SBD/April 1, 2011/MLB Season Preview

MLB Roundtable: Writers Discuss Hot-Button Issues Facing League

MLB enters the '11 season with plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the future of the game. The league is riding an unprecedented wave of labor peace, while also witnessing the rise of several young stars poised to become the new faces of the national pastime. But the sport is not without its trouble spots. As the season commences, questions over the Dodgers' and Mets’ ownership situations continue to be a cause for concern, and the Rays and A's are still searching for ballpark solutions. Also, the Red Sox' and Phillies' offseason acquisitions have renewed the debate over the gap between the haves and have-nots in the league. To put all of the hot-button issues into perspective, THE DAILY offers a writers’ roundtable with national and local writers.


Q:
Will the labor tranquility in MLB continue?

ESPN's Buster Olney: Yes, because the working relationship between the players and MLB has probably never been stronger. The players and teams are splitting a lot of money, and I have thought that perhaps the strife in the NFL and NBA is almost an affirmation for the folks involved in baseball's labor talks. They must be thinking, "Thank God we've already been through that."

SI.com's Tom Verducci: Yes. The owners have stopped tilting at the salary cap windmill and have seen revenues rise in great part because of 16 years of uninterrupted labor peace. There are no issues on the table this time that appear big enough and troublesome enough to cause a shutting down of the game.

L.A. Times' Bill Shaikin: Yes. Baseball owners long ago gave up the fight for a salary cap, so the prevailing question is not how much revenue to share with players but how owners share revenue among themselves. With MLB generating $7 billion per year in revenue -- and holding steady even in a deep recession, with tremendous fortunes to come via MLBAM -- there is no compelling reason for owners to shut down the game for an intramural fight.

Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal: Yes. Too much at stake for a stoppage and the issues in baseball aren't as pronounced as they are, say, in the NFL. The baseball owners, for example, know they're not getting a salary cap. Revenue sharing needs to be tweaked, but that's more of an owner-owner issue than an owner-player issue. But the other issues -- the future of the draft, for example -- are not the kind that will bring the game to a halt.

ESPN N.Y.’s Andrew Marchand: Labor tranquility will continue. The Players Association and the Commissioner’s Office know that they have a really good financial thing going. With revenues growing and salaries staying high, I don’t think you will see either side trying to make drastic changes to the financial system. 
 

The Yankees have the highest payroll in MLB, while
the Rays reduced their payroll by 40% this year
Q: Is the disparity growing between the rich and the poor teams?

Olney: The disparity is growing, but I think that generally, all the teams involved are at peace with this, because they know it's not going to change. The Rays are never going to spend as much money as the Yankees -- and they all know that the only way they could would be if the system was blown up (with major labor strife).

Verducci: This is a continuing issue in baseball because the sport is intensely local and dependent on the size of the market. New ballparks have helped smaller revenue clubs, but the gap continues to widen because the big markets can generate money on a much larger scale because of higher ticket prices, advertising and especially where there is ownership of regional sports networks.

Rosenthal: Yes, but not only in a financial sense. That has existed for some time now. The bigger problem perhaps is that some of the rich teams are now operating as efficiently as some of the smarter poor teams, making the gap seem even wider. The one thing the poor teams could count on in the past was the inefficiency of many of the wealthier clubs.

Sporting News’ Anthony Witrado: It’s not growing to the point where it’s all of the sudden a new problem. The disparity has always been there but success by teams like Minnesota, Tampa Bay and Cincinnati show there is still enough parity to not cause a panic.

St. Petersburg Times’ Marc Topkin: I don't know that the disparity itself is growing, or can grow any larger, but the gap between the teams has increased because the rich teams are getting smarter. They are operating under many of the same principles that the smaller-market teams do, which means they are getting even more for their money, and increasing their advantage over the small-market teams.

Q: Will the playoffs be expanded this season?

Olney: It won't be expanded for this season, but I think it'll be expanded for 2012. When Bud Selig suggests something might happen, as he has in this case, it usually means the decision has already been made.

Verducci: No. The owners want to run this by the players, so it's being folded into CBA talks. The earliest you will see expanded playoffs is 2012. Baseball's TV partners aren't crazy about adding to the inventory of non-clinching playoff games, so the appetite for a three-game series between second-place teams is tepid. A one-game knockout round -- March Madness style -- makes much more sense.

 

Q: What is the Rays' future in the Tampa area if a new ballpark deal is not completed?

Topkin: Ugly. Principal owner Stu Sternberg had made it clear that the team can't stay in Tropicana Field for the full term of the lease -- through 2027. So if there isn't a deal for a new ballpark, there are likely to be threats of moving the team or eliminating the team through contraction, with MLB playing the heavy and the possibility of lawsuits and counter suits and excessive public discourse. The issue is complex because the lease is with the city of St. Petersburg and the mayor, at least thus far, won't allow the team to look at other sites in the Tampa Bay area that are outside the city limits -- i.e., Tampa. And the Rays have said they won't look at new sites in St. Petersburg unless they can look at all sites in the area.

Marchand: The future doesn’t look good. The Rays are magicians in how they run their franchise, but David Price spoke for his teammates last year when he lamented how empty the Trop was when the Rays were clinching the division. It is the location that is the problem. If there is not a new stadium, then the Rays may have to go elsewhere or be contracted.

Q:
Will the Mets owners’ financial troubles overshadow this season?
Witrado: Absolutely. The team stood still this offseason because of those troubles and it is simply in a hope-to-contend mode and if it does not, then don’t expect any upgrades. The team has already eaten big contracts before the season started and could do more of that during the season.
Marchand: There is no doubt that the Wilpons’ financial troubles will not only overshadow the Mets’ season, but it will define it. Unless in the unlikely event the Mets somehow contend for the division or the wild card, the financial question will be raised in every move the Mets make from Francisco Rodriguez’ usage (he has a $17.5 million option that kicks in if he finishes 55 games) to if they will trade free-agent-to-be Jose Reyes, to any other noticeable financial shortcuts the team takes.
Sporting News’ Stan McNeal: If they win, the financial troubles will become secondary to what happens on the field. If they lose, financial troubles will remain on the media's front burner. They likely will try harder to trade high-salaried players such as Carlos Beltran. If they trade David Wright, we'll know just how serious the financial troubles are.

   

The McCourts' legal battle over ownership of the
Dodgers will continue into regular season
Q: How much of an impact, if any, has the McCourts' divorce and subsequent ownership battle played in the Dodgers' offseason?

Verducci: I don't see much of a short-term impact in baseball operations, though long-term investments, such as long-term contracts and international signings, could be compromised.

Shaikin: The Dodgers increased their payroll significantly from last season, and they were active in free agency. They stayed out of the bidding for the marquee free agents, including Carl Crawford and Cliff Lee, but even before the divorce, the Dodgers had not signed any players to $100 million contracts under McCourt ownership. The Dodgers won't say how far their season-ticket sales have fallen, but it would be difficult to separate the impact of the divorce proceedings from the impact of a lousy season in 2010. Ultimately, the issue might be one of perception: If the Dodgers play well and fans stay away, would that indicate fans are tired of the McCourts and anxious for new owners? Or, if the Dodgers play poorly, would fans blame not just the manager and general manager but the ownership?


Q: A’s Owner Lew Wolff has previously denied his interest in buying the Dodgers should they be available for sale. Do you think he would change his mind if no ballpark option is found for his team in the next year?   

Verducci: He is focused on San Jose. I think he will have to explore other options if the door closes on moving there.

Rosenthal: That situation is fluid, to say the least!   

Q: Which young player will become the most marketable face of MLB in the next five years?

Olney: The 25-year-old Felix Hernandez, who has climbed from being a really good pitcher to being a dominant pitcher. He's got a great personality, and he either is going to command a Ripken-like respect for his desire to stay in one city, or he will be traded by the Mariners in a couple of years to New York or Boston, where he will gain star power.

Verducci: So much depends on postseason exposure, especially the World Series. Tim Lincecum and Buster Posey of the Giants are off to a good start. Robinson Cano of the Yankees has the advantages of the New York market, tremendous talent and a great smile that makes him so accessible. And keep an eye on Bryce Harper of the Nationals, who could be in the big leagues next year and is one of the rare players in the sport who has a national profile before even playing a game in the big leagues.

Rosenthal: Troy Tulowitzki would be perfect -- he's a model player on and off the field. But I'm not sure a player in Colorado would get that kind of marketing attention. Buster Posey would be another good choice.

Witrado: There are a lot of options, but I think guys like Joey Votto, David Price, Prince Fielder and Matt Kemp, if he can produce and stay out of the dog house, are the next faces of the game.

McNeal: Bryce Harper, Nationals.

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