Small Market Teams are the winners in this World Series

The New York Yankees went with a video game approach this past off-season, throwing loads of money toward the free agent market to load up for their current World Series run. Not only did they sign C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, two of the top starting pitchers on the market (if not the top two guys), but they also signed Mark Teixeira, the top hitter on the market. The Yankees committed $423.5 M on those three players combined.

Add to that the trade that brought in Nick Swisher ($23.05 M committed), the three year, $12 M deal given to Damaso Marte, when every other left handed reliever was getting around $2 M a year, and the incentive laden contract that Andy Pettitte received, which ended up being worth $10.5 M, and the Yankees committed to just over $469 M this past season.
For reference, that amount of money, committed to six players, is more than the opening day payrolls of the Pittsburgh Pirates from the 1999 season to the 2009 season combined. Granted, the Yankees will be paying the bulk of that over a 5-8 year period, but that’s still a huge amount.
Then we’ve got the Philadelphia Phillies. Coming in to the season, the Phillies ranked seventh in the majors in payroll, with $113 M committed to the opening day roster. Philadelphia wasn’t quite the same story as the Yankees. They largely built their team through their farm system.
The top contracts belonged to Ryan Howard ($15 M), Brad Lidge ($12 M), Brett Myers ($12.08 M), Chase Utley ($11.29 M), Jimmy Rollins ($8.5 M), and Raul Ibanez ($7.17 M). Howard, Utley, Myers, and Rollins were all taken by the Phillies in the MLB draft. Lidge was brought in via trade in a deal that sent Michael Bourn to Houston. Ibanez was the only free agent of that group, signed this past off-season. They also traded for Cliff Lee mid-season, but didn’t pay all of his 2009 salary.
It’s hard to imagine any small market team being able to retain that type of talent. The Phillies have four players making over $10 M this year. So how about their 2008 World Series opponents, the Tampa Bay Rays. Both teams made it to the series the year before, so you would think they each would be able to load up for a repeat season, which Philadelphia is obviously attempting.
The Rays entered the season with a $63.3 M payroll, which is a franchise record. They had no players making over $10 M, and only four players making over $5 M, although they traded one of those players mid-season, Scott Kazmir, and probably would have traded Pat Burrell if anyone would have taken him. By comparison, the Phillies have nine players making $5 M or more.
The astonishing thing is that the Rays traded Kazmir on August 29th, with a little more than a month left in the season. They must have really fallen off after that defeat in the 2008 World Series, right?
The Rays were actually 70-58 at the time, which was the fifth best record in the American League. They traded Kazmir to the Angels, a team that they were six games behind in the standings. They were two games ahead of the Detroit Tigers, the leaders of the AL Central division at the time. So why would the Rays deal a pitcher like Kazmir, who could help them down the stretch?
Kazmir was under team control for three more seasons, having signed a four year extension in the middle of the 2008 season. He is only 25 years old this season. While he struggled at times this year, he’s a guy who can help a contender down the stretch, as he showed in Los Angeles with a 2.01 ERA in September. So why would the fifth best team in the American League deal away a pitcher that good?
Most likely it’s because they had no shot at the playoffs, sitting 10.5 games behind the Yankees, and four games behind the Wild Card leading Boston Red Sox, who came in to the season with a $121.7 M payroll. It also could be due to the fact that Kazmir’s $8 M in 2010, $12 M in 2011, and $13.5 M option with a $2.5 M buyout in 2012 was too much for a small market team that was stuck paying an unproductive Pat Burrell $16 M over two years.
It’s clear that baseball is not a level playing field, no matter how often Bud Selig argues to the contrary. The key to success is producing talent in your farm system. I repeat, the key to success is producing talent in your farm system. I’ll be focusing on that in detail this off-season, but I want to stress the point now because I’m about to talk about payroll, and I don’t think the solution is to blindly spend money. The key to constant success is spending money to retain that talent you’ve produced, or add to that talent when your team is close to contention, or in the case of the Yankees, spending money to grab talent from other teams when those talented players become free agents. So, one would think that the idea of a Yankees/Phillies series would disgust a small market fan.
Not this small market fan.
I couldn’t be more thrilled over the Yankees/Phillies series. I wanted something similar last year, and was disappointed that the Rays made it that far. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great story, but it hurt small market teams in a big way, by giving Bud Selig ammo to defend baseball’s broken system.
Selig goes on about how baseball is fair, citing the Rays success in 2008, the fact that there has been a different World Series winner in eight of the last nine contests, and how 17 of 30 major league teams have played in the World Series in the last 12 years. Let’s just take a closer look at these claims. First, we have the last nine World Series winners, their Opening Day payrolls, and where those payrolls ranked in the majors:
2008: Philadelphia ($98 M, 12th in majors)
2007: Boston ($143 M, 2nd in majors)
2006: St. Louis ($89 M, 11th in majors)
2005: Chicago White Sox ($75 M, 13th in majors)
2004: Boston ($127 M, 2nd in majors)
2003: Florida ($49 M, 25th in majors)
2002: Anaheim ($62 M, 15th in majors)
2001: Arizona ($85 M, 8th in majors)
2000: NY Yankees ($93 M, 1st in majors)
The only team outside of the top 15 in payroll to win a World Series in this time span was Florida in 2003, although they’re a special circumstance, as that World Series was a product of selling off their entire 1997 World Series team before they even busted out the champagne. In fact, that Florida team in 2003 is the only team to win the World Series with a payroll in the bottom half of the majors since the strike in 1994. That trend will continue this year. A team would need to spend $81 M to be in the top 15 in 2009.
Next we’ll consider the 17 teams in the last 12 years. How does that compare to the NFL, for example, a league that I consider to be the most well-run league there is? Using the “last 12 years” time frame (going from the 1997-2008 seasons, since that’s the time frame for baseball’s claim), we find that 17 teams also made the Super Bowl in that time frame, although that’s a lower percentage since the NFL has 32 teams. However, is that a valid argument for how fair baseball is? Let’s look at the breakdown of those teams.
Of the teams in the World Series from 1997-2008, only the following were outside of the top half of the league in Opening Day payroll:
Tampa Bay (2008)
Colorado (2007)
Florida (2003)
San Diego (1998), Anaheim (2002), the White Sox (2005), Houston (2005), St. Louis (2006), Detroit (2006), and St. Louis (2008) join those three teams when eliminating teams out of the top ten in Opening Day payroll.
That means that, of the 24 teams that made the World Series from 1997-2008, 58.3 percent were in the top ten in

Opening Day payroll, 29.2 percent were in spots 11-15, and only 12.5 percent were in the bottom half in Opening Day payroll.

Going by that history, only three teams in the bottom half in payroll will make the World Series between 2010 and 2021, and only seven other teams outside of the top ten will make it. The number ten payroll in the majors this season? $98.9 M by the Seattle Mariners.
I will say this: baseball has seen some improvements over the last few years. From 1997 to 2004, 13 of the 16 World Series teams were in the top ten in Opening Day payroll, and only one team was in the bottom half. From 2005-2008, seven of the eight teams were outside of the top 10 in Opening Day payroll, and two teams were in the bottom half.
While that is an improvement, it pretty much amounts to repaving the driveway after the house burns down. What does this tell small market teams? They have a better chance to lose in the World Series like Colorado and Tampa Bay?
I, for one, will enjoy the 2009 World Series. It’s what baseball is all about. Two big market teams, spending over $300 M combined, battling it out to see who gets to become the 14th team to win the World Series while being in the top half of the league in payroll over the last 15 years. While I don’t think baseball will ever change from the current broken system, I do enjoy the fact that this World Series throws a huge monkey wrench in to Bud Selig’s argument about how baseball is seeing more parity than ever. The reality is that baseball is seeing more parody than ever, with the parody being the belief that Major League Baseball is somehow a balanced playing field.

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Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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