There is a particularly funny scene in the hit show of 2020 that captured our hearts, Ted Lasso, which returns at the end of the month, where Coach Lasso explains to his international soccer team that in America, we don’t have a system of relegation that they do in soccer, “because we’re dumb.” We reward the teams with the worst records in sports with better odds of getting a top draft pick to prevent them from losing further in the future, whereas if you lose the most in international soccer, you get relegated to the lower league the following year. This concept keeps the underperforming teams from having an incentive to tank their season and keeps the league competitive year-round.
There is a competitive balance issue in baseball currently. The teams that are good are VERY good, have been good, and show little to no sign of declining. It’s also a sport with no salary cap or salary floor, so if you’re, say, the Pittsburgh Pirates, you can sit back, not spend any money on your team, and trade off all of your assets for prospects while you just keep on losing to get better draft picks. Meanwhile, if a high payroll team has a random hole in their lineup that appears, they can just go out and spend whatever it takes to acquire a stud.
It’s not fun being a fan of a team with a legitimate shot at winning who would rather just save a few bucks and trade away their superstar every few years. Cleveland, for example, made the World Series in 2016, made the playoffs 4 out of the last 5 years, and is continuing to win this year with the lowest payroll on the books; their entire 2021 payroll is only around $16 million more than just ONE season of Mike Trout. Within that span, they’ve gotten rid of Francisco Lindor, Trevor Bauer, Corey Kluber, Mike Clevinger, Carlos Carrasco, and Edwin Encarnacion. That’s a combined 11 All-stars, 2 Gold Gloves, 2 Silver Sluggers, and 3 Cy Young Awards. They’re still consistently competitive without any of these players! Imagine how talented they could have been if they felt inclined to keep at least a few of them. If you’re a Cleveland fan, why would you bother falling in love with any of the stars?
A system of relegation to punish the teams that are losing or refusing to spend in baseball simply wouldn’t work- there is an entire minor league system that would need to be completely blown up and reconstructed. However, there is a concept from international soccer that would make baseball not only more competitive, but change the legacies of the star players forever: implementing a loan system.
In international soccer, you can loan a player under contract to another club for them to play for just a smaller increment of time so they can utilize him temporarily. This allows young players to get experience getting first-team reps rather than just sit the bench and not get any in-game development.
But what if baseball used a loan system in a sort of “hired assassin” sort of way? Instead of trading away their big names to tank for financial security and prospects, they could loan them to a team that feels it’s close to winning a championship. Take the Orioles for example: they are nowhere near close to being a competitive team
at all and are 26-54, but Cedric Mullins is playing well enough to start the All-Star Game and is only 26 years old. Under the current circumstances, there’s a possibility that Mullins could be dealt for prospects given he’s one of the only Orioles players with value to get a haul in return, and Baltimore would say goodbye to one of the league’s best outfielders to begin the cycle of developing more prospects they got back in return for him. With a loan system, say the Yankees are in need of a center fielder to compete for a World Series this year; Baltimore could loan Mullins to the Yankees for the remainder of the season in exchange for money or prospects, call up the players in their 5th-overall farm system to get them some playing time while Mullins is gone, and at the end of the year, Baltimore still retains Mullins for the rest of his contract. The Yankees get their “hired assassin” to try and get a ring, and the Orioles get either money or prospects, more experience developing youth, and don’t have to permanently deal Mullins away. Rebuilding becomes faster and competition becomes more balanced.
It would also change the way we feel about the superstars that are loaned if they DO end up getting a ring. Mike Trout of the Angels infamously has only made one playoff appearance despite quite possibly being the best to ever play the game. If he were to get a ring somewhere else, he would no longer have that putrid stench of “well, he’s never won anything in the playoffs, so..” on his career. You’d also hear the sports talking heads debate, “Is this considered a REAL ring??” on television all day, though, which would not be fun.
There would need to be regulations so that it couldn’t just be a free-for-all where teams tank their entire lineup or load up on stars for a year. If teams were limited to one loan move per year with a window of time to do so, it would be a feasible possibility that would benefit both sides. It would cause teams to look themselves in the mirror more and ask themselves, “Do we have it this year?” and if the answer is no, they would still be able to ask, “Could we have it next year?”
Teams that year after year don’t try to improve themselves or are too incompetent to do so are preventing a balanced game throughout the league. The reality is that baseball is the slowest-paced of the major sports and needs to try to continue to expand to a wider, younger audience. A loan system would develop even more young talent and implement a new element of strategy into the game within the front office. You’d also get the stars on dead in the water teams moved into position to compete on the big stage and get all eyes on them.
Baseball has tried several new rule changes over the years, but this one, as wild as it is, could grow the game on a different level.