Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 3, 2013

Small Budgets Proving No Obstacle To Success

Parity among its franchises has been part of the NFL’s vastly successful marketing campaign for more than half a century, going back to Commissioner Bert Bell’s oft quoted adage about “any given Sunday.” But since Joe Torre’s Yankees won four championships in five years, MLB postseason play has produced results every bit as diverse as the NFL. Since 2001 eight different teams have won Super Bowls, with four teams winning multiple times. In all sixteen teams, or exactly half of the NFL’s franchises, have played in the title game. In the same time period nine different teams have captured World Series titles, with only three winning more than once. Fourteen teams, just one shy of half, have made at least one appearance in the Fall Classic.

With the playoffs underway we already know that five of the teams that participated in last year’s tournament failed to make it to this year’s postseason. We also know that the teams that did make it showcase an even more important kind of parity than just the number of franchises participating. For years fans outside of Gotham have complained about the Yankees deep pockets and their purported willingness to field “the best team money can buy.” But the Yankees are cutting back and despite the many fat contracts still on the books there will be no games this October at The Stadium in the Bronx.

Meanwhile it’s no longer just that one franchise in the biggest market of all that can spend money. The economics of the Great Game are changing, fueled by the willingness of regional cable networks to pay huge sums of money for the right to broadcast certain teams’ games. Thus while the Yankees again had the highest payroll in the sport this year, that is certain to change next season.

Yet this year’s playoff field makes clear that success isn’t necessarily based on how much a team spends, but on how well. Of the teams with the top ten payrolls this season, only the Dodgers, Red Sox and Tigers still have games to play. All the big checks written by owner Arte Moreno in Anaheim bought a finish six games under .500 for the Angels. In Toronto General Manager Alex Anthopoulos tapped into the treasury of the Blue Jays corporate owner, trading for and signing an extension with pitcher R.A. Dickey as well as trading for $37 million worth of Miami Marlins’ contracts. The Blue Jays won the hot stove league expectations game last winter, but finished dead last in the AL East, 23 games behind the Red Sox.

Scanning down the list of team payrolls it is all the way down near the bottom that one finds forty percent of the postseason field. Of the teams with the ten lowest payrolls in the game, four made it to the playoffs. Catcher Russell Martin, who has played for both the Dodgers and the Yankees, was behind home plate for Pittsburgh when the NL Wild Card game got underway on Tuesday. One day later Nick Swisher, another former Yankee, was at first base for the Indians when Cleveland played Tampa Bay in the AL Wild Card contest. The combined payrolls of the Pirates, Indians and Rays total less than that of the Dodgers. Those three low-budget teams were joined in this year’s playoffs by the Oakland A’s, the original “Moneyball” franchise; who despite being overwhelmed in their market by the San Francisco Giants and playing in a decrepit ballpark, won the AL West for the second year in a row.

It’s certainly not easy to put together a winning team with modest resources, but the four playoff bound franchises from the bottom of the salary list show that it can be done. Perhaps no team does it better than Tampa Bay, making its fourth playoff appearance in the past six years. Despite consistently playing in front of acres of empty seats at Tropicana Field, the Rays remain competitive with a strong farm system and a pattern of getting the most out of young players and then trading them for fresh talent shortly before they become eligible for free agency. When they needed a strong start in the Game 163 play-in contest against Texas, the Rays turned to David Price, who gave them a complete game victory. Odd are that the 2012 AL Cy Young Award winner won’t spend his entire career with Tampa Bay. Once he’s eligible for free agency the realities of the marketplace will collide head-on with the limitations of the Rays’ checkbook. Don’t be surprised if before that day comes he’s traded for a package of prospects, just like Tampa Bay moved Price’s rotation partner James Shields last offseason.

No matter how skilled a team’s front office may be at judging talent, there’s also an element of luck involved. Cleveland did well by hiring Terry Francona to manage and luring Ohio native Swisher back home. But who could have guessed that old man Jason Giambi would play a vital role as sage and mentor in the Indians’ clubhouse?

In Pittsburgh, after years of astonishingly bad management decisions like passing on Clayton Kershaw in the 2006 draft, the Pirates had consecutive years of late season collapses. The easy off-season call was to blow the whole thing up and start over. Instead management decided that advancing from 57 wins in 2010 to 72 in 2011 and 79 in 2012 represented real progress, and only tweaks were needed to get over the hump. Signing Martin was one such move, but taking a chance with a bargain-basement contract on pitcher Francisco Liriano turned out to be the more important one.

In the end of course, big money may win out. Only one small budget team could emerge from the Wild Card game between Cleveland and Tampa Bay. The Rays are going to Boston while Francona, Swisher and company can focus on improving their golf games. On Thursday the Pirates were pummeled 9-1 by the Cardinals in the NLDS opener, thanks to A.J. Burnett allowing the first eight batters to reach base in the 3rd inning. Walk, single, home run, double, hit by pitch, walk, walk, single; that’s a Burnett inning to which Yankees fans can relate.

Perhaps the World Series will start at Fenway Park in three weeks, with the boys in Dodger blue in the visitor’s dugout. No doubt that as much as he likes the idea of parity, Commissioner Bud Selig would prefer that matchup for TV ratings over say, the Rays versus the Pirates. But however the postseason unfolds, the fact that so many small budget teams made it to October reminds us once again that success in the Great Game is about so much more than money.

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Responses

  1. While some parity is a good thing, of course, it can also be an overrated idea. If each team got to win the World Series in the ultimate egalitarian universe, then each team (and their fans) would only be able to enjoy a W.S. celebration once every three decades, perhaps twice in an entire lifetime. While that prospect might warm the heart of a Cubs or an Indians fan, the long droughts in between championships for fans of most teams would be too unbearable and discouraging, and probably bad for baseball in the long run.
    Also, during the so-called Golden Era of baseball, you had about three or four teams in the Majors that dominated the sport year after year. Remove the Yanks from the equation for a 40+ year period in the middle of the last century, and how many other teams ever won a Championship?

    • Good points Bill. I think the real value of parity is in the idea more than the reality. To the extent that the fans of more teams think that their squad has a legitimate chance to make the playoffs or win a championship, that can only help to sell tickets and build excitement. In the end that idea for most teams, regardless of the sport, turns out to be ephemeral. The economic reality is that there are always going to be “haves” and “have-nots” in every sport. But, and this was my real point, it is kind of nice when several of the economic “have-nots” in our game break through to play in October.

      Thanks as always!
      Mike


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