Bud Selig was in Pittsburgh today, and as you could have guessed, he attributed the Pirates’ success to MLB having a fair landscape. This isn’t unexpected, as it happens every time a small market team surprises everyone by contending.
The Pirates have become contenders again, but they haven’t done it because MLB is fair. They did it by finding talent avenues that were under-valued. They did it through the draft, international market, trading established players for prospects, and focusing on advanced metrics, rather than the traditional stats that land big free agent deals. It’s not a new concept. It’s the way any successful small market team has managed to win in this unbalanced league. The fact that the feel good success stories are only small market teams, and never big market teams, should be a big indicator that MLB isn’t fair.
You could say that MLB is fair in the sense that every team has a chance to compete. You’d just have to add the disclaimer that it’s much easier for some teams to compete than it is for others, and that’s not a system that is fair at all.
We’re right in the middle of trade deadline season, which is probably the biggest time period that illustrates the difference between MLB teams. A team like the Pirates has to contemplate making moves, balancing their current chances to succeed with their future chances of success. They can’t make prospect-for-rental trades because those prospects are their only shot at landing impact talent in the future. Meanwhile, the Angels can trade away a top 100 prospect, and further deplete their farm system, all to get a relief pitcher. The Angels can do this, because they can just go spend money to fill any future needs. The Pirates make a trade like this, and they’re stuck with a hole to fill in the future.
Obviously this doesn’t restrict small market teams from making these types of trades, as we’ve seen with the Oakland Athletics. They traded Addison Russell to the Cubs for 1.5 years of Jeff Samardzija. But the last time Oakland made a deal like this, it didn’t really work out well for them. They traded Carlos Gonzalez to the Rockies for Matt Holliday, then finished under .500 the year they had Holliday, trading him by the deadline. They were .500 or worse the next two years, before getting back to the playoffs in 2012. Their corner outfielders in those two years included Gabe Gross, Ryan Sweeney, and David DeJesus. You’d have to think CarGo and his 5 WAR per year would have given them a much bigger boost. And that’s the difference between small and big market teams. The A’s traded Gonzalez to get Holliday, and only kept him for half a season. Their outfield the next two years had guys who weren’t better than bench players. Do you think that would happen with a big market team that trades away a top prospect?
The Pirates have found ways to win, all while setting themselves up to be contenders for the next several years. Unfortunately, MLB has been taking away a lot of their advantages with rule changes that hurt small market teams more than big market teams.
The biggest change came in the draft. The Pirates went over-slot on a lot of players from 2008-2011. A lot of those over-slot guys are getting close to reaching the majors, and will be a big part of the Pirates contending in the future. Nick Kingham was a fourth round pick that signed for $480,000 in 2010. Tyler Glasnow was a fifth round pick who signed for $600,000 in 2011. Josh Bell broke the draft with his $5 M bonus as a second rounder in 2011, and he’s starting to hit his way to becoming a key member of a future Pirates lineup.
The new system would have probably allowed the Pirates to draft and sign Pedro Alvarez and Gerrit Cole. It’s hard to say whether they would have also landed Jordy Mercer, Justin Wilson, Brandon Cumpton, and other middle round guys who have helped in the majors. None of those guys were over-slot guys, but they were also drafted at a time where the bonuses in the top ten rounds weren’t linked together, which has definitely complicated matters, especially if you’re taking over-slot players and trying to find bonus pool money from other rounds.
The new CBA also restricted international spending, which doesn’t hurt the Pirates as much, since they’ve been successful without spending big on international players. However, the fact that they now have less to spend as contenders will hurt them, since part of their approach is finding a large quantity of talented prospects, and hoping a few of them work out. If you’ve got less money to spend, it means you’ll get fewer prospects, which lowers your chances of having a Starling Marte or a Gregory Polanco.
There was also the change to draft compensation picks. The Rays were famous for loading up on Type A and Type B players before they would reach free agency, all for the purposes of landing extra draft picks. The Rays did a horrible job of drafting with those picks, but that doesn’t ignore that it was an advantage to have so many first and second round picks. MLB changed the compensation rule to a system where you have to make a qualifying offer ($14.1 M for the 2014 season) to get any compensation if a player signs elsewhere. As we saw with A.J. Burnett, that’s a big percentage of team salary for a small market team to give to one player. The old system wouldn’t have helped the Burnett situation much, since the Pirates would have had to offer him arbitration over his $16.5 M salary in 2012. But looking at the league as a whole, the old system at least allowed small market teams a great chance to get draft picks. The new system makes it easy for big market teams to get compensation picks, while leaving a tougher decision for small market teams, and possibly no compensation.
The changes to the new CBA hurt small market teams more than it hurt big market teams. Those changes could impact the Pirates going forward. Their success to get to this point has been through the draft, but also due to focusing on advanced and under-valued metrics. They’ve gotten a lot of under-valued pitchers by focusing on FIP rather than ERA, and thanks to adjustments made by their pitching coaches. They landed Russell Martin thanks to the values placed on catcher defense and pitch framing, the latter of which has become a much bigger focus around the league since the Martin signing.
The fear with that, going forward, is that big market teams will catch on. They’ll start paying guys like Martin for their defense. They’ll pay for FIP, and not ERA, thus removing the potential value of guys like A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, and even Edinson Volquez. As a result, the Pirates will have to find new ways of finding under-valued talent. That’s the way it always goes. Small market team finds an under-valued stat. That stat becomes big, and large market teams start paying for it. Small market teams are forced to find the next inefficiency.
This is not a system that is fair. This is not a representation that MLB is better than ever. Teams like the Pirates are winning, and it’s not because of the current setup. They’ve basically found a loophole, if you will. MLB is set up so that large markets win year-after-year, and the loophole is that small market teams can exploit inefficiencies in order to compete for a small number of years. Most of the changes MLB makes are changes that make it harder for small market teams to win. And the biggest change that MLB should make is the change that would allow every team an equal shot at every player, with the same financial risks for each team.
To do this, MLB needs a salary cap, a salary floor, and total revenue sharing. That would make MLB fair. That would make the league better than ever. It would allow teams to win based on how smart they have been, and not based on market size and local media contracts.
Unfortunately, that will probably never happen. So we’re left with the current system, where the Pirates beating the odds and finding a way to succeed (for just one year following a 20 year losing streak) is held up as evidence that the league is fair. Meanwhile, teams like the Dodgers can sign Clayton Kershaw to a $215 M deal, while Pirates fans have to envision a day when Andrew McCutchen will leave for free agency, all while wondering if that will lead to another long rebuild. That makes it hard to justify that the game is as good as it has ever been.
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