The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

A Delicate Imbalancing Act

It is the conventional wisdom among many fans and sports-writers these days that baseball suffers from a serious case of competitive imbalance.

The rich teams like the Yankees (always the Yankees) enjoy an unfair competitive edge over their disadvantaged competitors  due to the monstrously large size of their media-market.

A few other teams, notably the Mets, Red Sox, Dodgers, Angels and perhaps the Cubbies also get to bid on the high-profile free agents, leaving the small-market teams gazing woefully in the window like so many Dickensian street-urchins.

Things have gotten so bad, so the logic goes, that only a salary-cap can save baseball from itself.

The on-line blogosphere, Twitter, and all of the other domains frequented by the chattering masses, constantly sling arrow after arrow at this paper tiger, trying, ostensibly out of a sense of fairness, to slay this ravenous beast before it ruthlessly devours yet another season.

And yet, the reality is that the competitive balance between baseball’s thirty teams is as strong as it’s ever been, and is much stronger than it has often been.

Since the year 2001, eight different teams have won the World Series in nine seasons of competition.  Only the decade from 1978-87, when ten different teams won the World Series, featured a greater diversity of championship teams.

Moreover, although free agent signings have played a part in the overall formula of putting together a championship baseball team, a significant proportion of the star players on these teams have either come up through the team’s farm systems, or they were acquired in astute trades.

Let’s use the 2006 champion St. Louis Cardinals as an example.  Only two significant players on that team, Chris Carpenter and Jason Isringhausen, were obtained via free agency.  The combined cost of these two players, however, was a nominal three million dollars.  One would think that even teams like the Royals and the Pirates could have afforded one or both of those players.

The total team payroll for the Cardinals that championship season was a relatively modest 88 million dollars.

The 2005 Chicago White Sox are another example of how a franchise can build a championship baseball team without leading the league in spending.  The entire payroll for this team was about 75 million dollars, and the only significant free-agent the White Sox added that season was Jose Contreras, who ended up with a reasonably productive fifteen victories.

And although last season’s Yankees won the World Series after purchasing both Mark Teixeira and C.C. Sabathia, they also had farm system products Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Robinson Cano, and Phil Hughes to thank as well for their 27th World Series Championship.

That’s far more talent than the Royals and Pirates have produced from their farm systems combined over the past decade.

While it’s true that the Yankees broke the bank last season with a payroll in excess of 200 million dollars, it is also true that their example has been an anomaly over the past decade.  Most teams, like the Mets, for example, who have relied primarily on free agent signings (Johan Santana, Carlos Beltran, K-Rod) to bring a world championship home, have failed miserably.

Conversely, most teams that have won, or have simply played in the World Series over the past decade, have been in the middle or upper-middle tier of spenders.  A couple have even been near the bottom of the payroll list.

Now the argument at this point becomes, of course, that small market teams  just can’t generate enough revenue to compete with even the medium market teams.  Well, there are three basic flaws with that argument:

Flaw #1:  Each franchise is owned by a millionaire, or a group of millionaires, who have to decide how important it is for them to field a championship ball-club.  The truth is (as we have just witnessed with the penny-pinching Marlins signing of Josh Johnson to a long-term contract) that the money IS ALWAYS there, if ownership decides to open their collective checkbook.  Meanwhile, what is the excuse for poor scouting, player development, and lack of sound judgment when making trades?

Flaw #2:  The second argument that advocates of competitive reform make is that baseball is a business, and you can’t expect the owners of small market teams to throw good money after bad in a vain attempt at catching the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Mets, etc.

Yet in what other realm of the American business world do owners of small franchises EXPECT and, stunningly, RECEIVE, gifts of cash from their bigger competitors to “level” the playing field.  The owners of these small baseball franchises then generally pocket the cash, fail to improve their product-line, then expect that baseball will come up with even more creative ways to allow them to enjoy a profit without being held to even a minimum standard of improvement.

Flaw 3:  Teams like the Royals, Brewers, Pirates, Reds, A’s, etc, are NOT directly competing with the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, or Angels.  These small market teams are more accurately competing directly with the other teams in their own division for a shot at the playoffs.

The Brewers, for example, simply have to play just slightly better than the Reds, Pirates, Astros and Cubs for a shot at the playoffs.  And once in the playoffs, as several Cinderella teams have showed over the years, anything can happen.  The team with the best record during the regular season does not always win.

This is why when I read respectable sports-writers make arguments that, for example, the Brewers should trade 26-year old Prince Fielder now for maximum value so they can obtain blue-chip prospects, the lack of logic in that argument leaves me dumbfounded.

Here’s why.

The Brewers, with Fielder and Braun in the middle of their lineup, and several other at least league-average players, have a legitimate chance of competing for the top spot in their division.  Isn’t that the reason franchises field teams in the first place?  Isn’t that why fans come out to the park to see their team?  Isn’t that why (perhaps ironically) the Brewers signed free-agent Randy Wolf?

Moreover, if the Brewers did put Fielder on the open-market and obtained a couple of blue-chip prospects in return (who might be only a couple of years younger than Fielder), wouldn’t they just end up with the same dilemma a couple of years from now regarding whether or not to keep these new young players?

Would you then turn around and trade them as well for prospects?  What’s the point of making trades for young talent in the first place if you don’t plan on keeping them around long enough to help your team make a run at the playoffs?

This is called a prospect-fetish; its danger is that it masquerades as a sensible solution to the apparent dilemmas posed by direct competition.

Let’s stop for a minute and ask another question.  Why do some people assume that what is in the best interests of small market teams is naturally in the best interests of Major League Baseball?

Those who advocate for a salary cap, for example, base their arguments on the presumption that because this salary cap would, in effect, “hurt” the Yankees chances of future success, then small market teams can only benefit.  And if this new system allows small market teams greater access to top-tier talent, they can only be more competitive as a result.

But I ask once again,  how is this zero-sum game philosophy (your loss is automatically my win) in the best interests of BASEBALL?

This is not a rhetorical question.  Here’s why.

Guess which teams benefit the most when the World Champion Yankees or Red Sox come to town?  It is the small market teams (who refuse, or, out of sheer incompetency, are unable, to field a quality team) that benefit the most.

Attendance is always higher in Kansas City, or in any of the smaller markets, when the Yankees or Red Sox come to town.  In other words, EVERYONE WINS when these high quality teams come for a visit.   Revenues go up for both the Royals AND the Yankees.

Does baseball really want to consider putting a system in place that could, in effect, kill the goose that lays the golden eggs?

There is one solution to this so-called competitive imbalance that was once used extensively as a means by which a team would seek to enhance its bottom line.

Move the franchise.

Take a look at how many teams moved from one city to another in search of greener pastures throughout the 20th century.  The Dodgers, Giants, Braves (twice), A’s (twice), and the Senators, are just some of the teams that moved primarily for financial reasons.  Some cities gained teams; others lost them, and some of those who lost teams later gained new franchises.

There are thirty major league franchises, yet several teams play in American cities that don’t rank anywhere near the top thirty in terms of population.  Kansas City, Oakland, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh rank, respectively, 35th, 44th, 56th and 60th in population.

Meanwhile, Charlotte, NC ranks 18th, Las Vegas ranks 28th, and Tucson, AZ ranks 32nd.  Raleigh, NC, Mesa, AZ and several other cities are moving up fast.  These cities also have the advantage of being in the sun-belt, a more natural setting in which to play baseball.

Change is difficult, but baseball is a business. And if it is in the best interests of both the teams themselves and of Major League Baseball for a franchise to move, then sentimental posturing, aided and abetted by inefficient and ultimately pointless systems like revenue-sharing, shouldn’t stand in the way.

Ultimately, then, the Pirates,  assuming they commit themselves to top-notch scouting and player-development, might someday be able to afford to sign that free-agent who could turn out to be the last piece in their franchises’ championship puzzle.

Only it may happen in Charlotte instead of Pittsburgh.

But, hey, Pittsburgh, you would still have the Steelers.

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4 thoughts on “A Delicate Imbalancing Act

  1. Jacqueline Peters on said:

    My pleasure. And I meant to say, “the Yankees hadn’t won a world series in 9 years.”

    Thanks
    Jacqueline

  2. Jacqueline Peters on said:

    I wouldn’t say The Yankees have an unfair advantage. They simply take advantage of a system that allows a baseball team to spend huge sums to put a team together. As we have seen, the strategy doesn’t always work. Before last year’s win, the Yankees had not won a world series, yet they consistently had the highest payroll. Then there are teams which can spend and don’t want to. Instead they wait for revenue sharing.

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