MLB Preview: Thuuz Meets MoneyballJune 23rd, 2011
Baseball is enjoying one of its most entertaining regular seasons in recent memory. As of Monday, fourteen teams are legitimately competing for playoff spots. This doesn't even include the recently surging Twins, the surprisingly successful Pirates, or the always dangerous Rockies. The fact is very few teams are out of it entirely, which is great news for baseball fans around the country.
Yet, while baseball is destined to dominate the headlines for what's happening on the field this summer, labor negotiations in the NFL and NBA are sure to be a hot topic in the coming months. The NBA is considering adding a hard salary cap, and whatever deal the NFL strikes will likely have a hard cap as well.
Both leagues insist that such a cap is the only way to ensure fairness. Without a hard cap, they claim, small-market teams simply can't compete with bigger-markets.
While that argument makes a ton of sense on paper, look at what's currently happening in the MLB...
The range of payrolls in the MLB - $36.1 million (Kansas City Royals) to $202.7 million (New York Yankees) - is pretty substantial. Yet if you look at the payrolls of the division leaders compared to the payrolls of the bottom-dwellers, the disparity isn't quite what you'd expect.
Take a look at the payrolls for the bottom third of the ML standings.
30) Houston - $70.7 million
29) Chicago Cubs - $125 million
28) San Diego - $45.9 million
27) Kansas City - $36.1 million
26) Minnesota - $112.7 million
25) Los Angeles Dodgers - $104.2 million
24) Florida - $56.9 million
23) Baltimore - $85.3 million
22) Oakland - $66.5 million
21) Chicago White Sox - $127.8 million
21) (tied) Los Angels Angels of Anaheim - $138.5 million
Five of the 12 teams with payrolls exceeding $100 million are in the bottom third of the league standings right now.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Indians ($49.2 million) and Diamondbacks ($53.6 million) are at or near the top of their divisions with payrolls well below the league average of $92.9 million. Throw in the Rays ($41.1 million), Reds ($75.9 million), Brewers ($85.5 million), Mariners ($86.6 million), and Braves ($87 million), and it's clear that it is very possible to compete with a payroll both below the $92.9 million average payroll ($88 million median).
Another interesting way to look at the impact of team payroll on performance is to look at the cost per win for each team. For example, the Yankees, with the highest payroll in baseball ($202.7 million), pay $2.14 million per win. This puts them in second-place in the AL East standings. The Indians, on the other hand, who lead the AL Central, only pay $550,000 per win.
Clearly, it takes more than a high payroll to win in baseball. Sure, teams like the Red Sox ($1.65 million per win), Phillies ($1.73 million per win), and the aforementioned Yankees have found success employing the high payroll strategy. But for every high-spending successful team, there are teams like the Cubs ($1.89 million/win), Twins ($1.57 million/win), or Dodgers ($1.46 million/win) who spend exorbitant amounts without much to show for it.
The Tampa Bay Rays are an interesting example of how to succeed without breaking the bank. This past off-season, they shed approximately $30 million in payroll, losing big names such as Carl Crawford, Rafael Soriano, Grant Balfour, Jason Bartlett, Carlos Pena, and Joaquin Benoit. Despite these losses, the Rays have managed to compete this season due to an influx of young talent they've developed in their farm systems. Additionally, they accumulated 12 of the first 100 picks in the 2011 Amateur Player Draft, many of which were acquired as compensation for losing those big-name free agents to other teams.
Not only have the Rays found a way to compete with a low payroll this year, their commitment to keeping their payroll low (and letting high-cost free agents sign elsewhere) has allowed them to accumulate arguably more young talent than any other team in the league.
To say that the lack of a salary cap in baseball creates a competitive disadvantage suggests that low-budget teams are incapable of competing with teams with higher payrolls in bigger markets. On the contrary, many successful teams rely on the development of homegrown talent (for example, this San Francisco stud) instead of major free agent acquisitions. Money certainly helps, but in no way is it necessary for success.
The only potential benefit of a hard salary cap in baseball is that it would prevent teams like the Cubs, Twins, and Dodgers from wasting money in hopes of artificially building a competitor, and put more of a focus on player evaluation and development. And for fans complaining that the Yankees, Red Sox, and Phillies have too much money, consider that teams like the Indians, Rays and Diamondbacks are competing with those goliaths while spending about one third as much per win.
The Giants won the World Series last year with a $98 million payroll. $32 million of that total was tied up in two players (Aaron Rowand and Barry Zito) who did absolutely nothing to help the team in the playoffs. Zito was even left off the playoff roster altogether. This means the World Series can be won with, effectively, a $66 million payroll. So instead of blaming the super-powers for stealing all the good free agents, or blaming your owner for being too cheap, blame your GM for not making the most of what he's given.
Ask the Rays, ask the Giants, look at the Indians and the Pirates. It can be done, and it doesn't cost much.
In fact, they're even making a movie about it.
This Week in the MLB
Though the week will be dominated by inter-league play, the most entertaining series is an NL-only affair, a two-game set on Wednesday and Thursday between the Cardinals and Phillies. These two teams figure to be in the race for the National League Pennant through the end of the year, so anytime they square off during the regular season it's important to take note. With Albert Pujols out 4-6 weeks, this is a huge test for the Cardinals.
A few inter-league series stand out as well: New York at Cincinnati, Arizona at Detroit, and Boston at Pittsburgh.
The Yankees and Reds boast two of the league's most potent offenses, so expect a slugfest. While it's very possible that this ends up being a World Series preview, it seems to better fit the mold of a preview of July's Homerun Derby, with A-Rod, Teixeira, Granderson, Bruce and Votto all near the top of the league standings in homeruns.
The Arizona-Detroit series features one of baseball's biggest surprises, the NL West-leading Diamondbacks. The Tigers, on the other hand, have taken their time living up to people's expectations, but finally find themselves at the top of the AL Central. This series will help determine whether the D-Backs are for real and if the Tigers have finally found their stride.
Finally, the Pittsburgh-Boston series. For the first time in as long as I can remember, the Pirates are somewhat relevant. Andrew McCutchen is playing out of his mind, and many feel he could be the game's next big superstar. So what better chance for the rest of the country to watch this guy play than against the Red Sox, one of the only teams with a chance to sign him once he hits free agency and is too expensive for Pittsburgh to afford. If these young Pirates can pass this test, there will be no denying that the Bucs, at the very least, deserve respect for the rest of the season. While the playoffs may be out of their immediate reach, don't be surprised if, in a year or two, Andrew McCutchen is holding up an MVP trophy and the Pirates are celebrating an NL Central crown.
Pitching match-up of the week: This week, no particular match-up jumps out at me, so I'll go with Friday's Tampa @ Houston game, with James Shields facing Wandy Rodriguez. Shields is having a Cy Young caliber year, leading the league in complete games and shut-outs, and Wandy has pitched extremely well when healthy.
By: Michael Lussier