Two weeks from today will mark the 10th anniversary of the last team to win a World Series with a payroll under $70 million. The winner in 2003 was the Florida Marlins, a team chock full of prodigious young talent (Miguel Cabrera, Josh Beckett, Dontrelle Willis) and wily veterans (Pudge Rodriguez, Jeff Conine, Mike Lowell) who shocked the world when they beat the Yankees in six games. In 2003 the Yankees’ payroll was nearly $153 million. The Marlins’ payroll was a shade over $45 million. This year the team the wins it all will have a payroll anywhere from double to more than triple that of the teams that were just eliminated.
Atlanta was the first to go, seemingly powerless against the Dodgers’ Puig-powered juggernaut. Next was Tampa Bay, who fought bravely before succumbing to a superior Red Sox squad. Wednesday night it was the Pirates, who did about as much against Adam Wainwright as the A’s did against Justin Verlander. The Opening Day payrolls for the eight postseason teams were as follows:
- Los Angeles – $216,753,286
- Boston – $154,555,500
- Detroit – $148,693,600
- St. Louis – $116,790,787
- Atlanta – $90,039,583
- Pittsburgh – $66,805,000
- Oakland – $61,964,500
- Tampa Bay – $61,928,975
Atlanta’s $90 million is somewhat deceptive. It includes $25 million for Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton. Uggla was left off the Braves’ NLDS roster, and Upton had a grand total of 3 pinch-hitting appearances during the series. Essentially they’re dead money, mistakes made by the Braves’ longtime braintrust. Those mistakes were possible because Atlanta has the revenues to make them. Take the ability to make those mistakes away and suddenly the makeup of the Braves is similar to the other eliminated teams, as is the payroll. The other three teams are small market/have not/50-feet-of-crap-then-us teams. When they make a free agent mistake, it affect everything else. The big market teams not only can afford to mistake those mistakes, they can keep filling their lineups with veterans who habitually have good at bats, and relievers who have tons of experience.
Big markets respond to mistakes or issues by buying depth. Victor Martinez injured for the year? Get Prince Fielder. Dodgers and Red Sox having clubhouse and performance problems among their stars? Bundle them up and trade them for each other. Even a mid market team like St. Louis has options. Don’t think Albert Pujols is worth a long-term deal anymore? Take that money and spend it on calculated risks like Carlos Beltrain and Chris Carpenter, while locking up Yadier Molina.
For have-nots it’s far more grim. David Price expects to be traded from the Rays in a month or two. The Pirates are fortunate to be in their second year of a six-year window, after which they’ll have to figure out how to afford to keep Andrew McCutchen, Gerrit Cole, and Starling Marte. The A’s are in a similar situation, with decisions forthcoming on extensions for Josh Donaldson and the young guys in the staff, including Brett Anderson perhaps as early as in a few weeks. Whether the future with Coco Crisp in green and gold is one more year or three, Billy Beane and David Forst eventually have to find his replacement. The have-nots’ options are more linked to their GMs’ resourcefulness than a smorgasbord of big money, franchise cornerstone players.
Whether you think the A’s postseason came down to one or two plays, the fact is that for the A’s to win any ALDS and then advance to the World Series, everything has to go right. They need error-free ball and a ton of luck. Effectively, all have-not teams have a puncher’s chance of winning it all. Depth-wise they are no match for the haves. Maybe that’ll make it taste sweeter when one of the have-nots eventually gets the baseball gods to shine on them all the way to winning the World Series. It also makes the situation feel more desperate when they get eliminated early.
Why is 2003 important? It’s the first year of the modern revenue sharing agreement among MLB’s 30 clubs. While it has been tweaked in the last two CBAs (2006 & 2011), the fundamentals remain the same. Teams take a third or so of their locally-generated revenues, pool it together, and split it equally. Teams that end up paying the luxury tax see that money redistributed among the have-nots. Teams in the 15 biggest markets are prohibited from receiving revenue sharing receipts (net payment from the pool if the share they paid is lower than expected). 2003’s also the first season after the publication of Moneyball. Since then local TV money has become a much bigger factor, far outpacing the small adjustments being made to the revenue sharing formula to compensate.
Technically, the A’s are one of those 15 big market teams. They get an exemption for now because they play in the Coliseum, a poor revenue generator as a ballpark. Should they move into a new ballpark somewhere in the Bay Area, they would immediately lose the exemption. That realization raises the stakes on the future for the A’s. Like the Giants, they’d have to pay for their own stadium and and can’t rely on revenue sharing. The owners, cognizant of this, purportedly have qualms about the A’s ability to avoid massive debt and manage the club in a sustainable way. Sure, they could dump payroll or make cash calls if things got tight, but that would run counter to the purpose of having the A’s in a new ballpark. MLB’s 2000 Blue Ribbon Panel (not the one working on the A’s) made recommendations that could have helped competitive balance, such as sharing of 50% of local revenue and the allowance of strategic franchise relocations. The owners decided to keep revenue sharing a limited affair.
Yet if MLB is destined to have its top 10-12 franchises in their own contention bucket, shutting out everyone else, then the only way the A’s can truly compete is to get into that group of top 10-12/13 payrolls. Even with a $100 million revenue boost for the A’s touted by Lew Wolff, the A’s would be at the bottom of that list. That might be fine, since the A’s would continue to have spend/rebuild cycles. They’d still have to rely on their resourcefulness. The A’s have a nice boost from CSNCA and they have more national TV money coming, but the biggest windfall would come from that new ballpark, even net of debt service. Without substantive progress made on that front, the A’s will forever remain a team with a puncher’s chance that loses by decision in the end. That’s baseball in the new millenium.