As I mentioned in my haiku-themed MLB preview, baseball can often be nauseatingly predictable. We know what teams are going to win each year, and we know who’s going to suck. Admittedly, bad teams can eventually develop quality talent and become contenders, but that takes a while. Plus, they usually trade their best prospects to the Yankees or Red Sox before they can reach the playoffs anyway.
This year, however, things might be headed in a different direction. It’s early and things could all be back to normal before October, but so far we’ve seen some of baseball’s biggest spenders struggling out of the gate, while the more low budgets teams appear to be making a legitimate run at the postseason.
The league’s most well-known big spenders are the Yankees and Red Sox, a rivalry that Boston fans make out to be David Vs. Goliath, when it’s really Goliath 1 vs. Goliath 2. The Yankees have the highest salary in the league this year, while the Red Sox have the third highest. And, yet, both teams have been decidedly mediocre. The Yankees are battling with the Blue Jays for third place, while the Red Sox are all alone in last, far removed from the stacked teams that won the World Series in 2004 and 2007.
With all the money the Yanks and Sox spend, why aren’t they annihilating the low budget teams? Again, it is early, so maybe they’ll turn things around, but one thing that’s hurt both teams is throwing shitloads of money at players who aren’t worth it. The Yankees gave Mark Teixiera an 8 year/$180 million in 2008, and for the last two years, he’s only been a slightly above average first baseman. Also, Alex Rodriguez is on the books until 2017, but he’s looked washed up for the past year and a half.
The Red Sox have been burned by albatross contracts, too. John Lackey and Carl Crawford will be making a combined $34.5 million this season. Both were below average last year, and due to injuries, neither one has even played this season. Being a big spender can produce good results, but only if the money is going in the right places.
Even the Phillies, who used their money wisely on all-star pitchers Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, and Roy Oswalt, find themselves in trouble simply because many of their best players are getting old. Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Jimmy Rollins just aren’t the players they used to be (Howard hasn’t played yet due to injury), and their lengthy, expensive deals are keeping the Phillies from being able to move on.
Perhaps no team knows the ills of over-spending like the Angels, who gave a monster offer to Albert Pujols, only to watch him fall into the biggest slump of his career. So far, Pujols has only one home run, and has been hitting below .200. This is just a rough patch, and he’ll probably look more like his old self as the season goes on, but still, this was a player who was already considered to be in the declining stage of his career, who would only get worse with each passing year of his contract. If he’s failing to produce in his first year, when most would consider him to be in his prime, imagine how bad he could be when 2017 rolls around. The Angels are already considering that possibility, and probably wondering if they’ve made a huge mistake.
Meanwhile, we’re seeing teams with smaller payrolls thrive by making the right decisions. The Tampa Bay Rays are the best example of that. They’ve been a contender every year since 2008, and their strategy has been to go after overlooked, efficient players (much like the A’s moneyball strategy), rather than big name free agents. They would be running the AL east right now, if not for the Orioles, another team with a low salary (19th in the league) who appear to have morphed into contenders. After years of being one of baseball’s most embarrassing teams, the O’s have finally developed a team that can compete, primarily relying on young, home-grown talent. Same goes for their geographical counterparts, the Washington Nationals. Three years removed from being baseball’s biggest embarrassment, they’re now battling for first in the NL East, and could make their first playoff run since they were the Montreal Expos. Two long suffering franchises who may finally turned things around.
Is baseball’s oligarchy being crushed once and for all, or is this just an anomaly that will correct itself before the end of the season? It’s hard to say for sure this early in the year, but there is mounting evidence that spending a ton of money doesn’t guarantee you a world series, and that being a small market team doesn’t doom you to a 60-win season. It’s all about what those teams do with their money, and thanks to some wise spending by the Rays, Orioles, and Nationals, they have a serious chance to do some damage in October.