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The system IS broken

By on February 28

I hate to write yet another argumentative post, because with the start of spring training and the hope I have for the O’s this year, I’m feeling pretty upbeat about baseball in general.  But even despite the faith I have in the new and improved O’s and their Jedi Master Buck Showalter, there is one doubt, one nagging question that can erode any O’s fan’s optimism.  That doubt is whether, even despite good scouting, player development and management, any AL East team without the financial resources of the Yankees or Red Sox can be competitive in the long term.

By and large, the Orioles haven’t been a very good organization in really any respect in recent memory.  So clearly, they are no basis on which to evaluate the competitive balance of the division.  But there is a team in this division that has consistently demonstrated their organizational competence and reaped the benefits, including division titles in ’08 and ’10 and an unsuccessful WS trip in that ’08 run.  I am speaking of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Added to the league in ’98, the then Devil Rays naturally struggled as an expansion team.  And it basically continued that way for the ensuing 9 years. Not until 2008, when all the talent they had acquired by virtue of having the a top 3 pick in the draft for 9 years finally reached a critical mass, did they become competitive.  Armed with arsenal of young pitching acquired exclusively via draft and trade and with no major FA signings to speak of, the Rays finally broke through.  And even for an Orioles fan, it was a sight to see, and naturally something that gave me hope for O’s fortunes as well.

But there are some who took the wrong lesson from the Rays’ uprising, I think.  In an article discussing the possibility of contraction or relocation for those very Rays, Ken Rosenthal expounds this view, which seems to have become fairly common in the wake of their turnaround.  Rosenthal says: “The Rays, unlike, say, the Pirates, are proof that the system works for low-revenue clubs that are managed properly. The team is coming off two postseason berths in three years despite playing in baseball’s toughest division, the AL East.”  Essentially, this position insinuates that since the Rays proved it can be done, the (economic) system is fair.

But to me, this constitutes a very shallow analysis, because what is far more relevant than whether the Rays eventually became competitive is the path they had to take to get there, and whether it would’ve taken as long if they had the resources of a large market team.  Rosenthal tries to gloss over this point by contrasting the Rays’ success with the Pirates’ ineptitude, using the dramatic example of probably the worst run franchise in baseball to suggest that it is only that poor management which hinders the progress of small market teams.  And no one can argue that the Pirates, like the Orioles, have done a tremendous job of getting in their own way over the years.  However, what Rosenthal is conveniently failing to mention here is that the team he himself is expounding as a model of organizational efficiency, the Rays, still had to develop their talent for 10 years before they became a legitimate contender.

Meanwhile, year after the year, while the Rays were steadily building their foundation, the Yankees continually bought or replenished theirs, in the form of Roger Clemens, Jason Giambi, Hideki Matsui, Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Randy Johnson, and Johnny Damon.  And just last winter alone, Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, and AJ Burnett.  Clearly, the relative financial strength of large market teams allows them to pursue free agents more regularly and at higher costs, giving them greater access to the pool of developed talent.  If the Rays had equal access to this market, or the Yankees’ access were more restricted, does anyone honestly believe it would’ve taken the Rays as long to contend?

Furthermore, due to their relative financial weakness, small market teams are often unable to retain the players they worked so hard to develop, effectively limiting their competitive window.  Just this past offseason, Tampa Bay was forced to jettison a large part of their core group of players for this very reason, including Carl Crawford, Rafael Soriano, Carlos Pena and Matt Garza.  To add insult to injury, Crawford was lost to Boston and Soriano to NY, meaning those personnel losses will probably directly impact, or rather impede, the Rays success this year.  Tampa Bay still has a good stockpile of the most valuable asset in the game, pitching, but given their losses and the other teams’ improvements, a division title is unlikely and so are probably the playoffs.

Some may object that the Rays incredibly weak fan support, and thus revenues, is also to blame for their need to shed many of their most valuable players.  But the truth is that the list of teams who can afford to pay Carl Crawford $142 million and Rafael Soriano $35 million is probably two and is going to remain that way for the foreseeable future.

It’s true that the Rays are a model franchise and worthy of praise for their rise to the top.  But if we want to give more than token lipservice to those achievements, perhaps we should look into changing the system so that it is always the best run franchises who get to compete for a championship, not necessarily the richest.

Until that happens, I’ll just keep hoping that when the Orioles finally do get their moment in the sun, they make it count.

6 Responses to “The system IS broken”

  1. Bill says:

    I agree with your point generally, though you may overstate it to a degree. The Nats ponied up 125 for Werth. The Phils made it rain on Lee. While clearly there are have/have nots in baseball, I’d say there are probably 7-8 teams in the have category as opposed to 2 (think Mets, Yanks, Phils, Sox, Cubs, Dodgers, Nats, Rangers… with the caveat that Mets and Dodgers need non-broke ownership to be in this group).
    As to your general point, sustained success is certainly possible, as the Rays have shown/continue to show. However, the main difference is the ability to eat mistakes. ARod will be lucky to be worth half his contract from here on out. Whatever. Yanks totally got that. Sox can do the same (think Lester or Lackey…possibly). Whereas the Rays have to lock up people quickly to long term deals when they can, and let those players go in free agency if they can’t. As a side note from what I’ve heard the big thing with the Rays is they have the worst stadium pretty much ever in terms of both quality and location. My understanding is that their local TV ratings are pretty good, just no one wants to deal with the mess that is the Trop.

    BTW: What changes would you implement in furtherance of your last paragraph? Salary cap? More rev. sharing? Change the draft?

  2. Bill says:

    Also, there are even more teams who can come up with money for 1-2 star players… think Tigers and Cards amongst others.

  3. Mark
    Mark says:

    First of all, thanks for reading and replying my friend. Regrading your first point that there are really more teams who can afford marquee free agents than two, you’re probably right. But, to me, as you say, their ability to do so without impunity makes all the difference because they simply don’t have to approach organizational strategy the same way as most other teams. And since teams like the Rays, Orioles, Padres, etc, don’t have the resources to behave similarly, they just have to rely on getting all the details basically perfect, and even then, they could be outdone by a team of hired guns who they had no chance at signing. To me, that just sucks and is unfair.

    But part of the reason I didn’t go into any possible solutions is because we all know that any major changes to the economic structure of the MLB is highly unlikely. The consensus seems to be that even with competitive imbalance, as long as the league is profitable, there’s no point making any changes. I have to believe the league could be just as profitable, if not more, with parity across the board, but I guess I can’t say that for a fact.

    Personally I don’t see why a salary cap couldn’t be an effective solution, but I’ve heard many many people argue that all a salary cap would do is give more money to the owners and take from the players. Not having done the research, I have no idea how true that is, but I can’t see why a cap system wouldn’t work just as well as it does in the NFL.

  4. Bill says:

    Clearly until the almighty Bud retires we cannot expect any meaningful changes in the MLB. The problems with replay and local blackouts clearly indicate his lack of forward thinking.
    To quote the legendary poet/scholar Tupac: Some things will never change.

    While I don’t disagree that a salary cap would help the situation, I would prefer a soft NBA style cap to the NFL’s hard cap restrictions. I like the idea of being able to keep one’s players, regardless of cap implications. Still I think there should be some other way to avoid capping player earnings and still ensure competitive balance…

  5. Becca says:

    Comparing baseball to football, because that is what I know best, it seems that football is widely more popular and although I have no idea about figures, I’d guess more profitable due to the frenzy that happens from Aug-Feb. At this moment in time, I think football is beating baseball for America’s hearts. Why is that? Some could say its because people like the contact violent nature of football, or maybe because games are only once a week and thereby made “special” because of the rarity. I’d venture to say it has at least partly to do with the fact that cities can get wrapped up in their teams. Any year, any team can make it to the playoffs. People can have hope. Baseball gives hope, but only if you are a longterm optimist (or a baseball guru like yourselves). Part of that is the salary cap and ability to acquire new fast acting talent. But I’d say also part of that is that the season doesn’t depend on one game. There isn’t the rush that this single pitch could make or break the season (except in Sept I suppose). Anyway, I started typing thinking it was the equality among cities that make football more popular, but even football has the teams that don’t have much of a chance due to their poor management. I’m starting to think it has more to do with the America’s short attention span. Thoughts?

  6. Mark
    Mark says:

    Becca,

    I would completely agree with you first of all the football is the real ‘national pastime’, not baseball. I would also agree that the reason’s for this are as you state: more being at stake for each game and the ability for any team in any city to be competitive regularly. Also, as you note, even poorly managed teams in the NFL can be turned around very quickly. One of the primary reasons for this is that with the NFL, the players you draft have a chance to make an immediate impact and improved your team, whereas in baseball even really good prospects still generally need 2-3 years before they are ready for the major leagues.

    Now, were a salary cap to be added, it wouldn’t change the fact that you still have to be a good organization to win. The problem it’d really be remedying is that in some cases, you can be a really good organization and only have a brief chance to win, if any at all. Another problem, I think, that baseball has which contributes to its competitive imbalance is the ‘unbalanced schedule’, which means you play teams in your division more than you play teams in other divisions. For those of us in the AL East, this isn’t fun and directly impacts your overall record. That’s something I’ll probably be analyzing in an upcoming post, so be on the lookout. And as always, thanks for reading!

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