In so many different ways, the 2013 season was a marvel, right down to a bunch of bearded baseball lifers honoring the souls of their city while their fans tried to honor them. “The front of this uniform doesn’t say ‘Red Sox,’ it says ‘Boston” were David Ortiz’s April 19 words to “our (—) city” that echoed into November.
The Pittsburgh Pirates made the playoffs for the first time since George H. W. Bush was president and Barry Bonds was a Bucco. The Cleveland Indians made the playoffs. The Oakland Athletics, Plumbers Park and all, won one less game than the Red Sox. Cincinnati, at best a medium market, excelled, again. Betrodden Detroit had yet another very successful season terminated by one of the most tense ALCS series in memory.
And, most remarkable, the Tampa Bay Rays won 90 games and made the post-season for the fifth time in six years. “That,” says one small market general manager, “may be the most amazing achievement in the game. It’s one thing to successfully get to the playoffs, but when you’re a small market, the most difficult thing is to sustain success. What the Rays have done is nothing short of astounding, and the Athletics are right there, as well.”
There is no denying the success Bud Selig has forged with revenue-sharing that has produced more balance throughout the game; all right, the Red Sox and Cardinals have won half of the last ten World Series, but now the teams with the longest runs without making the post-season are the Royals (1985) and Blue Jays (1993).
But there isn’t a small market team that thinks the new draft system works to their advantage. A team like the Rays, Pirates and A’s seldom can jump into the free agent market, seldom can they complete to hold their best players, hence the James Shields trade and now the possibility that David Price could be moved.
Now limitations have been placed on their ability to sign foreign players to inject into their farm systems, and the draft itself has virtually eliminated the opportunity for the Pirates to do what they did in their rebuilding process, namely go above “slot” for lower round picks. Now the draft rewards poor performance, not poor markets.
Look at the list of the 13 players to whom clubs made the $14.1M qualifying offers. The Yankees (Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson, Hiroki Kuroda) and Red Sox (Jacoby Ellsbury, Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew) had six of the 13. Three—Shin-Soo Choo of Cincinnati, Ubaldo Jimenez of Cleveland, Ervin Santana of Kansas City—were from small markets. Brian McCann is from Atlanta, a mid market in terms of revenues. The rest were large markets.
For instance, the Pirates want A.J. Burnett back for 2014, but if they’d made the qualifying offer, he’d have taken it and eaten up between 16 and 20 percent of their payroll. That won’t work.
Small market teams aren’t going to play in the Masahiro Tanaka posting process, which could be in the $60M-$100M area—before negotiating a contract. The A’s brilliantly snuck in on Yoenis Cespedes, but since then it’s been big market teams like the Dodgers, White Sox and Red Sox that have won the battles for the veteran Cuban players, as well as top Koreans. When a 16-year old lefthanded pitcher named Julio Urias was made available by the Mexico City Reds in 2012, not only was Logan White and the Dodger scouting staff there, but they could afford to buy five players from the Reds just to get Urias, who at 17 is now one of the sport’s best pitching prospects.
Houston can rebuild with the first pick in the draft three consecutive years, but Houston is also a large market team that has to keep its fan base’s attention while losing with the idea of eventually winning. But it you’re Oakland, Tampa, Pittsburgh or Cleveland, it’s still a rich franchise game if that franchise is run right. That’s why what the Rays have done astounds their competitors, and why what the Mets have had to do building from the bottom floors is so difficult to justify.