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Starkey: Pirates finally in the game

| Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013, 10:13 p.m.

As the Pirates look to move up in the world — toward winning a division title and maybe even a playoff series or three — one perceived obstacle is frighteningly real. Another is a mirage.

The St. Louis Cardinals are real. They're a problem. Major League Baseball's economic system shouldn't be.

Let's address the second matter first.

If you're like me, you raged for years against MLB's systemic silliness. You ridiculed commissioner Bud Selig every time he took another drag from his parity pipe.

Just four years ago, I detailed baseball's economic disparities in a column titled, “MLB parity a sham.”

I can no longer hold that position with credibility. Times have changed.

The field remains uneven, for sure, but hardly to the point of ruining the sport. Not even close. Every team has a legitimate chance to win — and to do so consistently.

No fewer than nine franchises have won the World Series since 2000. Low-payroll teams such as the Oakland A's, Minnesota Twins and Tampa Bay Rays have experienced sustained success. There is no reason the Pirates cannot.

Slowly but surely, the playing field has leveled. It simply doesn't cost as much to make the playoffs anymore.

Check out this nugget from SI.com's Jay Jaffe: “In 2004-2005, the über-rich playoff field had payrolls more than 40 percent above average, but from 2006-2011, that fell to 15-20 percent above average, and the past two years, it's been less than 10 percent above average for the first time since 1995.”

I don't see that trend changing. The system isn't perfect. The Los Angeles Dodgers, who might be the NL favorite next season, likely will carry a payroll more than double that of the Pirates. But lower-revenue teams have been presented with so many equalizers, from revenue-sharing funds to significant draft-pick compensation for losing free agents (and for failing to sign a first-round pick) to that precious extra wild-card spot.

The draft, of course, always was designed to be a worst-to-first equalizer — although it tends to work better when you take Gerrit Cole and not Bryan Bullington; Matt Wieters and not Daniel Moskos. The Pirates finally took advantage of their misery by making the right picks early.

This offseason, as usual, will see the Pirates pick and choose among mid- and low-level free agents. Nothing wrong with that.The Boston Red Sox just won the World Series largely on the strength of savvy mid-level signings.

Bolstered by those three home playoff games, increased ticket prices and a larger chunk of national TV revenue (money to be spread evenly among all teams), the Pirates are in excellent shape to improve their roster. They have shown a willingness to spend. Now they just need to spend a little more.

This franchise will rise or fall based on its merits, which is as it should be.Unfortunately for the Pirates, they're looking up at baseball's equivalent to the San Antonio Spurs and the New England Patriots.

The Cardinals are a machine. They have made the playoffs seven of the past 10 years, deftly combining trade acquisitions (Dave Freese, Adam Wainwright), free-agent signings (Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday) and an unmatched draft-and-development system to establish themselves as NL's crown jewel.

Draft picks rocket through the Cardinals' system like Cincinnati's Billy Hamilton on the base paths. Consider: They had six rookie pitchers on their playoff roster. More elite young talent (outfielder Oscar Taveras, for one) is quickly bubbling to the surface

You can bet the Cardinals will be a contending team for years to come.

The Pirates can be, too. It's up to them.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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