MLB small markets are slowly gaining ground
By Will Joyce
January 11, 2013
Currently, Major League Baseball is the only major professional sport without a salary cap.
For years this has hurt small market clubs in their pursuit of quality players, and the big market clubs with the luxury of huge revenue streams could simply outspend small market teams. It was the classic example of the haves and have-nots. While the teams with money were signing big name players to obscene contracts the teams with limited revenue streams were shopping at the outlet for bargains and cast offs.
While most of the financially limited franchises are in favor of a ceiling, the Major League Players Association and the New York Yankees are opposed to any form of a salary cap. Now, that's surprising!
Small market teams can temporarily act as a big market team when the right circumstances come together. But in the long run, the small market team needs to scout, draft, and develop its own talent to become successful.
Case in point: the Cleveland Indians of the 90’s.
During the 90's the Indians had a glorious run. From 1994 through 2001 the Indians won six Central Division titles and two American League pennants. The two seasons they failed to win the division they finished second. Unfortunately, their World Series appearances did not turn out quite as well as everyone wanted. I still play out the 9th inning of Game 7 of the 1997 World Series in my mind.
They had an amazing young core of very good to superstar players like Albert Belle, Carlos Baerga, Kenny Lofton, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Omar Vizquel, Sandy Alomar, Charles Nagy, and others. They were the core of the team, but not a single one of them was acquired in free agency. They were either drafted and developed by the Indians, or picked up in shrewd trades as players set to enter the big league picture.
But as good as those teams were they could have been better. Their attendance helped make them a temporary big market with the ability to spend, but even with all the money they were bringing in they often fell short when it came to bringing in high priced pieces in free agency that could have been the final piece to the puzzle.
Imagine if John Hart would have been able to use Dick Jacobs’ check book to sign free agents in their prime, including a top of the rotation pitcher that eluded him, instead of aging veterans like Dave Winfield, Eddie Murray, Dennis Martinez and Orel Hershiser?
Don't take this the wrong way. Those vets were instrumental in the Tribe's run in the 90’s and were important to the young core of players like Alomar Jr., Baerga, Belle, Lofton, Thome and Ramirez. The problem was sustaining the success. Belle, Ramirez, and Thome bolted through free agency. Lofton was traded to Atlanta because Hart didn't think he could resign him.
You would think that 455 consecutive sellouts and five consecutive divisional titles would allow Hart and company to keep the streak alive; however, the window of opportunity closed following the 2001 season because of declining revenues.
Under the old Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) small market teams were competing on a tilted playing field. Teams with limited finances were handcuffed. The only way to compete was to build a strong farm system and develop home grown players, make some shrewd trades and get lucky on a Type-C free agent or two.
Signing Type-A free agents was out of the question since it usually involved a bidding war with big revenue clubs and would strip the team of its first round draft choice in the First-Year Player Draft the next year. The exception to this rule has been Detroit because their ownership has been willing to over spend to get players to go and stay there.
Year after year big market clubs have signed top-tier free agents with the surplus of money on hand from huge revenue streams and the enticement of playing for a team that had a high probability of playing deep into October. It was a no-brainer for players and their agents. This was the best of both worlds. The old system benefited teams, their revenues and draft choices. While the rich got richer the poor got coal in their stockings. They fought hard to keep the old system in place, but for the good of the game common sense prevailed.
The new CBA adopted last offseason is designed to provide small market teams with a better system that moves the league closer to parity. Although the system still needs to be improved and ultimately needs a salary cap, it has been effective in one major area. The Type A, B, and C free agent designations are gone. Secondly, the ten worst teams every year get their first round draft picks protected the following summer. Also, revenue shares have increased for smaller markets.
This new system allows less fortunate clubs to compete for top tier free agents AND keep their first round draft picks. This is great news for the Indians.
On the heels of this change, the Indians have been very aggressive in their pursuit of free agents this off season. Many of the elite teams stayed on the fringe with Nick Swisher as they did not want to forfeit their 1st round pick. This, along with a Brinks truck loaded with cash led Swisher to the Indians. He was the biggest free agent signing in club history. When was the last time Cleveland signed a star away from New York? They also narrowly missed on Shane Victorino and Edwin Jackson on lucrative multi-year deals.
Two big free agents – Michael Bourn and Kyle Lohse – are still on the market. Both would be good fits for the Tribe since they still have a little payroll flexibility and a new industry environment to work in. Both are still available because of the draft pick compensation attached to them. The Indians have said they are more or less done with the heavy lifting this offseason, but if these players as well as others continue to be unsigned and their price continues to fall, perhaps they could strike and make a deal with one of them. Again, the new system is helping them here as in years past they would have no shot at these players.
Terry Francona knows how talented the Indians front office people are. They were working hard with one hand tied behind their backs, but now everything has changed. They have been more aggressive and want to win not just in the future, but now.
Is it finally Tribe Time again? We’ll find out in a few months.
I don't blame ownership for refusing to spend more than their revenues.
Recall that in 2000, the Indians had a tremendous number of injuries early in the season, which is why they fell behind in the Central. After getting healthier and making some astute trades (David Segui being one of the more notable ones), the Indians stormed back to be within striking distance of the division and the wild card. The White Sox held on, winning 95 games, while the Indians were in the Wild Card until the final weekend, needing either Seattle or Oakland to lose the final game to force a one-game playoff. Unfortunately, it didn't happen.
I recall Yankees' GM Brian Cashman being relieved that the Indians didn't make it that year because, "they were playing the best ball of anyone."
I just wondered if the sellout streak would have continued had the Indians made it into the postseason that year or not? I know that many fans thought the Browns were ready to contend, and many fans in Cleveland gravitate toward the Browns (partly because there's only 8 home games versus the 81 home games of the Indians, partly because), which is why the Browns still enjoy pretty popular support, even though the Browns have done far less on the field than the Indians since the 90s. The Indians have also had the most difficult road to travel of the major sports teams, being that MLB is the only one without a salary cap.
Then the fans bailed and complained. The Indians has put a strong product on the field for nearly a decade and they were rewarded by lackluster attendance and a city that decided they'd rather reward the Browns' for their fantastic maintenance of their horribleness. At least the Tribe had an excuse. The NFL's "competitive balance" has always given the Browns no excuse.
I'd like to see the Dolans spend a bit more this year. If they made a profit last year and are maintaining payroll at the same level, they may be able to afford another good sized contract.
The problem is how fickle the fans have proven. If they could spend another $20M, snag Lohse and Bourn, and get 10,000 more per game then they likely could add over $40M in additional revenue and make a little more money. But if the fans don't show up, they go in the hole.
I'd love to add both guys and really jolt the team. They should compete if they get both guys, but the fans haven't always shown up even when they're playing good ball.
If the fans were more predictable, I think the Dolans would spend more. The problem is that when they have spent, the fans haven't always turned up. Fans want a winner. Even though they say spending will get them to the park, it won't if the spending doesn't equal wins. If the Indians spent $120M and went 81-81, they probably wouldn't get much above what they did last year in attendance. If they spent $60M and won 100 games (ala the Rays) then they MIGHT get over 2 million.
It'd be a lot easier if the Tribe could get back above the 3 million mark. Is it sacrilegious to say I miss the days when the Browns were gone and the Tribe was everyone's first love? It's not like the Browns have done anything since they returned. The Indians have been to a couple of World Series and ALCS'. I could taste it in 1995, 1997, and 2007 - even though they didn't get to the Series. It seemed like they had the Sox on the ropes and it was just a matter of time.
Hopefully, the Tribe can strike a deal with one of Lohse / Bourn IF the price comes down...OR...some resources suddenly are freed up via a trade ACab / CPerez.
Who knows maybe CA, MS and TF convince Dolan to free a bit more cash to land another opt tier FA at a more reasonable price (3rd rd draft pk). They could get creative and back load a deal to get it done.