acquire talent to keep them from being stuck in no-man’s land. Remember, this isn’t the NBA, where there is both a salary cap and a lottery system with ping pong balls that determine your draft fate. Teams can build their way out of the middle much more easily in baseball, so long as they put in the effort, dollars, or both.

And if everyone is adding to their rosters to some degree, then the market will be full of buyers. Trades will become a more expensive proposition, which in turn could make building through free agency suddenly valuable again, as well as through the draft. It’s all connected!

Don’t worry about seeding, either. We wouldn’t want to encourage more losing for better positioning or to punish teams who pulled a 2018 Orioles too harshly. Instead, we’ll split the teams into two pools of five and have them play in a round-robin format like the WBC uses, which allows for some form of spring continuity. The top two clubs from each pool will advance, following any necessary tiebreaker games in each pool.

The top two clubs from each pool will then face off in a three-game series, and the winners of those series will face off in a three-game final, with the winner given top draft position, the loser second, and the runners-up taking each other on in a similar series to determine the third- and fourth-overall selections.

The other six teams will round out the top 10 according to their tournament record. I’d love if tiebreakers for those spots were also games, but maybe tournament run differential will better fit the spring training schedule. This can also be a space for the prior season’s record to come into play in the draft order: No one is going to tank in order to lose enough to win a tiebreaker that might not be necessary, so tiebreakers could be reverse order of the prior season’s record without harming the tournament’s ideals.

What happens when the World Baseball Classic has to be played at the same time? Why, have both tournaments running concurrently, of course. We’re starved for baseball at this point in the calendar. Come up with even more spring tournaments if you want to; we can handle it. Players can choose which one they want to participate in, and it will make it that much more important to acquire depth before the season instead of waiting until July to do so.

Let’s break this tournament idea down, one positive attribute at a time.

Koob and Groom Double Down for the Browns
Two days, three games, and 20 no-hit innings.

It disincentivizes losing

Losing is a little too en vogue in major league baseball at the moment. You can blame the success of the Astros and the Cubs, or teams pocketing revenue-sharing dollars instead of spending them, or sabermetrically inclined front offices. You can blame all of the above or none of the above, but whatever your preferred explanation, losing sure feels concentrated among more teams than it should, and of the many “what’s wrong with baseball?” takes out there, it’s the one I think needs the most attention.

Since losing is rewarded with an earlier draft position, changing that with this spring training tournament could help to reduce the urge or ease with which losing comes to some teams. The July 31 trade deadline would no longer be a matter of deciding whether  to blow up your roster to acquire prospects and aim for the bottom. You might want to hang on to some players in the hopes they can help you in the spring, or, at the least, force teams dealing away veterans to focus on big-league-ready prospects as a return so they can plug them into the lineup rather than admit the next game you should care about is three or four years off.

Sure, a team might win 60 games and then, without doing very much at all, still manage to thrive the next spring to secure an early draft pick. The odds seem slim, though, and teams probably can’t afford to be wrong about that very often, not if they want to start adding the prospects that will make them something besides losers.

Plus…

It fills the horrific void of nothingness that exists from early November until at least April

It used to be, in the long, long ago of the beginning and middle of this decade, the offseason was a time when free agents signed new deals regularly and trades happened for reasons other than shifting some salary around to avoid the luxury tax. Those days are dead, or at least in a very, very deep slumber, and the sport would be well served to think of ways to counter that trend. This tournament is one such way!

In addition to losing teams thinking twice before trading away veterans and arbitration-eligible players at the in-season deadline, the tourney would, in theory, liven the offseason back up. Sure, a losing team might not be ready to challenge last year’s division winner or even go for a Wild Card just yet, but if what you have to aim for at first is an edge over your fellow losing teams in order to secure a better draft position, all of a sudden, free agency becomes attractive once more.

Mike Moustakas, dependable league-average-or-better third baseman, signed for a $5.5 million base salary a year ago and this year signed a $10 million deal with the Brewers. The first was a $3 million pay cut from his final season of arbitration, and the second was a raise and the highest salary he’s earned in a single season but also still well below what you’d expect for someone you can pencil in for two wins or more above replacement level, and that’s without getting into the one-year-deal thing. Part of the reason for this was that few teams even bothered to engage him as a free agent: Winning teams already had options at third, losing teams didn’t want to spend on a free agent, and the teams in the middle would seem to rather get lucky than improve.

Now, I don’t want to name names, so we’ll spoonerize one of those losing teams to protect its identity. The “Miami Marlins” could have used Moustakas, who can play more than just third base. Instead, they traded their best player to a division rival and made some unexciting free agent additions to round out a last-place roster. With a spring training tournament to look forward to–which could determine how quickly the “Marlins” can improve through their farm system–adding Moustakas and holding on to J.T. Realmuto would have been far more enticing and exciting, while the path they chose instead would have been much more difficult to explain to fans.

Even if you can’t convince “Miami” to prioritize winning, surely there will be some teams that think it’s worth spending the extra money in the now for better inexpensive talent later. As Neil deMause recently explained, there’s little incentive to try to improve once teams hit a certain threshold, because adding more wins costs them more than what they’ll earn back by succeeding. Throw a draft position wrench in the mix, and maybe the calculus changes. Teams are better in the now, and top free agents aren’t still waiting to be signed in March. Can you imagine such a world?

Front offices no longer can sell their fans on the idea that the surest path to winning is by becoming an embarrassing loser. Losing is going to happen sometimes. It’s not like the Orioles set out to be one of the worst teams in the history of the modern game last year. It just kind of happened. You’ll never get rid of those historical oddities completely, nor will you get rid of the teams that try but admittedly don’t have the best-laid plans. And that’s fine! But that kind of losing is enough for one league.

This whole losing-on-purpose thing? It’s gotta go. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred appeared to validate tanking as a strategy a year ago while backing up what the Marlins di…uh, sorry, what the “Marlins” did by trading away arguably the best outfield in baseball, and not for a return to be proud of, either. Making it so tanking doesn’t get a team great draft position would help change this idea that losing on purpose in the off chance you win later is worth it.

It definitely would work, right? It’s not like teams also tank because so much of baseball’s revenue is disconnected from performance or whether your team is liked or watched, and the teams are going to get paid whether they try to win or sit on their hands and watch the baseball gods play dice.

Well, if teams did tank for purely financial reasons while hiding behind the thin veneer of draft position and stocking up the farm system, at least they wouldn’t be able to continue the practice without exposing themselves as huge frauds in need of a new line.

Service time manipulation becomes that much more difficult

Speaking of feeding people lines: Service time manipulation would be more difficult to justify with a spring training tournament for draft position in place. Do you think some Blue Jays fans would still defend holding Vladimir Guerrero Jr. back from the majors for a few weeks if his presence gave them a much better chance of securing even more impact young talent through the draft? Do you think a team could let Guerrero mash in said tournament and then send him back down to the minors with whatever flimsy excuse it’s concocted after having seen him compete against major league-caliber competition, because I’m here to tell you it could not. Well, at least not without losing a grievance in record time.

So come on down Guerrero Jr., and Nick Senzel, and Eloy Jimenez, and every other player who probably can be in the majors from the start of the year but won’t because there’s little incentive for teams to think about their play earlier in the season except in terms of team control. Time to help your team win some prospects by playing big-league ball instead of…not.

MLB adds games that matter to the schedule

The World Baseball Classic is a lot of fun, in this writer’s opinion. It doesn’t happen nearly often enough, though, which is a shame since it serves to stave off the existential dread of spring training until we look up and realize the regular season is right there on the horizon. Adding this spring training tournament would fix that, in that we’d always have a spring tournament to look forward to instead of games played by players who casual fans will never see again in any other context.

If the games matter, then MLB can make money off of them. Bigger television deals! More expensive advertisements! #branding! Money to spend on minor leaguers who participate in spring training despite the fact that they don’t receive a cent for doing so, because MLB would like you to believe these employees are part of some weird tryout in high school instead of a key component in a $10 billion-per-year industry!

Start the service time clocks for minor leaguers who participate in the tournament while we’re at it. Hey, Guerrero is the one doing you a favor, Blue Jays.

And there we are. A spring training tournament that disincentivizes losing, injects some life into the offseason, and gives us something to watch that we actually would care about each spring. You can tweak the tournament details if you’d like, but the important thing is this: Making more meaningful baseball exist, both in the spring and the summer, is a worthwhile goal, one a tournament like this could achieve.


Marc Normandin is the former MLB Editor of SB Nation, and currently writes a newsletter on baseball’s labor issues and more for Patreon subscribers. His baseball writing has appeared at Deadspin, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, Sports on Earth, and Baseball Prospectus.
newest oldest most voted
Da Bear
Member
Da Bear

Where would these games be played, if it would result in a Grapefruit League team and a Cactus League team being matched up?

Kevin
Member
Member
Kevin

Would have to be a neutral field in Wichita.

mds2929
Member

Peter King approves.

Yehoshua Friedman
Member
Yehoshua Friedman

Too cold for March unless domed. Better, doomed unless domed.

Kevin
Member
Member
Kevin

Love this idea Marc, anything to motivate teams to actually, like, win baseball games, would be a lot of fun.

Eminor3rd
Member
Member
Eminor3rd

I love it, but:

The players (who won’t care at all about draft position) will pitch a fit if they have to travel, and even more of one if they suddenly have to play every day without their normal rest because the games have stakes. Pitcher injuries will be blamed on high leverage Spring outings, and front offices who are afflicted will be upset about how this doesn’t affect every team. How will revenue be split?

Dave T
Member
Member
Dave T

Given Normandin’s clear effort to position himself as taking pro-player positions, I find it rather funny that he hasn’t thought through what the MLBPA would think about this idea. I think it’s almost certain that they’d oppose it, because veterans as a group overwhelmingly wouldn’t want spring training games to have “stakes”, as you say. That said, I very much the opposite of “love” this idea on the whole. Normandin appears to miss the point completely of what spring training is intended to accomplish. Just like training camp and exhibition games in the other major sports, it’s intended for a… Read more »

szakyl
Member
szakyl

I could very well be reading this wrong, but wouldn’t there be an incentive to tank for some teams around September? (Assuming the 10 worst team format) Wouldn’t a team right around the cusp of being in this tournament or being the 11th or 12th worst record tank, so they could enter this tournament and win a good draft position?

Greg Golden
Member
Member
Greg Golden

If we’re making sweeping changes to prevent tanking and keep fans interested, let’s go full relegation.

I realize that this’ll never happen, but it’s the time of the year for dreamin’, right?

awalnoha
Member
Member
awalnoha

I enjoyed this off-season as much as any other. Really, it was interesting and it ends with baseball being played.

Yehoshua Friedman
Member
Yehoshua Friedman

I don’t like the idea. Players could end up competing strenuously before they are fully conditioned and get injured. I like dividing the Majors into True Major and 4A. Bottom teams in True Major get relegated, top 4As move up. 4A gets worse TV contracts, fewer games televised, worse ratings, less territorial protection of broadcasts. Being 4A costs a lot of money to a club. They could also lose some of their farm system. 4A teams would be allowed fewer farm teams and fewer teams under contract. Minor league franchises would compete for affiliations. Expansion teams would start as 4A… Read more »