Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Closer to Competitive Balance, But Not Close Enough

In this month's ESPN Magazine, Peter Gammons predicts that, come Labor Day '05, 16 teams will be within 5 games of either a division title or a wild-card spot. Seems like in spite of the Yankees' ever-escalating payroll, baseball is looking as competitive as ever.

Look at the Indians, for example. They're shaping up to be like the old A's and the Twins, a small-market team that has the home-grown chips to put together a trip to the playoffs. The small-market Padres might be looking at their first trip to October since '98, back when Kevin Brown was able to go two months without a trip to the DL. And the AL West might have 4 competitive teams, as will the NL East (if the Schmets' bullpen ever puts it together) and NL West (especially with Bonds on the DL). And perennial losers like the Orioles and Tigers are just a few players short of contending. So perhaps it's time for this blog to go - the Yankees can't be that bad, right?

But the fact remains, the Yankee payroll is still over $80 million higher than the Sox, and much higher than anyone else. This winter, the Yanks added payroll in guys like Johnson, Pavano, Jaret Wright, and Tony Womack, while maintaining such huge contracts like Giambi, Bernie, Jeter, A-Rod, and Brown. Cashman was supposed to shed some contracts this winter (ok, he got rid of Vazquez), but instead is stuck with players nobody wants.

And it remains to be seen how defeatable the Yanks will be this postseason. Even if Pavano and Wright don't pan out, you will see Cashman get his guy in July (Clemens?). And once the Yanks realize Bernie Williams has lost it, as well as Tino, and that Womack didn't really have it, you'll see the Yanks revamp their offense come July.

So if the Yanks have all the dough, and can get almost anyone they want, why is the game looking as competitive as ever? Simple. The other teams are lucky the Yanks have screwed up. A team that spends $180 million and still has a 4.70 ERA is very poorly run. If the Yanks had actually put together a pitching staff with money spent wisely, they could've put Oakland's old Big 3 to shame. But the fact they didn't made them much easier to beat, especially in the postseason. Basically, many teams (including the Sox) are lucky that the Yankees have screwed up so much.

This leads to another reason baseball's system is still unfair. While small-market teams have no margin for error, the Yankees can afford to make mistakes and still get new players. The Pirates were saddled with a huge contract like Kevin Brown's when they were stuck with Jason Kendall's huge contract, being forced to get the Raul Mondesi and Kenny Lofton table-scrap free agents that nobody else wanted. The Yankees have over $45 million invested in 3 big question marks for '05 (Giambi, Bernie, Brown), more than a few teams' entire payrolls.

The Royals invested long-term in Mike Sweeney and tried to build the team around the guy; it flopped, and now they're screwed. But if the Yankees make a big-money mistake like Kevin Brown? No problem, just spend another $15 million and get Randy Johnson. You can't tell me that's fair.

And as for the Twins and A's: this season, in my opinion, is the biggest test thus far of the "Moneyball" approach. And one of the successors of the Big 3, Dan Meyer, has already proved to be disappointing. And who knows if Blanton and Haren are more Hudson than Pulsipher? As the Schmets found out back in '95-'96, young studs don't always pan out.

And as for the Twins, guys like Morneau and Mauer are supposed to be huge, but what if they're not? And with Jacque Jones the next Twin to get overpriced, (after losing Guzman and Koskie last winter), you wonder if the team can keep affording to lose guys. The Twins have done very well, but they have no margin for error. If Johan Santana turns into the next Doc Gooden or Rick Ankiel or something, they can't just spend $15 million on an ace. They'll be in huge trouble.

So the game has gotten more competitive, I don't deny that. But is it more fair? I don't think so. On Opening Day, everyone has a shot. But come July when the Yanks are able to get the big names and fill their holes, we'll see just how fair things are.

No comments: