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Pardon Me While I Rant

A lot of discussion goes on around baseball regarding small markets and big markets and who can compete and who cannot. Most of what I am going to say is nothing new, but it just helps to get it off my chest in a public forum where all four of my readers (maybe five now, we could have had a no-show at the meeting) can allow me to just jabber.

There’s a lot of talk amongst baseball fans about haves and have nots. We all know who they are. Once quick glance at payrolls indicate that there is one big time have, seven other teams over $100 million and then another 11 teams before the Royals check in with the 20th highest payroll in baseball. Sadly in Kansas City, 20th highest is Yankees-esque. It’s a little bit like the 2003 season which shouldn’t be lauded with such adoration, but is.

Before I go on, let’s make a distinction between small market and small revenue. The Marlins, Rangers, Diamondbacks, Nationals and Blue Jays all are not in small markets. Not by any stretch of the imagination. With the exception of the Blue Jays all expect their payrolls to rise significantly over the next few years. They’ve had different reasons for keeping their payrolls low, but with the Marlins new ballpark coming, the Rangers new ownership, the Diamondbacks getting out from under some bad deferred contracts and the Nationals willing to spend to supplement a young core, the list of large revenue teams may grow.

I’m a little all over the place here, but I’ll get to my point shortly. While the arguments are quieter every year, some still maintain that a team with a low payroll cannot win. They say it’s just not possible. I disagree strongly. I think many are coming around to my thinking, but the problem is not with the inability to compete on any given year. The problem is with the inability to compete consistently.

Let’s take a look at an example using two division rivals, the Rays and the Yankees. Two of the last three years have finished with the Yankees looking up at the Rays in the standings. Five years ago, nobody thought anybody could beat the Red Sox and the Yankees in the same season, but the Rays have done it twice. The problem, though, is that they will be hard pressed to replicate their success over the next three-year period. They have a great farm system, but prospects are tricky and, as Zack Greinke knows, they often don’t turn out how you plan. Especially not immediately.

So the Rays can take their two AL East title and one AL pennant over the last three years and revel in the fact that they conquered the evil empires. They’ve already said that payroll will be down this year. Carl Crawford is leaving. Rafael Soriano is leaving. Carlos Pena is probably leaving*. They have replacements in mind, but they’re young players. Young players are fickle. The Rays believe they have a Carl Crawford clone in Desmond Jennings, but he’ll be a rookie in 2011. Is he going to put up Carl Crawford numbers? Probably not. Very few rookies actually do.

*Pena leaving hurts way more than his numbers would indicate. His 2010 stats are crazy interesting to look at. Putting aside that he’s a very good defensive first baseman, it’s very difficult to carry a sub .200 average and be productive, but he was. His OBP was .325 which is below average, but fantastic compared to his batting average. His ISO was .211 which is very respectable. Just under half his hits went for extra bases and just under 1/3 of his hits were homeruns. We’ll probably never see the 2007 Carlos Pena again, but if he can add about 20 hits (with the same extra base rate) his line moves up to .238/.359/.494. That’s a big if, but he can be a very solid contributor to someone in 2011.

And therein lies the problem with the MLB payroll structure. Small revenue teams can draft well, develop well and even give themselves a window in which they can win. The Rays did it. The Rangers did it (though as I said, they’ll be moving up the ranks soon). But what happens four or five years after the prospect comes up? If he’s as good as advertised, a team carrying a $75 million payroll can’t afford to pay four guys $12 million, right?

This is highly relevant to the Royals because, as you know, they have a super duper farm system. Yeah, I said super duper. It is that good. To make matters even better, they have a wide variety of prospects at different positions*. Mike Moustakas is expected to be the first one up of those great prospects. He’ll be followed in no particular order by Eric Hosmer, Mike Montgomery, John Lamb, Wil Myers, Danny Duffy, Christian Colon and more.

*It’s been discussed, but every time I think about it, I get more and more amazed at just how many lefties the Royals have in their pipeline. I’ve always been a proponent that it doesn’t matter what hand a guy throws with if he can pitch, but one or two of these guys might turn out to be fantastic trade bait in order to even out the handedness of the pitching staff.

It’s easy to expect them all to make it, but what if two become truly elite, impact players, two become very good big league regulars (think the occasional All-Star game) and two become very good glue guys (think Greg Gagne type)? Can the Royals afford to pay them all? Of course they can’t. So they have a window to compete with this group of players.

Those who argue that baseball is fine and that there is no issue with salary discrepancies might argue that it just requires the Royals to be smarter. Smarter with their money and smarter with their drafting and development. And that’s true. But sometimes prospects just don’t make it. Sometimes, a guy hits .325/.427/.588 in the minors and just doesn’t cut it with the big club. It happens. Prospects, as I mentioned above, are fickle.

The Red Sox, as a baseball fan, scare me. Big time. Not only do they have gobs and gobs of money, but they’re smart. They have one of baseball’s best minds ever, Bill James, as a consultant. Theo Epstein, their general manager, completely gets it. I’m convinced that he could win anywhere, but because of the money he’s allotted as the Red Sox GM, he can win constantly. He understands that with his payroll, if you can draft and develop ten to 12 guys who make up a championship team that you can go out and sign five truly elite free agents at $18 million apiece and be fine. Then as his prospects mature and head toward free agency, he can re-sign them at fair market price and bring up the next crop of young guys who don’t have to be the number three hitter. To me, that’s scary.

Well that’s my rant about payroll discrepancies. Sorry for being all over the place. It was just a bit of venting. For part two, I just get really annoyed about the idea that football has so much parity while baseball does not. Sure, the records in the NFL are typically closer together, but as far as championships are concerned, no sport matches baseball for its diversity among champions. Since 2000, the NBA has had five different teams win the title. The NHL has had eight. The NFL has had eight. Major League Baseball has had nine. As I mentioned above, championships don’t tell the entire story of parity, but it’s one piece that I wish people would stop touting for the NFL.

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