On Thursday night, MLB's owners elected a new commissioner to replace the outgoing Bud Selig, making Rob Manfred the 10th man to assume the job since 1921. The transition to Manfred, Selig's current second-in-command, should be a smooth one, but that doesn’t mean it will be a cakewalk. Here’s a quick look at the three biggest challenges facing Manfred when he becomes baseball’s next commissioner in January 2015.
Continued labor peace
As MLB's principle negotiator, Manfred has been a key figure in the game’s recent history of labor peace. In 2002, 2006 and 2011, he helped the owners and union come to terms on new collective bargaining agreements without a single game being missed. However, no good deed goes unpunished, and reports have suggested that the opposition to Manfred’s election as commissioner, led by White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, stemmed in large part from the belief that Manfred has been soft on the players’ union. Manfred will have almost two full years in office before the current CBA expires on Dec. 1, 2016, but that doesn’t mean that keeping the peace will be easy.
Beyond the usual challenges in forging compromise between two powerful groups with opposing interests, Manfred will have to address the aspects of the current agreement that are proving problematic. Chief among those are the rules governing free agent compensation and bonus money for draft picks and international free agents, all of which were revamped for the current agreement.
The hard limits imposed on bonuses for international free agents and draft picks appeared to be a blow against small-market teams from the day they were introduced. Prior to the current agreement, teams that might not be able to compete for established major league free agents could instead overpay, in a sense, for amateur talent, allowing them to sign players who may have dropped in the draft due to signability issues and to stock their farm system with premium talent. The new CBA, however, largely banned such behavior, instituting strict limits on bonuses for amateur talent with severe penalties for teams that exceeded their bonus allotments.
We saw this blow up in a big way last month with the Astros. In what was perhaps a misguided attempt to re-allocate its bonus allotment to convince two later round picks to sign instead of going to college, Houston attempted to low-ball top overall pick Brady Aiken, whose ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow was discovered to be congenitally small in his post-draft physical. Aiken rejected Houston’s offer, thus erasing $7.9 million from its bonus pool (the allotment for the top overall pick), which meant that the team in turn was unable to extend above-slot bonuses to the two later picks. The result was that the Astros lost all three players. They will receive a compensation pick in next year’s draft, the second overall, and are hardly innocent for having tried to game the system, but the incident nonetheless drew attention to how constricting the current bonus system is.
As for free-agent compensation, a bugaboo of labor negotiations going back to 1980, the current CBA introduced a new system by which teams are only eligible for compensation if they extend a qualifying offer (a one-year deal at a salary equal to the average of the 125 highest-paid players in the game) to their outgoing free agents. Teams who sign players who reject those offers have to surrender their top unprotected draft pick to the players’ former team.
However, as the rigid slotting system and the move away from free agency and toward player extensions has increased the value of high draft picks, that extra cost of a top pick has had a deleterious effect on the market price of mid-range free agents. Those players, who would clearly be worth more than the one-year qualifying offer without the compensation, end up losing their value, as teams are unwilling to surrender that draft pick and pay the player what he is worth. The most extreme examples of this from last winter’s free-agent class were Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales, both of whom remained unsigned past Opening Day despite being among the top free agents on the market (SI.com’s Ben Reiter listed them as 15th and 18th, respectively). They ultimately settled for deals effectively equivalent to the qualifying offer.
Resolving teams’ stadium/finance issues
Though it was ultimately overshadowed by PEDs, labor relations, re-alignment and expanded playoffs, one of the defining aspects of Selig’s tenure as commissioner was the influx of new ballparks. From 1994 to 2012, 21 of baseball’s 30 teams got new stadiums. Three others got new parks just before Selig’s arrival, and three others have made significant refurbishments to their old parks, with the Cubs seeking to join that list. The Braves already have plans to move into yet another new park. That leaves just two teams on the outside of MLB’s stadium boom, both of whom are arguably among the teams that needed new ballparks the most and have been among MLB’s best-run and most successful franchises over the last decade. How Manfred resolves the stadium issues of the Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays, and how quickly he does so, could prove to be the first real test of his leadership.
Selig’s failure in those cases, particularly with the A’s, has been an embarrassment. Selig never did resolve the conflict between the A’s and the cross-Bay Giants, whose claim to territorial rights south of San Francisco repeatedly blocked the Athletics' effort to move to another well-populated part of the region. Backed into a corner, the A’s just signed a ten-year lease in July to stay in O.co Coliseum, which buys Manfred some time. But short of having the Raiders move out into a new football-only facility — thus enabling a massive renovation of the Coliseum by the A’s, a potential outcome over which MLB has no influence — it remains clear that the A’s need a roadmap to a new ballpark.
The Rays are in a similar pickle. Despite winning more games than any team other than the Yankees from 2008 to 2013, the Rays are routinely near or at the bottom of the league in attendance. That has less to do with the passion of their fanbase than it does with the unfortunate location of Tropicana Field. The park, which was built before the team was created (as Jonah Keri wrote in The Extra 2%, it was obsolete the day it opened), is the only permanent dome remaining in the majors and is, along with Toronto’s Rogers Centre, one of just two remaining baseball parks with artificial turf.
The biggest problem with Tropicana Field, however, is its accessibility, or lack thereof. The ballpark is located near the tip of the Pinellas peninsula, separated from the region’s major population centers by Tampa Bay itself, thus forcing the vast majority of the team’s fan base to squeeze across the three-mile long W. Howard Frankland Bridge to attend games, resulting in monstrous traffic congestion. It’s no wonder most Rays fans prefer to stay home. That the Rays have managed to succeed despite the constant need to trade away their best veteran pitchers does not minimize their need for a new ballpark. Indeed, given their struggles this year and their seemingly weak return in the recent trade of David Price, it seems the Rays’ ability to win despite their limitations is already dwindling.
In addition to those ever-present stadium issues, there remains the looming possibility that the Mets’ ownership will be forced to sell due to the team’s massive debt. If so, Manfred will be charged with overseeing the potentially messy sale of a heavily indebted team in the country’s largest market.
Suppressing performance-enhancing drug use
Performance-enhancing drugs are always going to be a part of every sport. It’s just human nature that someone is going to seek that edge, despite the risks involved, because there will always be someone for whom the potential rewards far out-strip the potential penalties. Think of Bartolo Colon in his comeback attempt, a player in his late 30s with no Hall of Fame hopes who had been out of the game completely in 2010.
That doesn’t mean that MLB should stop doing whatever it can to minimize the use of PEDs in the game. Manfred has a strong track record in this regard, having worked closely with Selig in bringing baseball from having no PED policy just over a decade ago to having one of the strongest in professional sports today. However, Manfred was also closely involved in some of MLB's questionable tactics in its Biogenesis investigation, such as paying for evidence and cooperation from potentially unreliable sources. Manfred has to be careful to maintain (or, in the eyes of some, restore) the integrity of MLB and his office in such investigations while continuing to root out cheaters.
In the near term, the Drug Enforcement Administration in its investigation of Biogenesis has reportedly turned up the names of additional major league players who were clients of Anthony Bosch and Biogenesis. MLB has requested those names from the DEA and will surely seek to issue suspensions to the players found to have violated the league’s drug policy. Those suspensions could prove to be one of Selig’s final acts as commissioner. If not, they could be one of Manfred’s first.