Decision-making plays into small-market MLB success
By Bob Cohn
Published: Sunday, May 29, 2011
No one is saying parity has arrived in Major League Baseball. But consider the following:
Just three key players remain from the Cleveland Indians team that took the Boston Red Sox to seven games in the 2007 American League Championship Series before losing. Yet, the Indians currently own the A.L.'s best record.
The Tampa Bay Rays kissed off several high-dollar free agents and slashed payroll by 40 percent from last year. Among the departed was outfielder Carl Crawford, called "Mr. Ray" by manager Joe Maddon. So far in 2011, the Rays are keeping up with their more moneyed rivals in the A.L. East.
Meanwhile, the Florida Marlins are pestering the Philadelphia Phillies in the National League East despite a $116 million salary gap, and Toronto, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Arizona, Oakland, Seattle, Baltimore and, yes, the Pirates, have shown some spark with payrolls in baseball's bottom half or even bottom five.
There is room at the table for the so-called small-market clubs, the presumed "have-nots" compared to the alleged "haves," especially if they are smart, creative and a little lucky.
"Teams from all market sizes have had success," especially since the latest labor agreement tweaked revenue sharing starting in 2007, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said in an email. "Effective decision-making and maximization of resources are key elements to success."
Finding that right combination can be frustrating. It is one thing to emphasize scouting and player development and spend wisely; it is another to translate that into quality major leaguers. The hurdles are especially tricky for lower-revenue clubs reluctant to pay for established players, another type of risky business. And even for teams that deftly draft, trade and manage costs, locking up good players for the long term puts financial stress on the have-nots.
"There's a fragility for all of us in what we're doing," Indians president Mark Shapiro said, speaking for small-market clubs.
Revenue-sharing helps to some extent, but wealthy teams tilt the balance as they always have. "There's a direct correlation between payroll and a chance to get to the playoffs," said Shapiro, who noted that the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and other rich clubs now are emphasizing scouting and development as much as the poorer teams, with greater resources to invest.
"It closes what little operational advantages we have," he said. "Then, the disparity starts to get bigger. It's fun to see new teams (emerge), but everything has to go right."
Life uptown can be hard, too. The Minnesota Twins, a resourceful club that played above their small-market status and modest resources for years, got a new ballpark in 2010, raked in lots of cash and broke the $100 million payroll barrier for the first time this season. The result• Injuries and underachieving have left the Twins with baseball's worst record.
Big spenders like the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets and both Chicago clubs stumbled from the gate, and the L.A. Angels, with the fourth-largest payroll, are up and down. Injuries, like Giants catcher Buster Posey breaking his leg, can ruin plans for clubs that have invested heavily in the present.
And there is always the unexpected. A messy divorce threatens to discombobulate the Dodgers, while Mets owner Fred Wilpon, a victim of convicted swindler Bernard Madoff's Ponzi scheme, publicly ripped some of his highly paid players amid claims the club is "bleeding cash." The money isn't always greener on the other side.
"Larger payrolls give a larger margin for error, but payroll size certainly does not guarantee success," Huntington said.
It's early, and things can change. The question of "Can you sustain it?" always lurks, Shapiro said. And not just season to season but also month to month. San Diego, with the second-lowest payroll, found out the hard way last year. They built a 6 1/2-game lead on Aug. 25, then lost 10 straight and wheezed across the finish line two lengths behind San Francisco.
This year, after parting with their excellent but unaffordable first baseman, Adrian Gonzalez, the offense-depleted Padres are struggling.
"The reality is the (small-market teams) have to go through some violent cycles," Shapiro said. "Kansas City lost for a very long time, (but) they made some good decisions. They literally had to go through a lot of pain. They had to trade great people and great players."
The Royals have one winning season in the past 17 and MLB's lowest payroll. They also have what is generally regarded as the best farm system. The results are starting to show, although a recent skid has brought them back to earth after a surprising start.
The Pirates could dominate talk about pain. They have withstood 18 years of it. But new manager Clint Hurdle's injection of energy and leadership, in addition to better pitching, a core of promising position players and generous investing in the draft suggest a turnaround despite the fourth-lowest payroll. Former Pirates manager and current Detroit skipper Jim Leyland recently declared that his old club is "headed in the right direction," a sentiment shared by others.
"We have significantly increased our investment in our infrastructure," Huntington said via email. "We have added pro scouts, amateur scouts, international scouts, player development staff and front office staff. We have overhauled how we evaluate, acquire/sign and develop players."
The Pirates have spent about $31 million -- most in the majors -- on draft picks during the past three years.
Huntington added that the Pirates' investment in scouting and development "sits above average for all teams and well above where our revenue stream would typically dictate." He did not elaborate.
The Indians were hurting. After dipping to .500 in 2008 after their 96-win season in 2007, the club traded C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Victor Martinez and others before they hit free agency, getting value in return and saving a ton of money. The downside was 65 wins in 2009 and 69 last season.
But the plan now is paying dividends. Even with the fifth-lowest payroll and veterans Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner recently on the disabled list, the Indians have maintained their grip on first place. "Small-market teams shouldn't feel they're doomed," baseball economist J.C. Bradbury said.
Former Texas Rangers and New York Mets manager Bobby Valentine agrees. He said the return to more normal offensive production after the so-called steroid era has helped level the field. Pitching remains the hottest commodity, but the talent gap also can be closed by defense, adherence to fundamentals, base-running and chemistry. "Pitching is never a stand-alone word," Valentine said. It's always pitching and defense."
An ESPN analyst who also managed in Japan, Valentine said, "The game is no longer built for the biggest guy or the most talented guy. Teams that work together, teams that have fun together and groups that are inspired by leadership can (succeed)."
Also helping is a salary structure that "allows teams to sign young players for far below what they're worth," said Bradbury, who teaches at Kennesaw (Ga.) State. "If you have a good drafting strategy and a good development strategy, you can get a lot of good players without spending a lot of money.
"You can pay players less if you have the intelligence to identify them when they're young and cheap, if you have a system in place. You hire the right scouts, you know which ones to trust, you find untapped areas."
Or as former Houston Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker put it in late 2005 when he joined a foundering and cash-poor Tampa Bay franchise known then as the Devil Rays, "It's not so much money you have to spend; it's how you spend it."
Hunsicker came aboard to lend a wizened hand to Andrew Friedman, who had just been promoted to director of baseball operations at age 28. In 2008, the newly named Rays went to the World Series.
With a $71 million payroll, Tampa Bay beat out the free-spending Yankees and Red Sox to win the A.L. East last year. The Rays are contending again, even though payroll has shrunk to about $42 million, higher only than the Royals. The Red Sox are paying Crawford half that amount this year alone.
But losing Crawford and other free agents has allowed the Rays to control 10 of the first 60 picks in next week's MLB draft. As for the present, Evan Longoria, B.J. Upton and James Shields are the only key players left from Tampa Bay's pennant-winning team. But the club has made several wise personnel decisions, and Maddon seems to be the ideal fit at manager.
"They've created a winning atmosphere," Rays scouting director R.J. Harrison said. "And they've got some pretty bright guys in the front office."
2011 Opening Day payrolls
Here are the teams with the highest and lowest payrolls as of Opening Day and how they have fared this season:
Team — Payroll — Record*
New York Yankees — $196,854,630 — 27-22
Philadelphia Phillies — $172,976,381 — 32-19
Boston Red Sox — $160,257,476 — 29-22
Los Angeles Angels — $138,999,024 — 27-26
Chicago White Sox — $129,285,539 — 24-30**
Cleveland Indians — $48,339,167 — 30-18
Pittsburgh Pirates — $45,630,000 — 24-26**
San Diego Padres — $45,455,040 — 21-31**
Tampa Bay Rays — $41,932,171 — 27-23
Kansas City Royals — $35,712,400 — 23-27
Source: Tribune-Review research
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