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cardinals logoAchieving “competitive balance” – parity – in a professional sports league is, for the long-term health of the league as a whole, probably a good thing. While dynasties have a certain intrigue, maximizing fan interest across the country requires that most of the teams in a league have had decent seasons and/or playoff runs within recent memory. As a league, you want fans of all teams to stay fans of the game, and to believe that, in any give three-year stretch, it could happen for them, too.

So, I applaud MLB’s efforts, in general, to try and reduce the gap between the haves and the have-nots of baseball, even as I concede that I’d like to see the Chicago Cubs behaving more like a have, and leveraging that position to their own benefit (other teams be damned). You can’t, however, mandate in any explicit way that teams alternate or share their winning seasons. Instead, for all practical purposes, the only way to increase parity is to decrease wealth disparity.

In other words, what MLB really wants is a system whereby teams have approximately the same amount of money with which to work. That’s the point of revenue sharing, and luxury taxes, and reverse-order drafts, and signing pools, and on and on.

And it’s also the reason that I struggle to see why a competitive balance lottery, which awards draft picks – a baseball asset – to “needy” teams, is the right approach to competitive balance. If you’re seeking balance, continue modifying the revenue-sharing picture – don’t mess with the baseball side. That’s mixing things that needn’t be mixed.

Having said all of that, you can understand why I’m annoyed that the St. Louis Cardinals received an extra draft pick – a very high one, at that – in yesterday’s competitive balance lottery for 2015. We are told that there is weighting involved that, because of their recent success, should have made it very hard for the Cardinals to come away with that pick. But, when it comes to the Cardinals, the voodoo magic is strong.

The teams eligible to receive a pick include the 10 bottom revenue teams and the 10 smallest market teams. Once again, I can see “competitive balance” problems with each category; the Cardinals are in the 10 smallest markets, but their revenue is among the top 1/3 in baseball. Isn’t that what matters for competitive balance purposes? And even revenue can be a thorny divider, because some teams mask their revenue well and/or don’t make much “revenue” because of the way they choose to operate their organization.

So, when Theo Epstein spoke about the system and criticized the Cardinals’ receipt of an extra pick, it wasn’t sour grapes. It wasn’t an attack on the Cardinals. It was just a smart baseball guy expressing, in boiled-down form, the above thoughts.

Here’s a slice of what Epstein said:

“I could talk all day about the Cardinals and how much we hold them in high regard. That’s a fantastic franchise. They have been for the better part of a century. They do extremely well from a baseball standpoint and from a revenue standpoint. It’s probably the last organization in baseball that needs that kind of annual gift that they receive.”

Is anything in there incorrect?

Now, an appropriate counter-argument is that, if there is a system like this in place, which tries to prop up smaller market/revenue teams, then the Cardinals – in relatively small St. Louis – deserve to be included. They should not be punished because they’ve succeeded in spite of certain inherent limitations.

I won’t fight that. I’m just saying: I don’t like the system.

Is that because I’m a Cubs fan, and they are the only team in the NL Central that will never be eligible for a competitive balance pick? I’m intellectually honest enough to admit that it’s possible. Maybe I’ve reverse-engineered my feelings about the competitive balance lottery, starting from a place where I’m just pissed that the Cubs are excluded.

But I tend to think there’s something legitimate here, and it’s just been unearthed by this Cardinals business. I’m not sure this is a particularly good way to “competitively balance” the league.

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