I remember the good old days – some of you might remember them as “January” – when, if Rob Neyer disagreed with my opinion (which was pretty much all the time), he’d respond in the little chat window that pops up in my gmail account, and pretty soon we’d have a dialogue, and the next thing you’d know another Rob & Rany would appear on his website.
Now, when Rob disagrees with me I get to find out about it the same way the rest of you do, in his ESPN.com column. Rob politely disagreed with my take that the changing economic climate that I talked about in Reason #10 is a good thing for small-market teams like the Royals:
“Are teams really smarter? Probably. But that doesn't help teams like the Royals. It hurts them. When rich teams throw stupid money at free agents it makes things easier for the poor teams. Not a lot easier; all that stupid money drives up payroll costs for everybody, rich and poor. But if the rich teams aren't overspending -- if they're valuing players correctly, and thus are willing to pay only a small premium for short-term success -- then where do the poor teams find their edge?
Jazayerli correctly notes that the gap between rich and poor is shrinking, due largely to various revenue-sharing measures. I still think a smart rich team has a massive advantage over a smart poor team.”
I’m not picking on Rob. I can’t, since many of you feel the same way. The comments on my post include: “For the forseeable future, small market teams won't be able to re-sign many of the great players they develop. They will lose out on the bidding for top free agents. They will be able to sign fewer good free agents than large market teams.
It seemed like your post was saying that for the [m]ost part significant economic disparity will soon be gone. I don't think that is even close to correct. The facts simply don't support such a contention.”
And this one: “One question. Wouldn't the money that's being spread to all 30 teams also increase the pockets of the large market teams? Since the revenue is equal in these situations, it does nothing to level any playing fields. It increases the amount all teams have to spend, on an even basis. Just because the Yankees don't immediately dump it into a crappy Juan Pierre type contract, doesn't mean they lose any ground.
The small market team definitely benefit in the short term by an influx of immediate funds, but the large market teams are reaping the exact same benefits as well.”
When one person disagrees with what I say, the resolution to that conflict is easy: that guy is a moron. When multiple people disagree with me…well, I have to entertain the notion that I’m the moron. (To quote one of the great first lines in movie history: “Listen, here’s the thing. If you can’t spot the sucker in the first half hour at the table, then you are the sucker.”)
In this case, I don’t think I’m the moron, I just think I didn’t explain myself very well. I don’t mean to state that because the Royals are now spending $70 million and the Yankees are spending $150 million, they can contend more easily than when it was $30 million and $100 million. The payroll ratio may have improved, but the payroll gap has stayed the same or even increased.
But it’s not just that the Royals have more money to spend, or that teams are getting smarter about how they spend their money. It’s that teams are spending less of their money on the talent they put on the field. And what this means, more or less, is that every team in baseball has the money to keep their own talent.
Rob argues that when rich teams throw money at bad free agents, that it helps poor teams because the rich teams are wasting their money. I disagree. When the Dodgers gave Juan Pierre $44 million for 5 years, it meant that the Dodgers had just set 44 million dollars on fire. That’s good if you’re a Royals fan. But it also meant that the market for even average outfielders just went way up – that’s bad if you’re a Royals fan. The Royals wanted Torii Hunter and Andruw Jones, and weren’t able to sign them because if
But if – and granted, it’s a big if – teams are getting smarter about spending their free agent dollars, then contracts like Pierre’s and Matthews’ are going to become less common. (It’s telling that both the Dodgers and Angels are suffering buyer’s remorse, to the point that both Pierre and Matthews may be fourth outfielders this year. That also means both teams understand the concept of sunk costs – something that wasn’t true in baseball five or ten years ago.) And if all 30 teams decide that it’s not worth paying half of A-Rod’s salary for a player that’s half as good, suddenly the market for middle-tier free agents is going to crater. You’re already seeing signs of this, the Lohse contract being the most recent example.
Yes, the Yankees and Red Sox can blow the Royals out of the water. But what if they choose not to? In other words, what if those teams, rather than continuing to increase their payroll into the $200 million range to insure they’ll challenge 100 wins every year, decide they can keep their payroll about where it is by cutting out the $5-10 million free agents and blending the occasional rookie into the lineup, and still win 92-95 games every year? The Yankees and Red Sox (and other big-market teams) may decide that reducing their playoff odds by maybe 15% may well be worth an additional $50 million in profit. Baseball is a business, after all. These teams can have their cake and eat it too.
I think we might be entering an era in which the distinguishing factor between large-market and small-market teams won’t be their competitiveness on the field, it will be their profitability off the field. Yes, a huge bidding war could erupt between the large-market teams and C.C. Sabathia might get $30 million a year when he hits free agency next winter. But I don’t see it. There was hardly a market this winter for Alex Rodriguez, for God’s sake. Teams seem to have reached the joint conclusion – and I don’t think it’s collusion, just multiple teams engaging in good business practices – that they don’t have to chase after every free agent that hits the market. And if they are confident that other teams aren’t pushing the market higher, there will be even less pressure to set the bar higher themselves. Revenues will continue to increase, at least in the short term, but salaries may not. Every team will be profitable – some teams will be immensely profitable.
Besides, the Royals aren’t really competing with the Yankees and Red Sox. Four out of 14
So do you really want to argue that the Royals can’t compete in the AL Central? Well, their payroll last season was $67.1 million, which pales to the White Sox at $108.7 million, or the Tigers at $95.2 million. Even the Twins had a higher payroll at $71.4 million. The only team in the division the Royals outspent was…um...the division-winning Indians, at $61.7 million.
Do you want to know why the Tigers and White Sox had a higher payroll than the Royals? Because they had better players, and better players cost more to keep – not because they were able to afford more expensive players in free agency than the Royals could. This isn’t specifically true of the Tigers, who loaded up on guys like Magglio Ordonez and Ivan Rodriguez, but as I’ve documented before, the Tigers’ resurrection is pretty unique, and few people in history have the eye for talent that Dave Dombrowski has. (Besides, if you want to use the Detroit Tigers as your reason for why the Royals can’t contend, be my guest. The Tigers were the most hopeless team in baseball five years ago – suddenly they’re being talked about as a large-market team swinging with the big boys in
The six most expensive players on the White Sox last year were Jim Thome, Javier Vazquez, Paul Konerko, Jon Garland, Mark Buehrle, and Jose Contreras, who combined made a fraction more than the entire Royals team last year. Buehrle was drafted by
The Indians, on the other hand, won with a young, mostly homegrown team, and nothing keeps payroll down like young talent. Grady Sizemore made $916,667. C.C. Sabathia led the team in salary at $8.75 million; Paul Byrd and Kenny Lofton were the only high-priced imports at 7 and 6 million respectively. The Indians won the division because they did the best job of developing young talent in the division, and not only were they able to keep all their young players, they did so without breaking a sweat.
The Royals may well lag the other teams in the division in payroll for the next year or two, simply because they haven’t developed young talent that’s worthy of a big payday. (Or hopefully, talent that’s worthy of a big payday yet.) But the financial realities today are much different than they were in the early part of the decade, when Jermaine Dye, Johnny Damon, and Carlos Beltran were all dealt away because the Royals couldn’t or wouldn’t pay them what they were worth.
Maybe the Royals wouldn’t be able to keep Carlos Beltran if he were about to become a free agent today. There’s always a chance that a potential Hall of Fame player is going to test the market regardless. The Twins felt compelled to trade Johan Santana because they weren’t willing to pay him $20 million a year…but on the other hand, they signed Justin Morneau to a six-year deal this winter, and Michael Cuddyer got three years. Anyway, if a team isn’t willing to offer a long-term deal to its best young talent years before free agency strikes, they don’t deserve to keep him anyway.
We’ll know just how able or willing the Royals are to keep their young talent a year from now. If Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, and Zack Greinke all get long-term deals that keep them in a Royals uniform for at least a year past their scheduled free agency, then you can be pretty certain the Royals have the money it takes to keep the talent they develop. Really, that’s all that you can ask for as a fan of a small-market team. If the team is willing to spend money to grab other team’s free agents…that’s a bonus.
Just keep in mind that the Royals gave out the largest new free-agent contract of any team in the AL Central…both in 2007 and in 2006. If that’s not a team that can compete financially, I don’t know what is.