Today's discussion of Ben Sheets possibly dropping down into our price range started a whirlwind of activity in my head. I've discussed Sheets becoming an Astro since my first week here and I've gone back and forth on whether I think he'd be a good fit for our team given his risk and full economic cost. The Astros will have a $95-100 million payroll next year if they make the decision to re-sign the roster as is and the expense of a player like Ben Sheets would drive them well above that mark and possibly to the edge of some deficit spending.
Being a student of economics, I appreciate the elegance of a market system and the way it governs most of our decisions in life. Without thinking about it, we intuitively make decisions to seek out situations in which the extra benefit we derive is equal to the extra cost of obtaining it. While we are all capable of failing that model in many instances, we often end up meeting it.
In the past few years, my appreciation for the ideas of economic thought have transformed the way I think about the simple game of baseball in terms of how it's played and its teams constructed. I argued against the value of a Jake Peavy signing on those grounds and started a flurry of controversy in arguing that it wouldn't be the worst outcome had the Astros have tanked through September so that signing a Type A free agent starting pitcher wouldn't cost us a valuable first round pick in the same vein too. While the rationality of such thinking is an easy vantage point to think about baseball, there are times when dollar signs and graphs don't accurately or justly render reality.
In the end, baseball is a form of entertainment and a game. It's a game that we all obviously love to watch, discuss, and obsess over. We all put a great deal of time and effort into participating in this internet community at the expense of other leisure activities we could pursue (or even non-leisure activities, like this paper I'm procrastinating on). My point being, we invest in this team as much as Drayton McLane does. In fact, during Drayton McLane's tenure, we've invested more.
To his credit, he rewarded our investment with a continuous stream of winning seasons, heart breaking post-season berths, and a pennant. Towards the end of that run, the short term goal of a World Series title threw off the long term success of the Astros and a large share of the decisions which precipitated our barren farm system came from the Gerry Hunsicker regime. While it would be pure speculation to say whether he had a plan to hedge the short term affects of signing Andy Petitte, Roger Clemens, and Jeff Kent, Drayton's growing sense of how to run things on the baseball end ultimately quashed the reality of seeing what would have happened.
Tim Purpurra clearly operated at the whim of his owner and when allowed to act on his own, made very bad decisions. While his share in the blame of what is wrong with this organization (huge commitments to aging stars on a team who has zero farm system to fill out the remaining roster given the salary constraints) such is the price of hiring a yes man and refusing to listen to baseball insiders on the logic of over paying the slot suggestions in the draft.
This year was the first of many years to come in which Astros fans will pay the price of such poor decision making -- if the Astros don't expand their salary to buy needed talent that is. Were baseball not protected under a presumed anti-trust exemption, then market forces would probably show a sharp decrease in the demand for Astros baseball and a loss of profit for Drayton McLane. While it is probably a good thing that the unbridled market does not regulate professional sports, fans are left to absorb the costs of mismanagement by team ownership.
There was, however, a time in which owning a baseball team was considered a public good, and owners often made poor economic decisions to reward the patronage of their fans. Now would be a good time for Drayton McLane to make such a decision.
He has seen his initial investment in this franchise ballon at a rate that most of us would salivate over. Yet, given this year's attendance and TV ratings, he is facing a drop off in demand for his product. His profit margin as a monopolist is shrinking whether he likes it or not, but he does have options.
The Astros are by no means one player away from a playoffs berth or a pennant, but he needs marquee value to increase demand and his odds at overall team success. Revenue streams in baseball are not linear. There is a huge sweet spot in the graph starting in the late seventies and mid-nineties in terms of the relationship between wins and revenue. Thus, all wins are not created equal. Signing someone like Ben Sheets has its risk. He could not throw a single pitch in a regular season game if he succumbed to a career ending injury akin to Chris Carpenter in his recent contract or Mike Hampton as well. On the flip side, Sheets could be the difference in the Astros finishing near .500 and making the playoffs. The difference in those wins could easily bring in $10-20 million dollars in added revenue should Sheets and the rest of the Astros realize their potential.
Drayton Mclane simply owes it to us, the fans, to take such a risk. He certainly isn't compelled by law or any sort tangible entity because he is insulated from something like that. But he also has made a sizable fortune off the City of Houston's commitment to this team and is likely near the end of his tenure as the principal owner of the Houston Astros. At most, Drayton risks losing the costs of the free agent pitcher he signs salary, no more than a projected $15 million. The odds are that would lose much less.
As a student of economics, I also have a pretty clear sense of the lurking economic despair that could last upwards of a decade or more. Baseball, in spite of MLBAM's revenue stream, is still a public good and owners still have a duty to provide that good. Freezing ticket prices is about the minimum Drayton McLane can possibly to do for his paying customers during this time period, because as one of the wealthiest men in America, he can afford to do much more; he can afford to give us a bright stop in dim times for six months a year.
In that light, should this offseason end without the Astros making a full hearted attempt to shore up the gaps in talent they have via free agency, I will be terribly disheartened. Perhaps I'm wrong to have this perceived sense of entitlement, but I genuinely believe that Drayton McLane and the people he has paid to surround him have gotten all of us into this mess and that he should do what it takes to get us out of it. Prior to Bear Stearns going under, it used to be what the everyone expected of a companies owner.