Monday, October 26, 2009
I feel for Indians fans, I really do. Watching your favorite players leave town all the time because your team can't afford to keep them anymore is no fun, watching them pitch against each other in the World Series must feel awful. It's gotta be doubly painful when your own team was only one win away from the World Series just a few seasons ago. OK, full disclosure: I hated Clifford and Captain Cheeseburger when they pitched for the Indians, about as much as I can ever hate anyone I have never actually met. I certainly wasn't sad to see either one of them go. However, losing two of their best starting pitchers certainly hasn't been good for the Indians, and I'm not sure if it's good for baseball, either. Payroll and the salary cap are pretty touchy subjects, but ones I think are worth examining over the course of one over-long and windy post.
It's no secret that four of the six teams that made the postseason this year have among the highest payrolls in baseball. This isn't anything new; with a few exceptions, the higher payroll teams have pretty much dominated the postseason over the past decade. Now, spending a lot of money does not necessarily guarantee a postseason berth, much less postseason success. There are a number of teams (the Mets, Cubs, Tigers, Mariners, etc.) that have flushed hundreds of millions down the proverbial toilet in toxic contracts. However, there is also no denying that a bigger budget does give the front office a lot more flexibility. Not only do higher-payroll teams like the Yankees, Red Sox and Angels have the cash to throw at the best-available talent on the free agent market, they can also afford to retain their own top talent. That's probably the greatest advantage the larger-payroll teams have over the smaller ones. The Yankees can keep Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera and go after C. C. Sabathia and Mark Teixeira, the Red Sox don't have to choose between keeping Josh Beckett and Jason Bay, and well, you get the point. Meanwhile, the Indians and the Twins have had to do the smart thing and trade away their expensive Cy Young award winners because they can't re-sign them and hope to keep the likes of Grady Sizemore and Justin Morneau on the payroll at the same time.
Of course, there are a number of well-run smaller-market franchises that have been successful over the past decade or so. By drafting well, locking up their young talent through the first few years of free agency, and making smart trades, it is possible to remain competitive while on a budget. It is very difficult, however, for even the smartest organizations to have any sustained success while continuously losing top talent to free agency. While draft picks do indeed provide their teams with some value, relying upon young talent to develop into superstars is always a risky proposition. There is also a ton of risk involved in locking up young players beyond free agency. For every Scott Baker, there is a Joe Mays. For every Ryan Braun, there is a Vernon Wells. Most smaller-market teams have at best a 6-7 year window of opportunity for postseason success, before their best players become free agents and they have to start the rebuilding process over again. And that's provided the front office doesn't make any mistakes in that period and key contributors manage to stay healthy. That isn't necessarily the case for larger-market teams. The Yankees can waste $40 million on Carl Pavano and win the division nine times out of ten anyway, no smaller-market team (and really, few larger-market teams) can say that.
I don't want to come across as whiny or bitter because my team was swept out of the postseason by a team whose number one starter is making more than the Twins' entire starting rotation combined. I certainly don't think that poorly run small-market franchises have anything to complain about. The Royals, for example, cannot complain about how tough it is to compete against the big mean Yankees when they waste $9 million on Kyle Farnsworth, $36 million on Jose Guillen, and trade a couple of promising pitching prospects for Yuniesky Betancourt. And I doubt an extra hundred million dollars in the budget would make Dayton Moore any smarter. I'm just saying that in baseball, as in life, it's always a lot easier to get by with an extra hundred million dollars in the budget.
There is one thing that bugs me, and I wouldn't even bring it up because it's such a ridiculous argument that isn't even worth wasting blog space dissecting, but I hear it all the time, and I'm tired of it because it's not true: larger market owners do not spend more money because they're more committed to winning. They spend more money because they have more revenue available, it's as simple as that. No owner, no matter how many billions he is supposedly worth (we'll ignore, for the sake of argument, that income and net worth are two completely different things) can afford to lose money on a baseball team just because he wants a WS ring. He can do it for a season or two, but not long enough to build a championship caliber team, and certainly not long enough to keep a core of young talent locked up through their prime. Case in point: yes, the Twins are owned by a billionare, but they were stuck in a horrible lease at the Metrodome that gave the proceeds from luxury boxes and concessions and all of those other cash cows that pretty much every other team in major league baseball enjoys to the Vikings. Obviously, they won't have this problem anymore when they move into Target Field and their payroll should increase to match that of other mid-market teams. And if it doesn't, well, fans and owners of larger-market teams (you know, the guys who have to pay the luxury tax and stuff) have every right to complain.
I have long opposed a salary cap in baseball, and I still do. Maybe I'll feel differently if the Yankees go on to win the World Series nine of the next ten years, but I don't want MLB to ever even resemble anything like the NFL, NHL, or NBA (seriously, the NBA salary cap is a joke). I do think that the current system is in need of reform, I mean, it's not entirely fair that one particular team was able to sign every single one of the best free agents on the market last year and keep all of its best players at the same time. I just don't think a salary cap is the answer (though I'm not exactly going to cry if MLB decides to institute one, either). It certainly hasn't done anything to prevent larger-market teams such as the Patriots and the Lakers from building the sort of dynasties their MLB counterparts enjoy. I don't think there are any easy ways to level the playing field, though revenue sharing and the luxury tax were a pretty good start. Since developing young talent is so important to smaller-market teams, maybe MLB needs to start enforcing slotting in the amateur draft more strictly, maybe it should institute some sort of entry draft for international free agents, or maybe it should do away with the draft altogether, I really don't know. Heck, even if things continue as they are, baseball itself probably isn't going to die. It's just a lot easier to cheer for your favorite team when you know they have a real shot at postseason success.