There’s a problem in Major League Baseball. This issue grew out of a solution. What was once the great equalizer in a game with a parity problem, this monster has now grown beyond the control of its creators and the sport is faced with a dilemma.
Let’s rewind. Here’s how we got here. Starting in the 90s, the Yankees starting using their inherent competitive advantage: money. Other teams had a choice to make. Try and keep up (Red Sox, Dodgers, Mets etc) or try and outsmart them (Oakland)? Billy Beane, the GM of the Oakland A’s was tasked with having his team compete in the same sport without the same means to field a team as many of his competitors. So what to do? Math, data, analytics, market inefficiencies, player development, these became the tools to defeat the spenders; aka, the ‘Nerd Revolution’.
Owners, who are just business people that happen to own a truly unique commodity, observed a team win 103 games (the exact same number as the Yankees) at less than 1/3 of the cost and were sold. The game changed. Front offices were no longer just scouts with beer guts and hypertension using the eye ball tests on prospects, but fully functioning, real time, data analyzers.
For a while, teams simply got smarter. There was little reason to overspend on payroll to win a few more games if your team had no realistic chance at a championship. It was far more efficient and better for team building to trade away veterans to contenders & develop your own young players. Some old school fans/media loved to complain and label it ‘tanking’. Correct people say the Cubs, Astros (in addition to all the cheating), Royals and to a lesser degree, the Nationals & SF Giants all won the World Series and had extended successful runs after prioritizing their future over their dreary present. The sport had parity. More fanbases could see the light at the end of the tunnel. The days of the Yankees appearing in 6/8 World Series was over. That was undoubtedly good for the health of the game. So what’s the problem?
It’s one thing to not be competitive, shed some payroll, get some prospects and gear up for a future run. It’s another thing entirely to be in the World Series, have a superstar on an affordable deal (by baseball standards) with multiple years left both on his contract and in his prime, and trade him away for prospects. That same monster has one of the bright stars in the league from a team that over the last 5 seasons has won 94, 102, 91, 93 and 58% of its games in the pandemic shortened season, traded away for a bag of lunch meat & a wink because his current team, projected to have the lowest payroll in the sport, didn’t think it could re-sign him after this season to what should have been a World Series contender.
The examples above, of course, are Blake Snell and Francisco Lindor. These moves were simply seen as the business of baseball taking place by many. They were alarming to me. Now, the caveat is that 2020 was a pretty unique year for not only baseball, but the world at large. Here’s the excuse or reasoning one will see: there is not an infinite supply of money and some teams may have challenging months ahead as they didn’t have fans in their stands last year. That cash is really important for organizations in sports to operate. TV contracts, revenue sharing and the like are the big totals counted and divvied up at the end. Operating money, payroll, management comes from the cash fans bring to the stadium. That’s a significant loss for teams that aren’t as ‘rich’ as others. There. That’s the excuse. It felt dirty to even type that.
Cry me a river. Maybe these billionaires, who take public money, get infinite tax breaks, sue the cities they reside in, demand stadium improvements or new digs altogether can hope for a Facetime from Dave Portnoy to save their small business from the Barstool Fund? Maybe ask for public donations via a gofundme to keep their shortstop to try to win a World Series? Do a telethon to raise a few bucks so you can meet the escalator in Trevor Bauer’s contract? What a joke. Take out a loan like the rest of America had to do and pay it back with the 1st weekend series parking revenue or the surcharge on a hot dog that caused the fan to miss an inning and a third while waiting in line. The sport has crossed the rubicon. What was once smart team building and competitive balancing has morphed into miserly behavior with no regard to the ultimate goal of winning. Going through challenging times with an eye toward the future works. Getting rid of a star so your team’s payroll is less than 1 Mike Trout does not work for anybody. Baseball fans may not realize it but the train has left the station for the sport to return to darker days of the 90s and early 2000s: The Spenders vs the major league teams that act as farm systems for the teams that would actually like to win.
The MLB Competitive Balance Tax Threshold is $210,000,000. Cleveland currently has a projected Opening Day payroll of $36.4 million.