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October 15, 2012 at 12:26 PM

All quiet on the payroll front as MLB salary behemoths battle it out in LCS

This time last year, the nation’s media and bloggers alike united in a common theme to their stories about the two League Championship Series. Of the four remaining teams in the ALCS and NLCS, only one was from the top-10 (ranked No. 10) in MLB payroll. Many of the stories discussed what this meant for the game’s future and how it was an example of how teams don’t need to spend big money to win. Some even debated about whether we’d entered a new era of “parity” in which teams from all markets — small, medium and big — would be competing on a more even footing.
Well, a year has passed since the Rangers, Tigers, Brewers and Cardinals battled it out in the LCS.
So, has the trend held?
This year, all four remaining LCS teams are top-10-ranked in payroll, including the No. 1 New York Yankees. They opened the season at $198 million, while the No. 5 Detroit Tigers were at $132 million, the No. 8 San Francisco Giants were at just under $118 million and the No. 9 St. Louis Cardinals were at $110 million.
So, given all the talk about last year’s exclusion of top-10 payroll teams from the LCS, what are the pundits saying about this year’s about-face?
Absolutely nothing. The silence is rather deafening.
In fact, scouring the internet, you’d be hard-pressed to find any stories at all about this return to LCS supremacy of big payroll teams. You’d think the opposite would be true given the context. After all, the discussion about payroll and the rise of the middle and small markets has been a dominant theme the past 12 months since the 2011 playoffs, right up to last week when the Oakland Athletics and Baltimore Orioles still had a chance to make it beyond the first round.
Prior to that, we heard all season long about the Tampa Bay Rays and the Pittsburgh Pirates making playoff runs which ultimately fell short — mighty short in the Pirates’ case.
Some will argue that the A’s, Orioles and Nationals were really just a few plays away from all being in the LCS this year. Sure, just like the Rays were a Boston collapse in September and a Jonathan Papelbon blown save on the final day of the season away from not making the playoffs at all in 2011. Just like the big-budget Phillies likely would have swept the Cards in three straight last year in the opening round had Cliff Lee done what he does 99 times out of 100 and held a 4-0 lead in Game 2.
But Papelbon and Lee didn’t hold on last year and thus, a storyline was born. The A’s and Orioles and Nats didn’t hold on this year and thus, a different storyline has taken shape.
Why all the silence now about this latest storyline? After all, if four smaller payroll teams in the LCS a year ago supposedly meant something, doesn’t the exact same logic apply to there being four top-10 teams in the LCS this year? Doesn’t it mean there’s a trend developing?
No, it doesn’t. Just as what happened a year ago never meant as much as its biggest proponents wanted it to.
Photo Credit: AP

To be fair, not all of the stories from last year agreed that a trend was in our midst. Some took a wait-and-see attitude, while others were a little less patient.
Look, you’d have to be pretty ignorant to not understand the attraction of smaller-payroll teams making the playoffs. Everybody loves a good David versus Goliath story and whenever you get a team like the A’s, or the Orioles, or the Rays defying the odds and overcoming teams with several times the financial resources it gives us all a thrill.
Better yet, it gives hope. As in, hope to fans in markets where teams don’t spend as much as the Yankees, the Phillies, the Angels, the Tigers or the Giants that their teams, too, can make it.
And indeed, as we’ve seen this year, they can make it.
But that doesn’t mean we’re seeing a trend. Doesn’t mean there’s more of that elusive “parity” being found in baseball.
All that talk about the rise of the middle class a year ago was founded more in wishful thinking than it was in any lasting reality. One playoff year does not a trend make and the fact is, there have always been payroll shockers in every playoff year, just as there have been big money constants as well.
Growing up in Montreal, I can well remember Expos teams with the lowest payrolls in baseball fighting to make the playoffs from 1992 through 1994. In other words, two decades ago. In fact, had there not been a strike in 1994, the Expos might very well have won the whole thing. Had there been such a thing as the wild-card in the early 1990s, the 1992 and 1993 Expos would have made the playoffs.
This is not some new phenomenon. Low payroll teams have been defying the odds ever since salary eruption created the disparity that still exists.
What has changed, thanks to Bud Selig and friends, is that we now have more teams than ever before allowed to make the playoffs. And that means, we should see more teams contending right up to September and more teams making it to the post-season that previously did not because of financial inequities.
But what hasn’t changed is the margin for error that money can buy teams. And that’s where the big money teams will always have the advantage over the smaller budget ones. It’s why Selig pushed so hard for a second wild-card in the first place, realizing that payroll disparity was stealing hope from fans of teams being vastly outspent and that a salary cap was never going to happen.
Some will suggest that we’ve still seen a shift. That it’s been proven that “spending wisely” has been shown to be a better route than spending big.
I chuckle at that, having always found the “spending wisely” line to be tinged with a bit too much arrogance, even if none is intended.
Frankly, I’ve yet to meet a single baseball executive who ever said to me: “You know, Geoff, I had nothing better to do this winter than go around burning my owner’s money because being stupid with someone else’s cash is a great way to stay employed.”
No folks, believe it or not, executives of baseball teams going back decades will insist, to a man, that they spent their money wisely. And there will always be people who disagree with them.
And often, the concept of wisdom will truly be in the eye of the beholder.
Were the Tigers foolish for spending big on Prince Fielder now that they are two wins away from making the World Series? True, they did get to this exact same point a year ago, but without Fielder in the lineup this year, you probably don’t have a Triple Crown from Miguel Cabrera — says Cabrera, who ought to know — and the Tigers likely don’t survive all the other pitching and lineup woes they encountered all season and make the playoffs in the first place. If the Tigers win the World Series, I guarantee you owner Mike Illitch won’t be wringing his hands over whether the Fielder deal will prove to be the most cost-effective over the final four or five years of its duration.
What about the Rays? Did they spend their money wisely when they opted to go cheap on Hideki Matsui as one of several cost-effective DH types this year and thus, could not score runs when slugger Evan Longoria got hurt? You know, the Rays are my favorite example of a team that is “Set up to succeed” by pundits because no matter what they do — or fail to accomplish — there are certain fans and media types who will insist they they did the right thing because they don’t spend money. Never mind that they failed to win even a second wild-card berth this year with arguably the best starting rotation in all of baseball, missing out by a couple of games that easily could have been made up with just a little mid-summer offense.
So, did the Rays spend wisely? Or, did they make dumb, penny-pinching decisions and waste a great playoff window? Think multi-millionaire Rays owner Stuart Sternberg will be crowing to super-agent Scott Boras this winter on the slopes of Aspen about how cost-effective the Rays’ offensive spending was?
Again, spending “wisely” really is in the eye of the beholder.
What isn’t in said eye, nor up for debate, is that it continues to cost big money to keep good teams together.
Two years ago, the Rangers and Giants were lauded for making the playoffs with sub-$100-million payrolls. This year, both were among top-10 payroll entrants.
The Nationals, hailed this year for a payroll similar to the $82 million the Mariners began the season with, will likely climb over $100 million next year. But they are hardly unique in that regard, given how even the cost-effective Twins quickly shot over $100 million in payroll to keep their squad together once they got the new stadium revenue most other teams enjoy.
And it will keep on happening because it works. For every big-budget failure like the Marlins and Mets, teams like the Tigers and Giants and Rangers will keep going big because they see how it can pay off big. And for every story about how the Yankees are “belt-tightening” by going under $200 million, or the Red Sox are rebuilding because they won’t spend $140 million for a year or two, there will be a newly-cash-infused Dodgers and Angels squad ready to step up and give it a whirl.
And those teams that won’t pay the big-money cost of admission? They’ll continue to get their chances, like the A’s and the Orioles this year, or the Brewers and Diamondbacks last year — or the Rays once in a while, the Indians of last decade or even the Expos of 20 years ago. We’ll probably see one or two newcomers crash the party again next year now that we allow more teams into the playoffs.
But you usually won’t get the repeat playoff teams from the lesser-spending group, unless they revert to spending big. Those will continue to be the exception, rather than the rule. And some team owners will continue to rely on the underdog, longshot tales of teams like the Orioles to fuel hope in their own fanbase while they find excuses not to spend more money. Some of these lower-payroll teams — hello Pirates — are highly profitable without making the playoffs and love it when some fans and media push the notion that they don’t have to spend more and risk reducing some of those profits. Even though those same Pirates crashed and burned in the second half because they lacked the depth a bigger-payroll team could have enjoyed.
How do we know these lower-budget teams are still the exception? Heck, you don’t need to take my word for it. Your answer is right there in the silence.
The deafening silence about the big payroll teams in this year’s LCS tells us all we really need to know.
It tells us that it’s a huge story when smaller-payroll teams make it to the LCS in 2011 because they defy the odds.
And it’s a non-story when big payroll squads make it in 2012 because we all know that the odds always have been and continue to be stacked in their favor.



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