Why Spend Big Bucks for Mediocrity?
Looking ahead to 2008, the top American League teams - the Red Sox, Tigers, Angels, Indians and Yankees - are also the five best squads in the majors. If all goes as is widely expected, one of these teams won't qualify for the postseason despite their elite status.
With the possible exception of the Mariners sneaking into the playoffs if the Angels have an unexpected collapse, it seems that the playoff prospects for the other eight AL teams are somewhere between slim and none - and slim just left town. What's a general manager of a mediocre-to-poor team supposed to do when confronted with this harsh reality?
Barring a baseball miracle such as the A's or Twins pulling off more of their low-budget magic, there are two clear paths that a small-market or losing AL team can take in '08. The best long-term option may seem like waving the white flag, but it makes sense from an economic and future-oriented perspective.
Should a less competitive team go for broke (literally) and spend $90 to $110 million on payroll in a desperate attempt to reach the .500 level? I'd hate to have to build a marketing campaign on "81 wins in 2008 is great!" How many more tickets will the Blue Jays, Orioles, Rays or Rangers sell if they win 78 games instead of 73?
GMs and front offices throughout the league should have made this decision by now. Without a firm and solid plan, just about every team in baseball except for the miserly Marlins has a knack for doing the drunken sailor routine when the mid-level player of the day hits the free agent market.
The Royals are this year's most obvious example of desperation winning out over logic and common sense. A $36 million commitment (three years at $12 million/season) to Jose Guillen is a prime example of what not to do when trying to improve a losing franchise.
While Guillen has some pop in his bat and a strong arm in rightfield, his reputation for being a perpetual pain in the rear is just what a team doesn't want for the long term. It also remains to be seen how Guillen will do without the "performance-enhancing substances" (English translation: steroids) that may cost him a 15-game suspension.
Guillen might be just the right five or six-hole hitter to help a contender in a supporting role. For the losing, cash-strapped Royals, he's a financial vampire draining the team's meager payroll. No one in Kansas City lined up for season tickets or playoff seats when Guillen's signing was announced.
Numerous examples of such short-sighted thinking (remember Franklin Stubbs, Pat Meares, Derek Bell and Adam Eaton, to name just four?) can be found in the free agency era. Earl Weaver and the late 1970s Orioles had perhaps the most intelligent approach to playing the free agent game.
To paraphrase Weaver, "Unless a guy has a strong chance of going into the Hall of Fame, don't get in a bidding war for him." During that time, the Orioles picked up role players and second-tier pitchers at modest prices. Free agency wasn't an expensive roll of the dice, but a way to fill some holes and find a bargain or two.
So how much revenue does a team forfeit by going from mediocre to worse? If attendance drops 100,000 when a team falls from the previous example of 78 to 73 wins, it could mean a decline in gross revenue of $3 million to $3.5 million.
But what if that same team could shave $20 million from the payroll for a slightly worse record? Why pay a journeyman $4 million to $6 million for a 70-RBI season when a cheap $1.5 million platoon might produce 63 RBI? That extra bit of production can be mighty expensive. Seven extra RBI could mean the playoffs for a contender, but that doesn't apply in the nether regions of the standings.
Losers also get higher draft picks and possibly more revenue sharing, so not going all out for a possible shot at .500 has some logic from a financial perspective. This is not to suggest that any team throw games, but a look at the realities of modern baseball economics.
This hypothetical scenario doesn't work if team owners pocket the extra $16.5 million or more that could be gained from taking the frugal road. It makes sense only if the savings are heavily invested in player development and scouting with a goal of future success.
If a franchise chooses this route for a year or two, they also need to take good care of the fans. Offer tons of otherwise unwanted tickets at big discounts - say $5 each - when the Rays and Pirates come to town. It's good PR and customer relations, not to mention a way to get kids and folks with modest incomes into the park.
Think like master promoter Bill Veeck and give away a few free cars or vacations. Have an unannounced gift like a free soda to everyone who comes to a game on a blazing hot day. Pepsi and ice are cheap, and the gesture will be remembered.
Three of the four teams in the 2007 League Championship Series - the Indians, Rockies and Diamondbacks - had some of the lowest payrolls in the majors. They have surged from sub-.500 seasons through developing their own talent at the minor league level.
Ideally, low-budget teams should do everything they can to develop pitchers both for the major league roster and as a valuable trading commodity to fill weak spots. Electric arms will always be in short supply, but any GM with a suplus of young middle relievers (now fetching $4 million to $5 million/year as free agents) and 3, 4 and 5 starters is going to be extremely popular at the winter meetings.
Getting back to the much-maligned Marlins, how many team owners would trade their undistinguished records of the past 15 years for Florida's two world championships since entering the majors in 1993? A pair of great seasons and a bunch of lousy ones may have more appeal than occasional blips above the .500 level and a string of false hopes.
Putting together a team that can take the World Series or compete for a few years is one thing. Keeping that roster together in the long run, paying ever-escalating salaries for essentially the same production and bidding for free agents isn't an option for small-market franchises. In those instances, it could make sense to exchange one step back in 2008 for three steps forward later.