Modern Expansion Teams Much Better Prepared

Remember when expansion teams could be counted on to lose 100 games? No longer. The Colorado Rockies made the playoffs in their third season, the Florida Marlins won the World Series in their fifth. In their first season, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ infield will feature All-Stars Matt Williams and Jay Bell, as well as superprospect Travis Lee.

The Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays will benefit from the longest head start in baseball history. Jerry Colangelo and Vince Naimoli received their franchises in March 1995, more than three years before their clubs’ first Opening Day. Both teams have used this time to hire front-office personnel, scout players and build farm systems. Arizona even hired former Yankee skipper Buck Showalter to “manage” the team for two years before it played a game. By the time Arizona and Tampa Bay begin play, their organizations will run as smoothly as most established teams (and, of course, much smoother than the Yankees or Orioles).

This wasn’t always the case. Half of the previous 12 expansion clubs were formed less than a year before taking the field, and until the Marlins and Rockies were added in 1993, no expansion had followed an orderly business plan. The 1961-62 expansion teams were added to head off a threatened third major league, the Continental League. 1969's four-team expansion, originally scheduled for 1971, was hurried after an influential Missouri Senator threatened baseball’s antitrust exemption when the Athletics left Kansas City, and the AL expanded in 1977 only to settle an antitrust suit arising out of the Seattle Pilots’ move to Milwaukee.

The first expansion teams, the Los Angeles Angels and Washington Senators, had the most traumatic birth of all. In July, 1960, both leagues announced that they would expand by two teams for 1962. Calvin Griffith wanted to move his club from Washington to Minnesota before the 1961 season. Knowing that the AL would never approve the shift unless Washington immediately received a replacement team, Griffith persuaded his colleagues, in October 1960, to create two new teams which would play their first game in less than six months.

The AL immediately announced a new team for Washington. Los Angeles proved more troublesome. The Dodgers claimed territorial rights to the city, blocking AL entry until December and yielding only when the AL required the Angels to play at least four seasons as tenants in Dodger Stadium. Then came the small matter of finding owners for the new teams: the new Washington franchise was awarded to an unstable group of 10 equal partners, while Gene Autry, who originally wanted to acquire only the Angels’ broadcast rights, wound up owning the club, too.

An earlier start may not have helped the Angels and Senators, given the limited talent made available to them. For the 1960 expansion draft, existing clubs could protect 25 players from their 40-man roster, and could lose no more than one non-roster player from their farm system. By contrast, the 1997 expansion draft allowed existing clubs to protect only 15 players from their entire organization (plus some very young prospects) for the first round, then three more players in each of the next two rounds. The 35 players selected by the Devil Rays and Diamondbacks thus included the 16th and 20th best players from every other organization, as well as the 24th best from 14 clubs.

(Even though this year’s expansion draft cost Jeff Suppan and Jim Mecir, the Sox may have been hit harder in 1960. The Angels snatched future six-time All-Star Jim Fregosi, fresh from the Sox’ Alpine (TX) affiliate in the Class D Sophomore League. The Senators drafted one Haywood Sullivan, who would return.)

The biggest advantage today’s expansion clubs enjoy, though, comes from free agency. When every player in Organized Baseball was bound for life to the organization which controlled his rights, the new franchises were unlikely to improve until their own prospects ripened into major leaguers. Nowadays an open wallet can bring instant respectability -- and with high revenues, no overpaid veterans on the payroll and numerous job openings, the Diamondbacks and Devil Rays are perfectly positioned to play the free agent game. Having already inked Jay Bell, Matt Williams, Fred McGriff, Roberto Hernandez and Wilson Alvarez to huge contracts, the newcomers will make themselves felt long before the millennium.

Copyright © 1997 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the October 1997 issue of Boston Baseball.

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