- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 17, 2001

Baseball owners will vote in Phoenix this week on a competitive balance draft, a measure that is either the first step in addressing the game's deepening competitive imbalance or rotisserie baseball at its worst.

The proposed draft would give baseball's eight worst teams over a three-year period the right to draft players not on the 25-man rosters of the eight best teams.

The measure is one of the suggestions from the much-hyped Commissioner's Blue Ribbon Panel on Baseball Economics. It seeks to address the game's alarming competitive and fiscal disparity. The game's eight richest teams have won all but three postseason games since 1995.

The new draft also likely will become part of the owners' platform during critical labor negotiations with the players later this year.

The current collective bargaining agreement expires Oct. 31. The owners seek major changes to the current economic order, a move that could trigger either a lockout or a players strike.

"This change, or any single change, won't by itself solve the problems we have. We need a group of solutions. But anything we can do to move or shift players and money [from large-market teams to small-market ones] is going to help," said Herk Robinson, general manager of the Kansas City Royals.

The proposed draft represents a significant first step in moving beyond years of rhetoric. It also signals a change in thinking by the owners concerning the players. In the past, the owners often have taken a more brazen course by zeroing in on salary caps and restrictions to free agency and arbitration before considering other alternatives.

The competitive balance draft is considered one of the less-extreme remedies in the Blue Ribbon Report, and it requires approval from the players association.

Even if the draft is eventually linked with more meaningful moves, such as minimum payrolls and enhanced revenue sharing, questions abound about its viability. Critics contend the plan would lead the eight top teams to horde their top stars and prospects and expose only high-salaried players past their primes. Such players likely would be too costly for the bottom eight teams to sign.

Also, this breeds the fundamental question of whether the plan would punish success and reward failure. As it stands now, the plan would force the top eight teams to expose players without regard to how the success was built. That could hurt a team like the Oakland Athletics, who built a playoff team largely through the draft and last year pushed the New York Yankees to the brink of elimination despite a payroll less than one-third as large.

Conversely, the well-heeled Baltimore Orioles and Chicago Cubs could receive picks under the proposed plan.

"There are a lot of ideas being thrown out there," said agent Jeff Moorad, who last month brokered a $160 million deal for free agent outfielder Manny Ramirez to join the Boston Red Sox. "We're very early in the collective bargaining process. I think it's very premature to say whether this will help or not."

Players union chief Donald Fehr responded even stronger, telling the Los Angeles Times recently, "If the Yankees lose a player in the draft, aren't they likely to be more aggressive trying to replace in the market? I don't want to get into a discussion of the merits before we know the details, but I would suggest there are no new ideas."

The owners, meeting today and tomorrow, also will consider several substantive changes to the annual amateur draft, including making foreign-born players eligible, implementing a signing deadline to eliminate draftee holdouts and ending a 35-year prohibition on trading draft picks.

Extending draft eligibility beyond the United States has long been a big issue for small-market teams because foreign stars like Cuban-born Orlando Hernandez are snapped up in bidding wars small-city teams cannot afford.

This week's meeting also should provide some interesting political theater. It will be the first owners meeting since Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks signed shortstop Alex Rodriguez to a record 10-year, $252 million contract last month. Several small-market teams are believed to be irate with Hicks for raising the salary bar so high so fast.

"We weren't a player at all in the Rodriguez talks, but there are ripple effects," Robinson said. "The situation that cuts more deeply is one like [outfielder] Johnny Damon. You draft a guy, develop a guy, see him blossom and then leave because he wants competitive dollars. You don't blame him for wanting that, but we can't afford that, and now he'll have his most productive years somewhere else."

The Royals last week traded Damon to Oakland in a three-way deal that also involved Tampa Bay.

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