New CBA forced teams to improve

Before the offseason even began, one executive predicted that the recent successes of Oakland and Baltimore would create pressure on franchises in comparable markets to turn more aggressive.

The exec essentially said, “No more excuses. If those teams could snap out of it, any of ‘em can.” And sure enough, teams such as Kansas City, Toronto, Cleveland and Seattle responded, taking unexpected plunges into the free-agent and trade markets.

Ah, but larger forces were also at work.

Baseball never will completely resolve the revenue disparity that exists between high-revenue and low-revenue franchises. But in the sport’s endless quest to achieve greater competitive balance, the first offseason under the new collective-bargaining agreement is turning out better than many anticipated.

I’m not saying that the system is perfect, that low-revenue teams such as Cleveland will ever enjoy the same advantages as, say, the high-revenue Los Angeles Dodgers. But the new CBA created incentives for teams to spend the money flowing into the game — and disincentives to rein in the big-budget New York Yankees, at least for a little while.

The narrative obviously doesn’t apply to every club — Seattle chose to load up on veterans and invest $175 million in Felix Hernandez for the same reason that Kansas City traded for James Shields and Wade Davis. Both teams finally are sick of losing.

Still, the Indians’ signings of free agents Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn and increased spending by certain mid-market clubs are at least rooted in the new CBA, if not direct consequences of the agreement.

Check the fine print.

A little-known aspect of the CBA — the market-disqualification program — is helping force a select group of teams to operate more competitively than they did in the past.

The way the program works, revenue-sharing proceeds for teams in the 15 largest markets will decline by set percentages over the next three years, and disappear entirely by 2016.

Teams that previously received such funds — Toronto, Atlanta and Washington, among them — had little incentive to field better clubs. Why bother? By increasing revenues, they lost revenue-sharing dollars.

The new CBA flips that equation.

Teams that are about to lose their revenue-sharing income are more motivated to make money. And teams make money by winning.

The market-disqualification program, then, is producing the intended results. And the new draft-pick compensation rules, hotly debated for much of the offseason, are looking better by the day.

The union would love to get rid of draft-pick compensation, which, by definition, is a drag on free agency. The new CBA greatly reduced the number of players subject to compensation. In return, the owners wanted that compensation to be as meaningful as possible.

It’s meaningful, all right.

A team not only loses a draft pick for signing a free agent who received a qualifying offer from his previous club, but also the corresponding assigned value of that pick in its draft pool (another new staple of the CBA).

So, how was it possible for the Indians to game the system? Simple: The first-round picks for teams drafting in the top 10 are “protected.” The Indians, who hold the No. 5 pick, lost only their second-round choice for Swisher. And they lost a new, competitive-balance pick between the second and third rounds for Bourn.

The competitive-balance picks are just that, additional picks designed to help level the playing field. So far, so good: The Indians felt comfortable sacrificing one of those picks for Bourn, and the Pittsburgh Pirates included one in a trade for first baseman Gaby Sanchez last July. Other clubs will use the picks to draft additional talent.

For the Indians, the signing of Bourn required a near-perfect storm. The team’s front office appealed to ownership, explaining that the club probably would not benefit from such favorable circumstances again anytime soon.

Most of the high-revenue teams did not pursue Bourn, keeping the bidding at a level the Indians deemed reasonable. The New York Mets, a club with known interest in Bourn, did not want to lose the first unprotected pick, No. 11, for signing him. A union grievance to make that pick “protected” would have taken weeks to resolve.

The Indians, meanwhile, figured that they might improve enough to fall out of the top 10 next year — and they, too, will be reluctant to lose an unprotected pick. They also figured that a free agent such as Bourn might not be as affordable to them next offseason, so why not make the investment now?

The willingness of Indians ownership to spend — fueled by a new local TV deal and the promise of greater national TV income starting next season — provided the final push in “How to Succeed, Small-Market Style.”

Again, I’m not saying, “Mission Accomplished,” and that true competitive balance is without reach; many executives view the new limits on amateur spending, both domestically and internationally, as counter-productive. Nor am I saying that the sport is without other problems.

Oakland and Tampa Bay still need new ballparks. A dispute looms over how much of the Dodgers’ new TV deal will be subject to revenue sharing. The spending of the Mets, Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs does not reflect their respective market sizes, though all three clubs are in various stages of rebuilding.

The big picture, though, is encouraging, and not simply because of all the new television money. The new CBA kicked some teams in the rear, provided new opportunities for others. Even the free agents who were subject to draft-pick compensation – Bourn, Swisher, Rafael Soriano, et al – are coming out OK.

No more excuses. Fix your teams.