Parity in Baseball

Today I was reading comments on a digg article about Pedro Martinez saying he dominated the steroids era (which, of course, is true, both anecdotally and statistically). One of the commenters for some reason started talking about the lack of parity in baseball due to differences in salaries:

To be honest, I don’t think steroids is even baseball’s biggest problem. I think the lack of a salary cap is. You can basically go into each baseball season and probably name about 75% of the division winners. You’ve got players whose one year salary is equivalent to what some entire teams are paid. It’s ridiculous. I’m a Yankees fan, and I feel sorry for any Devil Rays, Orioles, or Blue Jays, because they essentially can’t compete. And if for some reason their farm system takes off and they get a hot team, as soon as they are free agents, guess where they’re gonna go…Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, Chicago, etc. It’s a broken system. Just my two cents.

Another commenter responded:

The teams you name have s****y owners who just want to turn a profit. There’s better ways to achieve parity than a salary cap. Revenue sharing, draft changes, and free agent rules are just a few examples. Baseball has achieved this without a salary cap. You can point to the Yankees and Boston dominating the AL East, but surprise, surprise, there’s five other divisions out there, and no one team dominates them. Since 2000, the World Series winners includes the Marlins and Angels. The only repeat winner of the World Series since 2000 is Boston, and they went without for 86 years prior. That’s pretty good parity.

Excited to have a baseball discussion that didn’t revolve around performance enhancing drugs, I responded:

I agree SnapETom. If you look at the best teams in each league going into this season, you have the Mets, Red Sox, Tigers, Cubs, but also, the Diamondbacks(26th in the league in spending in 2007), Rockies(25th), Padres(24th) , Braves(15th), Indians(23rd) etc. There are alot of teams that have been consistently good without spending alot (Oakland, Minnesota, Atlanta) for years, while there are other teams that spend a bunch and have been consistently bad (Baltimore, San Francisco recently, Philly until recently). So while the ‘spending parity’ argument was pretty hip when the Yankees made the Series every year in the late 90’s/ early 2000’s, I don’t think it’s really an argument you can make today. Whether or not a team will be good or not essentially comes down to minor league scouting and development.

I’d like to expand upon that argument here.

It is all about scouting and development. Very simply, the teams that scout and develop well are the teams that are successful. The teams that don’t scout and develop well are consistently terrible, whether or not they throw money around or not.

The purpose of the farm system is two-fold. 1. To develop major league caliber talent which can contribute to the major league club, and 2. To develop talent which other teams think will contribute to their major league club, and therefore make them valuable pieces for use in a trade.

Some examples:
The Diamondbacks had the 26th largest payroll in baseball last year, $52 million. Or about 1/4 of the Yankees payroll. Yet the Diamondbacks were able to reach the NLCS last year. How is that possible? They certainly didn’t spend enough for that honor, did they? They developed a young core of position players (Conor Jackson, Stephen Drew, Mark Reynolds, Justin Upton, Chris Young) to lead the team offensively. Their veteran is the O-Dog, Orlando Hudson, who broke into the league way back in 2002. They also developed 2/5 of their strong rotation from within (Cy Young award winner Brandon Webb and Micah Owings, who Rice baseball fans circa 2005 will surely remember and revile). They also traded 6 of their best prospects (i.e. the farm) for Dan Haren, who gives them two bone fide aces atop their rotation. This is the killer one-two punch they would have loved to have been able to use in last post season, and really quite threatening in a short series format. All without a major free agent signing, or spending very much at all.

The Red Sox had the 2nd largest payroll in baseball last year, bested only by Hank and the ‘Roid boys from the Bronx (Can you tell I’m a Mets fan?). Surely the Red Sox are an example of whats wrong with parity in baseball! Surely they paid for that World Series! Wrong. Yeah, they paid a ton for Dice-K, most of which doesn’t show up in their payroll numbers. Yeah, Manny has a huge contract, although at this point it looks downright reasonable. But who were the real keys to that Series last year? Paplebon, Ellsbury, Pedroia, Youkilis, Lester. All top flight talent that the Red Sox has grown from within, and talent that will be the core of this team when Curt Shilling’s ankle explodes and Manny wanders off into the sunset. Beyond that, they also used their farm system (trading away Marlin phenom Hanley Ramirez) to acquire their ace, and possibly the best pitcher in the league (now that Johan is a Met), Josh Beckett, along with (throw in) third baseman Mike Lowell, who was cheap until they resigned him this off season.

And the best part (for fans of these teams) is that these teams aren’t going anywhere. They are young, wild, and strapped.

Oh, and the Pirates still suck.

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