|New Competitive Balance Leading to Golden Age||| Print |||Send|
Written by Jonathan Leshanski (Contact & Archive) on April 06, 2010
This might be one of the most interesting baseball seasons in a long time.¬† Every year just before Opening Day, I run through a mental checklist to figure out just how many teams have a realistic chance of making a run at the playoffs.¬† Since 2000 the most competitive teams we've ever had in a season was 16, but this year we'll surpass that as only four American League teams (Orioles, Blue Jays, Indians, Royals), and just five National League teams (Nationals, Mets, Pirates, Astros, Padres) have no realistic chance of making a run for the postseason.*
*Yes, this is arguable.¬† Several have suggested I should add the Giants to that list, and others have suggested I remove the Mets.¬† Feel free to make your own points on that.
A lot has changed. ¬†Of the contenders only the Yankees, Cubs, Red Sox, Tigers, Angels, Phillies and Dodger go into the season with payrolls of over $100 million, and nine of the contenders (Rays, Twins, Rangers, Rockies, Diamondbacks, A's, Marlins, Reds and Brewers) all have payrolls of under $80 million.¬† That's a startling change, one that reflects the changes that have become a necessity for small- to mid-market teams who can't just throw money around to secure the top talent.
While the concept of team building may seem like a new paradigm to younger fans, it really isn't new at all, but rather an old idea totally reshaped to correct the imbalances that free agency has brought to baseball over the past 30 odd years.¬† Granted the system isn't prefect -- and you won't see the available pool of free agents shrinking away to nothing, but you don't have to look too far to realize that for most teams baseball has become all about the farm system once again.
Not even the big money clubs are disputing that too much.¬† The Yankees and Red Sox both have homegrown cores (the Sox much more so than the Yankees, especially when it comes to young players), but for small-to mid-market teams like the Rockies, Rays and Twins homegrown talent is everything, not just in terms players they've developed, but in terms of talent they hope to keep for the majority of their careers.
And while the teams I've just mentioned are among the most successful of the small-to mid-market franchises of recent years, they aren't the only teams who've realized that building a competitive team is something that has to come from the inside out.¬† Only a handful of teams seem to have missed out on learning that lesson (I'm looking at you Mets and to a lesser degree Tigers), and while deep pockets can cover up a multitude of sins, history has shown that spending tons of money on free agents doesn't always make you competitive, let alone a winner.
Across baseball you can see this happening, especially in the Western and Central divisions, as the majority of team focus more and more of their energies on developing young talent rather than renting it for a short time.¬† And then when possible locking those players into deals that seem tremendous in terms of raw numbers, but often include a significant hometown discount allowing teams like the Brewers and Twins to hold onto core players for years to come and allowing them time to develop players around them.
This won't dry up the free agent pools, but it might make them a lot thinner in years to come and could lead to a lot more in terms of trades when teams simply realize they can't make the financial commitments to stars who've reached their heights long before the rest of the players in the farm system are ready to contribute enough to make the team a viable contender.
And while that system keeps teams like the Yankees well stocked with high salaried stars, it has benefitted teams like the Blue Jays, Diamondbacks and Indians who often have received a bumper crop of prospects in exchange for players they just couldn't afford to keep and who they would have lost to free agency. **
** Maybe it's my imagination, but it also seems to lead to a lot fewer younger big name free agents reaching the open market as teams lock up young stars, or trade them to teams that can afford to sign them before they ever reach free agency.
Going back to the farm and focusing on player development is what led to the golden age of baseball between the 1950s and 1980s and with more and more teams returning to it, it seem that more and more teams are becoming competitive.¬†¬† It's not true parity, no matter how much Bud Selig goes on about baseball achieving it -- that simply can't occur when some teams can afford payrolls 4-5 times larger than other clubs, but it's making small- and middle-market baseball not only worth watching, but exciting as these homegrown teams take on the Goliaths and their monstrous payrolls.