“I’m a believer I couldn’t leave her if I tried”.-The Monkees
There was a period of time where I thought baseball was really doing a dis-service to the fans that rooted for “small market” teams such asMilwaukee,KansasCity and Minnesota. I felt the absence of a salary cap hurt these clubs because they couldn’t afford the best free agents or would be unable to keep their best players from going to “big market” teams such as the Yankees and Dodgers. As it stood, revenue sharing among Major League Baseball clubs was not working, at least that’s what I thought. But like the lyrics by the Monkees listed above, I could not leave baseball no matter how much I was disappointed in its supposed unfair system. But I also came to a realization about the “big market” vs. “small market” debate.
It is about the people, stupid.
From a smaller market perspective, the right GM, the right scouting department and a viable organizational philosophy can combat the forces of big market “evil” (sorry Larry Lucchino that includes you now, not just the Yankees). Just look at the four year record of the Tampa Bay Rays, they of the $35 million dollar payroll and playoff appearance in 2011 (after losing what seemed to be half of their roster). They have been more successful than 75% of teams (including Lucchino’s Red Sox) in baseball because of the front office led by General Manager Andrew Freidman. In that four year span, they have been to the playoffs three times with one World Series appearance. But the good news is not limited to Tampa. After years of darkness, the good folks in Pittsburgh and Kansas City are about to see a great light thanks to their organizational development. Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates may well become the best Center Fielder in the game and the Royals’ Eric Hosmer may be on his way to being one of the best hitters in the American League. The key for these two teams (and others like them) is signing their young core players to long term deals taking away a couple of their first free agency years. Milwaukee accomplished this with Ryan Braun and Tampa did the same with Evan Longoria. The Cleveland Indians started this trend years ago when they signed young, core players and held onto them long enough for the club to make two World Series appearances.
When the inevitable free agent losses start, it is important the system is replenished properly. Besides Tampa, the Twins have done a great job of filling in holes left by either free agency or injury. In 2009, the Twins won the AL Central winning 87 games. Before the 2010 season they lost closer Joe Nathan for the year. Justin Morneau who hit 30 home runs the previous season did not play a game after July 7th. And Orlando Cabrera, who played a pivotal role down the stretch, left via free agency. So what happened? The Twins won 94 games and their 6th division title in 9 seasons, a remarkable stretch for any team, let alone one whose previous owner had volunteered to eliminate the franchise. The decisions made by the former (now current) GM Terry Ryan and the hand of Manager Ron Gardenhire have helped make the Twins one of the most respected organizations in baseball.
I know the system is not without holes; I still think some kind of cap would be wise. Fans will still be disappointed when their favorite players leave for other teams. Fans of the A’s and Brewers will always have to wonder about impending free agents in a way fans of the Phillies and Red Sox do not. And yes it took an awfully long time for Pittsburgh and Kansas City to get their acts together. No system is perfect, not even the mighty NFL’s (I’ll save the unfair treatment of MLB as compared to the NFL and NBA for later). However, if market size were everything how does one explain teams like the Diamondbacks and Marlins having won the World Series more recently than the Dodgers and (sorry) the Cubs? Big market teams may spend like Tarzan but if the wrong person is making the decisions, the results will look like Jane.