Earlier this week it was announced that Bud Selig would retire after the 2014 season. I would believe this, but Selig has said this before. This is about the sixth or seventh time that Selig has said he would be retiring, so it’s hard to take this announcement seriously.
One aspect of Selig’s reign as commissioner is that baseball seems to favor big market teams, while making it harder on smaller markets to compete. Selig talks about how the league has parity, pointing to how many different World Series winners there have been. That doesn’t really mean that the league has parity, since the playoffs are set up so that anyone who makes it can win. The problem has long been that the big market teams always made the playoffs, combined with a few different small market teams each year.
The Pirates are one of those small markets this year. Here is how the current playoffs stack up:
Team – Pre-Season Payroll Rank
Boston – 4th
Detroit – 5th
Oakland – 27th
Cleveland – 21st
Texas – 12th
Tampa Bay – 28th
**Texas and Tampa Bay are tied for the second Wild Card spot
Atlanta – 16th
St. Louis – 11th
Los Angeles Dodgers – 2nd
Pittsburgh – 20th
Cincinnati – 13th
Out of the 11 teams in the hunt, three are in the top five in total payroll. Five are in the 11-20 range. The other three are in the bottom third of the league, with two in the bottom five (one of those still needs to win to officially make the playoffs.
If you remove the Wild Card contenders, then you get the following picture:
Teams in the Top 5: 3
Teams in the Middle 3rd: 2
Teams in the Bottom 3rd: 1
The Wild Card game definitely adds some parity, as it is allowing the Reds, Pirates, Rays, Indians, and Rangers a shot at the playoffs. All of those teams entered the season ranked 12th or lower in payroll. But that’s not really true parity. It’s more of a spectacle, since a one game playoff isn’t nearly the same as the best of five series that the Dodgers, Red Sox, and Tigers will enjoy.
None of this means that smaller payroll teams like the Pirates can’t win. Any team can win in the playoffs. And as we’ve seen this year, any team can make the playoffs. Regardless of how much money you have to spend, the approach to building a team is the same. You build with young talent, then once you have a contender you spend to add to that team, or keep the team together.
The advantage that big market teams have is that they can afford mistakes. Take the Red Sox, for example. They were on the opposite end of the Mark Melancon trade. They traded Melancon, Stolmy Pimentel, Jerry Sands, and Ivan De Jesus for Joel Hanrahan and Brock Holt. They also committed about $7 M to Hanrahan, who struggled, then missed most of the season with an injury.
If the Pirates made that trade, then committed $7 M in dead money to a relief pitcher, they probably aren’t contending this year. The Red Sox make that trade (plus similar trades for guys like Andrew Bailey) and they won 97 games.
Or what about the Dodgers? They have six players making $15 M or more this season. Only one of those players is more than a 3 WAR player. Two of those players — Josh Beckett and Matt Kemp — missed a lot of time with injuries and had down years when healthy. Those two combined made $37 M, which is half of the Pirates’ payroll. I don’t even think I need to mention where the Pirates would be if they had $37 M in dead weight on the payroll. Yet the Dodgers won their division, and finished two wins behind the Pirates.
Any team can win in baseball. Some teams find that task easier than other teams. For the Pirates, it means building up a young team, then adding two of the best and most valuable free agents over the off-season in Francisco Liriano and Russell Martin. For the Dodgers, it means getting a young team, then adding a ton of high paid players to the roster. The same goes for the Red Sox. A few injuries or bad contracts sink the Pirates, while the Red Sox and Dodgers can still contend with those obstacles.
The Pirates won 94 games and are in the playoffs, even if that is only the Wild Card round. That’s going to be used as a sign that baseball is fair, and any team can contend. The only problem with that argument is that it will ignore just how difficult it was for the Pirates to contend, and how easy it can be for other teams.
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