Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Follow The Money

Listen to the Phillies alleged brain trust and one theme recurs: they consider themselves a mid-market team without sufficient financial resources to compete with Boston, both New York teams, Chicago and both Los Angeles teams.

The Inquirer's Bob Ford and the Daily News' Bill Conlin are merely the latest observers to weigh in on the matter of money and the spending thereof. Bloggers and their commenters are also all over this issue complaining bitterly that ownership's stinginess will doom the Phillies to another season that falls short. The Phillies front men on the subject, Pat Gillick and Ruben Amaro have flatly said their is a limited budget for new acquisitions and the Phillies are not going to exceed it.

There's no reason to recapitulate the list of prior contract commitments, ongoing obligations and the projected demands of players and their agents as the annual free agent market opens for business. The feeling is that short of a few good trades, and reviews of the Lidge deal before he takes the mound at Citizens Bank Park are generally positive, the Phils are not going to acquire or re-sign the high-priced talent out there. Instead, they are floating names like Randy Wolf and Bartolo Colon, players who aren't going to address their urgent need for quality starting pitching. Meanwhile, Gillick and Amaro have also flatly stated the third base situation isn't targeted for any improvement in 2008 while the outfield has already lost two of the five guys who spent time playing there last season including Aaron Rowand, their most productive outfielder.

I keep reminding myself the Lidge deal, or the Billy Wagner and Freddy Garcia trades of the past, came out of nowhere. We all know what happened with Garcia, but Wagner was reasonably successful here when not hurt or unhappy. Before recent times, one has to reach back a long, long way to find a successful trade. You all know who I'm thinking of.

Is the problem of dollars a local one, attributable to a consortium of owners who cannot or will not seize control if not the purse strings and spend, spend, spend a la the Steinbrenner clan, Peter Angelos in Baltimore or ownership in Boston? Is this a question of television revenues apart from the shared ones dispersed by MLB to all the teams? Do the big market clubs with their own cable systems or deals in place with cable systems generate far more revenues that can be cashed in once the clock strikes midnight in early November? What can the Kansas Cities, Pittsburghs and, yes, Philadelphias, do to remain competitive? Some might argue the whole question is moot. Look at Colorado. They did it without a big payroll, so why can't everyone else. The truth is, teams like Colorado can do it without a big payroll through shrewd scouting, drafting and trades, but the sad truth is their window of opportunity is very brief, as they are about to find out, when all that low-priced talent like Matt Holliday has a big year and is immediately in line for an expense, long-term contract. Colorado, I'm sorry to say, is an aberration.

What baseball really needs is some sort of salary cap. Will a cap level the playing field? It's hard to say if it has done that in baseball and football. We do know that only a few teams in baseball can consider the astronomical demands of Alex Rodriguez and his agent (or is that the other way around). And you can count on one finger how many teams could pay a Japanese club tens of millions of dollars just for the negotiating rights to a pitcher. The draft and free agent compensation systems have not really yielded much parity. Yes, Colorado made it to the World Series and over the last several years Houston appeared in the Series for the first time, Chicago made it to late October for the first time in memory, and Arizona and Florida, two upstarts, won the whole thing. And little old small-market Oakland has been the darling of those who argue money isn't everything. But in the end, the teams that can afford to sign or keep high-priced talent are normally the ones that make it to the post-season year in and year out. The trend suggests the teams with more money to spend will continue to be likely participants in the post-season while the ones with little capital will continue to fall short.

1 comment:

David said...

I agree that a lot of teams have a harder road simply as determined by the size of the markets they play in - a fact which seems most immediately reparable by implementing a salary cap. However, the immensely damaging strike of 1994-95 virtually ensures this will never again be placed on the table. In the meantime, we've learned that certain teams have been able to mitigate the competitive breach between themselves and the larger-market teams by being extremely diligent, competent, and progressive organizations. Every smaller-market team which has won in the last decade or so has done so by this virtue, and even though their chances of sustaining long-term success is not as great as that of a large-market team, there have been enough instances of small-market success around baseball that I'm inclined to think the game has not in fact been reduced to a state of Only the Rich Survive.

A team's level of success can be merited by two standards other than market size: the quality of the organization, i.e. in efficiently and consistently producing its own players or in effectively assessing and resourcefully acquiring low-cost options from elsewhere; and the level to which a particular ownership is *determined* to win, the level to which winning actively takes top priority.

If we look at the Phillies, we see a team of above average market-size, which boosts their ability to spend, but an organization of below-average caliber, and a disinclination to give primacy to winning - or an unwillingness to drive their team's chances of winning over the top. That logically enough boils down to a competitive team, good enough to find itself on the bubble and perhaps slip into the playoffs an odd year here and there, but one that is not in any position to achieve greatness. Teams like the Red Sox and Yankees, meanwhile, have all three factors - market size, organizational quality, full commitment to winning - in their favor, and the resulting dominance is no accident. On the other end of the spectrum are teams like the Pirates, Reds, and Royals, who are deficient in all three categories. I believe you can go down the line with all major league teams and find that their performances fall in line with the median measurements of these three categories. Let's take Baltimore - a team whose smaller-market status is offset to a degree by a highly determined, monied owner, both of which aspects are nevertheless further offset by the incompetence of that ownership.

I am convinced that what compromises the Phillies' willingness to spend proportionally to their revenue intake is that Bill Giles and David Montgomery have extremely close ties with the MLB offices. Now wanting either the portions of shared revenue or the built-in disadvantage between large and small market teams to further increase, Selig has an moderate economic structure in mind which these two rigidly apply to their own franchise. As long as these men are spearheading the organization, the story will always be the same.