If you are a passionate baseball fan, and since you are spending your time reading MCB I would assume that you probably are, you probably hear from a lot of less passionate baseball fans that they have soured on the game because big money has ruined it. The playing field isn’t level – any team can just buy a championship. It’s certainly true that baseball has no salary cap like the NFL, that salaries (and ticket prices) are dramatically higher than they were in 1968, and that the gap between the highest payrolls and the lowest payrolls is usually pretty large.
Recent offseasons (and by recent I mean the past decade or two) have tended to be the time when a steady drumbeat of hot stove news reinforces these assumptions about the inherent unfairness of the business of baseball, the time when big market teams go on shopping sprees and buy up those stars who just finished their 6 years in residency with the small market club that drafted/signed them. The time when payrolls diverge further and further and salaries set new records. There was some concern that the new CBA would exacerbate this, by gutting the draft pick compensation system for teams losing free agents and by closing off the “alternative” competitive strategy – reallocating money from big-league payroll to player development and signing bonuses (thereby forcing teams to spend on their big league roster to win).
We’re only one offseason into this thing – but so far early returns look good, though that’s certainly only partly due to that CBA. The league now has two payroll titans (the Yankees and the Dodgers) with payrolls well in excess of $200 million, but while both were active in the free agent market neither was exactly cornering the market. The Dodgers seem focused on building a brand immediately, but for the most part they have locked themselves into long-term underperforming contracts in order to do that. The Yankees are trying very hard to turn the page on their expensive, aging roster and get that payroll under $189 million next year (the Dodgers don’t seem to care). Neither team is a shoo-in, or maybe even a favorite, to win their division. Neither is, or is becoming, a 200-pound gorilla.
There are now a number of teams that can and will spend to win, but have their own budgetary limits determined by their own revenue calculations. New general fund revenues do something to smooth organizations ability to pay. The new CBA forces them to try to acquire free agents or simply retain their own players. The new, limited draft-pick compensation system punishes teams for signing top tier free agents (and particularly guys that are almost, but not quite at that tier).
If you ask fans on the street who the strongest teams are (prior to any actual games being played) they’re likely to say the Toronto Blue Jays, Los Angeles Angels and Washington Nationals. Those are teams with payrolls of $113, $138 and $110 million respectively. Not chump change, especially compared to the Astros’ $27 million. But… there are a lot of teams with payrolls in that range and a bunch of teams with lower payrolls who plan to compete in 2013 and were active in the free agent market in the offseason. The Atlanta Braves signed B.J. Upton (and traded for his brother) – they’ll come in with a $90 million payroll and some fairly high expectations. The Milwaukee Brewers signed Kyle Lohse – they have an $83 million payroll. The Cubs signed Edwin Jackson (and some cheaper guys) – they have a payroll of $104 million. Even the Pirates (the PIRATES!) made a key free agent signing in catcher Russell Martin – they’ll have a payroll of $66 million. [And let's not forget: the Yankees let him go for financial reasons.] All are still expected to finish behind the Reds and Cardinals, teams with $104 and $115 million in payroll respectively that were relatively inactive in the free agent market despite their mortal struggle against one another. This flies in the face of everything we have been taught about the value of a marginal win! And it’s good for parity and good for the game.
The Tigers are the titan atop the AL Central, with a payroll of $148 million and growing. The mere fact that the Tigers, a mid-market team, are able to spend enough on their big-league roster to compete with teams like the Yankees year after year would be considered good for competitive balance. Sort of. But not if you’re a Royals fan… So the fact that the mid-market Tigers made an early splash in signing Torii Hunter could be construed as a bad thing for parity. Good then that it did not define this offseason… what really defined this offseason is what the Cleveland Indians did. Cleveland is a small-market team, struggling to build and maintain a competitive team from within while continually shedding veteran talent.
Over the past decade Cleveland has been emblematic of the problem with baseball – a team with rabid fans (who got so discouraged that the Jake stopped selling out) but a tiny TV market that has lost Cliff Lee, C.C. Sabathia, Victor Martinez and lots more if you take it back far enough. They aren’t quite the A’s, but they’re close and they are much more representative of the problem in baseball than other small-market teams like the Rays (who win anyway) or the Pirates (who haven’t had any luck in developing players). The Indians are, quite possibly, the team that did the most this offseason to improve itself through the free agency process and they took advantage of the quirks of the new CBA to make it happen. Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher are a couple of talented outfielders who have combined for 25.6 WAR over the past 3 years. They’re also guys just on the cusp of being worth that $13 million for qualifying offers under the new CBA. Draft pick compensation turned away a lot of other teams that might have been interested, making them willing to accept first and foremost less money than they might otherwise have demanded and willing to sign with the Indians rather than a playoff shoo-in. Despite that big improvement, the Indians still only look like a .500 team and they still only have a payroll of $81 million, but they are making an effort to win and to win this year. Their fans have excellent reasons to look forward to the 2013 baseball season.
It has always been the tradition for true fans to begin the season with irrational optimism about their teams chances. I, for one, was convince that the 2003 Tigers would be a 75-win team that could break .500 if things went their way. Hah. What seems to have changed this offseason is that our rituals of free agency signings and salary dumps are no reinforcing that tendency toward optimism instead of making it ever harder for a lot of fans to suspend disbelief.