A Puncher’s Chance At Best

Sisyphus, by Titian (mid-16th century)

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.

20 thoughts on “A Puncher’s Chance At Best

  1. Moments like this is a good time to reflect on why we love the A’s. For some it’s regional pride or family tradition. For me it’s their ability to inspire. Would that ability vanish once they reach some payroll threshold? I’m not sure I’d get that same bottom-of-the-gut fire from a A-list free agent as I would a Dan Straily or a .. I don’ t know; Josh Ottman.

    I know that I’d feel differently about a $120m A’s team than a $62m A’s team. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is impossible to tell. I’m not endorsing that the team stay at the Coliseum indefinitely, but these are time we should savor because they won’t be here forever.

  2. BTW, Rocky is supposed to WIN in Rocky II, damnit!

  3. @ML- Well put, baseball is a big market teams sport and that is because of Selig. Other leagues have caps to create competitive balance.

    Selig refused to put in a salary cap because of the 1994 strike. He claims labor peace for so long but at what cost? He has created an unfair system because he refuses to stand up and do what is right.

    All the lower level payrolls as ML pointed out lost in the 1st round of the playoffs.

    You need veteran players (27-35 years old) to win big in MLB. You cannot win with youngsters going up against established vets. During the regular season perhaps but not in the postseason.

    As for the lawsuit, San Jose getting standing in State court is huge. It will force MLB to open up their BRC to scrutiny and their “logic” or lack thereof will be exposed in court on why they have locked out San Jose from getting a team.

    The Federal Claims will be appealed to the 9th Circuit, this Judge did not have “balls” to move forward on that but he at least showed some courage giving Standing in State Court for torturous interference.

    Now I would just love A-rod to kick Selig in the nuts too!

  4. @ML, An excellent analysis! That’s why it behooves the A’s to attain the very best revenue generating ballpark situation for their franchise. By so doing, the A’s will be able to maintain a team payroll necessary to be able to both retain and obtain the best player talent, starting lineup and roster depth, needed to compete at a level which will more likely qualify the team deeper into the playoffs and hopefully into the World Series.

  5. Billy should go after Javier Lopez, a lefty specialist. altho he wants to comes back to Frisco, money talks. Get another righty vet too, Brian Wilson .

  6. Billy doesn’t pay top dollar for relief pitching. He won’t start now.

  7. As flawed as MLBs structure is, it’s better than the English Premiere League!

  8. I have a question about the top 15 Biggest Markets thing.

    According to this article by Business Insider (http://www.businessinsider.com/mlb-chart-market-size-influences-payroll-in-baseball-2011-8 ), the 15th market size team is the Atlanta Braves with 5.6 Million people. The list has the A’s and Giants as 7.5 million.

    BUT, because MLB has it’s territories divided in the Bay Area, unlike the other two team markets, this should not be correct.

    The A’s only lay claim to Alameda County and Contra Costa county, per territorial rights as seen by this image: ( http://seedspitters.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Territorial-rights-map2.jpg )

    I contend that IF MLB contends that they will need to divide revenue sharing by market size, AND MLB says that the A’s and Giants do NOT share territorial rights, then the real Giants and A’s figures are as so:

    Per Wikipedia:
    Bay Area: 7.15M

    A’s: Alameda (1.555M) + Contra Costa (1.08M) = 2.635M (42.77% of population)
    Giants: Marin (256K) + San Mateo (739k) + Santa Clara (1.838M) + Santa Cruz (266K) + Monterey (426K) = 3.525M (57.27% of population)

    Note: The discrepancy in population differences between the territories and the Bay Area are because Wikipedia includes Solano, Napa and Sonoma counties, while excluding Santa Cruz and Monterey.

    Taken from this perspective, the A’s do have a smaller population by just under a Million (890k People), or about 25% smaller. But, almost all of the business wealth is centered in SF and the South Bay.

    But let’s plug that back into that list from Business Insider!

    Now, the A’s are ranked 26th, and the Giants are ranked 21st! That put’s BOTH of them on the revenue sharing dollar by market size.

    Of course, if you divide it by revenue instead, it is a much different story, but if the divide is market size, then the A’s AND Giants are both eligible for revenue sharing.

    This also points out why the Giants would be so scared of giving away Santa Clara after taking it from the A’s. If you took Santa Clara from the Giants, and put it into the A’s totals, the are astounding.

    A’s: 4.473M
    Giants: 1.687

    This might be what is scaring the Giants. Along with that, a huge amount of corporate revenue potential is there in the South Bay. The hidden picture here is that SF, while not as big population wise as the East Bay, is much larger in the corporate funding department.

    Really, the answer is an obvious one. Make the Bay Area a shared team market.

    The results:
    1. The Bay Area, now one territory, is now the same as the other multi-team markets, instead of a headache.
    2. The A’s and Giants have actual parity to each other, instead of one having all and the other having not.
    3. The A’s can take advantage of the neglected South Bay, and infuse themselves with new revenues.
    4. The A’s can get a new stadium.
    5. The A’s no longer are a revenue sharing receiver, and now generate revenue to go into the pool.
    6. Using (my) definitions above, the A’s and Giants are no longer small team markets who are at the bottom of the market list, and instead sit tied for 10th.
    7. The Giants gain over two and a half million into their market size.
    8. No more sewage overflows, outfield touchdowns, and looming monoliths.

  9. I grew up in Los Angeles thus I grew up a Dodger fan and in fact, I am still a Dodger fan. I’ve been a fan of the A’s for about 10 years now and for some reason it is a lot more satisfying for me to cheer on the A’s than the Dodgers. While I was happy to see my boys in blue knock off Atlanta and advance to the NLCS, it just feels so anticlimactic for me after the A’s lost game 5. In fact, I still haven’t gotten over yesterday’s loss. I feel no excitement in tonight’s first game in the NLCS. I actually feel kind of apathetic. There was something great about following the A’s – a team that, from a player payroll standpoint, shouldn’t have been as good as they were. I suppose the best analogy for me is cheering for the A’s is similar to cheering for the guy struggling to stay in the middle class while cheering for the Dodgers is like rooting for Warren Buffet to make another billion dollars in income. I hope the Dodgers take it all this year. I really do. But, with the A’s now out of the running, this postseason is now not as interesting to me.

  10. Good article. I think the A’s have most of the pieces in place to contend for the next couple of years. They just need to get a better ballpark so they can develop, maintain, and go after quality FA’s to have 1-2 punch when it comes to their pitching and hitting.

  11. Excellent analysis, but a couple quibbles.
    I don’t think the A’s real problem was depth, not vis a vis Detroit which had problems in left field, shortstop and relief pitching it never really solved except by compromises similar to the ones the A’s made. Yes, they got Prince Fielder to replace Victor Martinez the year he was hurt, but wound up having to play Miguel Cabrera in a position he can’t really play. The difference between the two teams in two straight seasons came down to Justin Verlander.
    The Tigers are a high-payroll team but not really a high-revenue team. They’re about the only team that flouts Selig’s directive by letting themselves lose money on a year-to-year basis.

    • @baycommuter – Good point. But that also goes to the point of being able to pay an experienced ace in free agency. Obviously the A’s aren’t doing that anytime soon.

      As for the Tigers, they allocate 60-63% of their revenues towards payroll. Sure it’s more than the 50% outlined by MLB. It’s not going to force Ilitch to go broke and sell the team. It’s cash call type stuff.

  12. I appreciate the quickness with which you put up this post, and I understand it was an immediate reaction. However, with time to cool off and re-examine, do you think you might have gone a little heavy? Would you consider backing off some of these views?

    I ask because I felt the same way after the loss but thinking about it more clearly, some of this just doesn’t actually make sense to me. Particularly, “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.”

    There is no “contention bucket” as far as I am concerned. If there was you could say it was the 8 teams that made their division series. The A’s were in the bucket. I do agree with you that teams that can afford established stars are probably more likely to succeed, given that established stars are less likely to screw up in a big moment than untested young above-average players. But “MLB’s contention bucket” seems like a clear stretch. There were a lot of contenders.

    David Price is an established star ace on his way to a hall of fame career. He got battered by the Red Sox, a team he has faced dozens of times.

    I’m not saying it’s a total crapshoot but I am saying that “The Tigers are Better” is a much more plausible explanation than “The A’s need to spend more money.”

    You are right, if the A’s had a $100 mil payroll they probably would be the best team in baseball because they could afford those stars, but on the other hand the 10-12 top payrolls are an amalgamation of well run teams and poorly run teams, lucky teams, and unlucky teams. There are a lot of equalizers in this game (rookie contracts, injuries, revenue sharing, etc.). The A’s can afford to spend probably at least $15-$25 million more considering the top 3 MLB profit they turned last year.

    We’ll see what next year brings but I think part of this post was just borne of depression from the bazillion ALDS Game 5 losses we have endured (and I don’t blame you).

  13. @Vivek – You may have misread my argument. It’s not “The A’s need to spend more money.” It’s “The A’s need to get much better revenues so that they can get off this cycle and have a better foundation.” Without that, they’re more likely than not to come up short, especially against teams with the talent/experience combo needed to win it all. You’re right, that doesn’t guarantee total victory. It sure is better than a puncher’s chance.

  14. Vivek, money is the difference between starting your had with a 2/7 with a short stack vs starting with a pocket pair with a big stack. Anything can happen when you lay the cards out there, but the guy with the money has the distinct advantage of taking much bigger risks than the guy with the short stack. Doesn’t mean the short stack can’t win, but the odds are set against him nearly every step of the way.

  15. Reblogged this on newballpark.org and commented:

    In light of the blockbuster trade, I wrote this last year after the A’s were eliminated from the postseason.

  16. Feels weird that we’re actually spending/trading like a big market team, so much that folks are complaining about mortgaging the future! Meanwhile, the Gnat fans are rationalizing keeping the farm as justification for doing squat. Oh, how times have changed!

  17. This blog post points out what is wrong with MLB. Selig, has created an unfair system and has allowed anti-competitive agreements (Giants owning SJ) to occur that prohibits small market teams from competing for the ultimate prize.

    Bud Selig is the worst commissioner in all of sports period. He does not have the courage to do what is right.

    The other sports have salary caps (soft or hard) in place to create balance and parity. But Selig favors big market teams in a big way and it is not even close.

    The A’s traded for Lester because he is a veteran who has won big in the past and is proven. Billy Beane knows “Moneyball” wins division titles not WS rings.

    He had to trade Cespedes to do it and he was right on to do so. Who knows if the A’s fall off the way the Giants have these past 1.5 seasons? Giants still may turn it around this year and reach the playoffs but I would not bet a nickel on it.

    Therefore in this unfair game and system Selig has created it forced Beane to make this trade. Lester maybe a rental for 3 months but the A’s do have Parker and Griffin returning next season, both of whom have playoff experience.

    Beane realizes this window is small, he also unloaded salary in Cespedes (10.5M next year and whatever is left this season).

    Cespedes does not get on base and that is against Beane’s philosophy.

    I for one have a Dodgers-A’s WS…..

  18. Wow, I feel so much better about our chances now. Thank you Mr Wolff.

  19. What is the A’s payroll now anyways, at least 90 million right?

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