I was watching the Monday Night Football game tonight, between the Carolina Panthers and the Dallas Cowboys. I’m a Steelers fan, but I don’t really root against any team, so outside of my love for the NFL, I was neutral in tonight’s contest (well, unless you count my fantasy football interests). After watching the second half I grew extremely frustrated with Carolina. They couldn’t tackle, they couldn’t move the ball effectively on offense, and they have a poor excuse for a quarterback.
I got to thinking about that. The Pittsburgh Pirates are my favorite baseball team. I run a web site dedicated to following them. They are in last place in their division, and the second worst team in the majors this year, with a good chance of losing 100 games. Yet, I don’t really get overly frustrated with their play. At the same time I watch a team that I don’t care about performing poorly, and I get about as frustrated as I get watching the Pirates.
Should it work the opposite way? Shouldn’t I be much more frustrated that my favorite baseball team is about to lose 100 games, compared to a football team that I don’t care about going 0-3?
If the NFL and Major League Baseball were in the same world, then yes.
The truth is that, for a long time I’ve weighed my expectations when it comes to major league baseball. There’s no excuse for Carolina being this bad. It’s purely on poor management and decision making. The NFL is the best run sports league there is.
Every team is set up to go 8-8 at the start of the season. The bad teams from the previous year get the easy schedules. The good teams get the hard schedules. The draft is set up so the worst teams are assured of the best talent in the draft, without having to worry about the signing issues baseball’s draft has. Most importantly, the league has total revenue sharing, a salary cap, and a salary floor. This means that not only do you see every team spending about the same amount, but every team can afford to spend the same amount.
That’s not the case in baseball. The Pirates could spend more, but they’d never be able to spend like the Yankees and Red Sox, and even if they maxed out, they’d still be behind plenty of teams who are spending around $100 M or more. The draft once again favors the big markets, as the players in the draft have all of the control.
Let’s look at the Pirates situation right now. They’ve blown up their major league roster trading for prospects. They’ve spent almost $19 M combined on the last two drafts, which is something that some teams don’t spend over three drafts. They’ve stumbled on to Garrett Jones, who has been so amazing this season that he is on pace for a 40 home run season over a full year, while hitting over .300. The Pirates have only had one player in history to bat .300 or better with 40+ homers in a season: Ralph Kiner, who last did it in 1951.
Despite all of that, the Pirates aren’t even guaranteed a winning season from their efforts. They can’t exactly provide the quick fix to their team, as every big free agent goes to the big market teams like the Yankees, Dodgers, or Red Sox. Want proof?
Last year the Yankees, Mets, Dodgers, Cubs, Braves, and Phillies combined for all eleven free agent contracts valued at over $20.5 M.
In the 2007-08 off-season, the Yankees, Angels, Giants, Mariners, Red Sox, Dodgers, and Mets combined for nine of the eleven deals over $20 M. The two other deals? Cincinnati added Francisco Cordero for a four year, $46 M deal, and Kansas City added Jose Guillen for a three year, $36 M deal. Both are examples of a team having to overpay for a talent not worth that amount.
The 2006-07 off-season saw 20 deals valued at over $20 M. The only “small market” deals were the Royals signing Gil Meche for five years, $55 M (again, overpaying), the Brewers adding Jeff Suppan for four years, $42 M (overpaying), and the Orioles adding Aubrey Huff for three years, $20 M (not a bad deal, and nothing to debunk the theory that small market teams can’t out bid the big market teams).
The “small market” label gets questioned in Pittsburgh, because the Steelers and Penguins have recently won championships, and retain their best players beyond free agency. You simply can’t compare the NFL and NHL to baseball, because market size is irrelevant in the other two sports. Baseball isn’t set up so that all teams are on that same level playing field. Sure, the Pirates have the chance of success, just like I have a chance of winning the lottery. Meanwhile, the Yankees and Red Sox chances are more in line with getting a weekly paycheck. All they have to do is show up.
I’m not saying the Pirates’ current losing streak is the result of MLB’s poor economic set up. You don’t go through 17 years of losing without having some bad management along the way. However, the poor economics of the game puts the Pirates in a position where they can’t afford any poor management decisions, unlike the Dodgers for example, who can sign two of the worst contracts in recent history in Andruw Jones and Juan Pierre, and still manage to field a winning team.
The Pirates have been bad, but even if they execute their plan to a near perfection, there is only so much they can do. Take a look at the Rays and Brewers. Both are model franchises for how a small market team is to be operated, and why? Because they had one, I repeat, one, contending season.
If you want to see the problem with baseball, all you have to do is point to a few key issues this year. First, there’s the whole Ronald Belisario talk. We’re talking about a middle reliever. If the Yankees lose a middle reliever, it doesn’t matter. Why is it a huge issue for the Pirates? Because they can’t afford to make any mistakes.
Andy LaRoche, in his first full season, is hitting for a .259/.333/.403 line. Colby Rasmus, in his rookie year, is hitting for a .254/.307/.416 line. Yet the Pirates season is sunk because of this performance from LaRoche, while the Cardinals can contend even with this performance from Rasmus. Why? Because the Pirates have to build around young talent, while the Cardinals can rely on their high priced talent to carry their young players.
Tomorrow I’m not going to care that the Panthers lost, but while watching the game I couldn’t help but feel that their 0-3 start was entirely their fault. Unfortunately, that’s something I’ll never feel when thinking about the Pirates and their losing ways. Even if the Pirates execute their plan to perfection, they’ve still got the odds stacked against them.