Sunday, February 07, 2010

Gammons on Disparity in Baseball

With the Super Bowl (and NFL season) over, it's time to turn towards things that actually matter. Namely: baseball.

Peter Gammons, in his new home at, chimed in on the issue of disparity a few weeks ago. Some of what he said isn't new - the top-market teams are able to shell out more money for free agents and buy up guys the smaller-market teams can't afford; the trend of trading stars and Cy Young winners before their contracts expire out of concern small-market teams can't afford them is startling; and the fact that there's little motivation for small-market teams to move into the middle range of salaries.

He also had some interesting observations to throw into the mix, though. One of the more interesting ones was the Marlins, who "have been singled out for not allocating enough of their revenue-sharing money on Major League salaries, but they must have allocated something right, because they've had winning seasons five of the past seven years, including 2008 and 2009. They have finished ahead of the Braves, proving that paying for good scouts and minds is more important than $3.1 million of mediocrity." This is true, but I don't think it should serve as a model that other teams should replicate. In this comments thread, the idea of a salary floor, rather than a salary cap, came up.

But Gammons also offers some evidence that a floor may not solve the problem: "The way the system is right now, there really is no difference between a $75 million and $40 million payroll," said Oakland GM Billy Beane. "I think a lot of small-market clubs look at that and ask, 'Why pay $75 million when $40 million will buy me as many wins?' " First, let's get past the cult of Billy Beane and his teams' shortcomings in the playoffs to acknowledge that he's a smart and good GM. His observation is fairly accurate - in terms of how teams finish in the standings, there is almost no difference between $75 and $40 million. Yes, teams like the Rays or Twins make runs, but they are usually exceptions that prove the rule, and how many of those low-budget teams have won the World Series in the last 15 years? The floor may make teams spend more, certainly, but I'm not sure that would actually solve the problem of disparity between those teams with lower budgets and the big-market teams. I originally really liked the idea of a floor, but I'm not sure it would actually solve the problem of the resources available to lower-budget teams. As Cleveland's own far-from-stupid Mark Shapiro put it, "When [GM] Theo Epstein took over in Boston, he changed the industry [...]Now we see the Red Sox and Yankees operating as if they're creative mid- to small-market teams, and it's widened the gap between them and some of the other franchises."

This I think really does get to the crux of the issue, and quite honestly, not only am I sure how to solve it; I'm not sure it can be solved.

To be clear, this isn't some Yankee- and Red-Sox-bashing rant. I think they absolutely have every right to operate under the same intelligent model as every other team; unfortunately for every other team and their fanbases, that's exactly what teams like the Yanks, Sox, and Dodgers have begun doing (and no doubt Mets fans wish Minaya would do). The days of owners like Steinbrenner incompetently interfering with their GMs is mostly over; even Peter Angelos has apparently finally learned that lesson.

But how do smaller-market teams deal with the financial issue? Certainly, it varies from team to team; for now, for example, the Indians (and others) have to hope that a bunch of minor-league potential-stars become major league stars at exactly the same time (in a 1-3 year window) in order to win a title, before scrapping and starting over. However, Beane faces a very different challenge; the A's simply need to get out of that stadium in Oakland. But if they move to San Jose, it may help them but set a potentially dangerous precedent for moves for other teams underperforming (why hello, Florida teams).

Certainly, the meeting between owners, GMs, and Selig sounds from all sides like it was hugely useful in clearing the air, but that doesn't mean there's any solution to the disparity problem as yet. Perhaps it will be grassroots, with individual GMs revolutionizing the management of teams yet again; perhaps it will come from some sort of revenue- or economical-decision from up on high. Certainly, the growing disparity isn't baseball's only problem; as Gammons points out, there's the matter of training umpires, setting up a new collective bargaining agreement, and the conflict between players and team medical staffs, especially in the case of the Mets. To be clear, I don't think baseball's apocalypse is nigh; far from it. But at the same time, to deny the basic structural problems it will be facing in the very near future is naive. I realize musings like these don't get anybody any closer to anything, but it does make for excellent, if occasionally worrisome, thought and discussion on where baseball is, and where it's headed. And in less than 10 days, pitchers and catchers will report, and we can focus on other things...