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How to win in Major League Baseball/Why Drayton's salary cap pleas may be misguided

A few days ago, I started reading J.C. Bradbury's book, The Baseball Economist, and I've reached a chapter that may help shed some light on Drayton McLane's comments concerning a salary cap. The successful teams have certain things in common, while unsuccessful teams lack those same qualities. It's just about as simple as that.


What characteristics must an organization embody in order to be competitive on the field and in the front office? Bradbury takes note of two:

  • A good organization puts a team on the field with a high potential for winning
  • A good organization gets more value out of its players than it pays for them (Bradbury, 83)
  • It's not all that difficult to accomplish at least one of these two. Teams like the Yankees, Mets, Red Sox and Cubs in the past few years have fielded extremely competitive teams, at least on paper. They've done so while having some of the highest payrolls in the game, however. In fact, of the teams that entered the 2008 season in the top 10 in payroll only 5 made the playoffs. The top three: the Yankees, Mets, and Tigers all missed out on playing postseason baseball. Money may mean quite a bit, but it obviously isn't the sole factor in determining the best teams in the league.

    Bradbury's second characteristic of a good organization, getting more value out of its players than it pays for them, has proved to be easier than one might think. From the years 2003-2005, only the Yankees had a negative net value- in that the salaries they paid their players was greater than their performance value on the field. But wait. The Yankees generate more revenue than any other team in MLB. So, if they lose a few bucks here and there, what's the difference?

    The difference, it seems to me, is that only the Yankees can afford to over-spend like they do. With a gargantuan payroll of $209 million last year, the Yankees outpaced the second place Tigers by more than $71 million. That amount is more than the individual payrolls for the bottom eleven teams on the scale. It's not just that the Yankees spend more than any other team, the amount that they do so is almost comical. Doing so has allowed them to cover up organization blemishes that would have doomed other teams. Out of the 30 major league teams, the Yankees ranked 18th in Bradbury's organizational rankings for the years 2003-2005. Three of the other top teams in terms of payroll- the Dodgers, Mariners and Mets ranked at the bottom.

    It seems fair to say that if a team is going to spend a ton of money on free agent contracts, it should either be prepared to supplement those signings with a good farm system capable of producing cheap, young players, or just blow everyone out of the water in terms of spending. Since only the Yankees seem willing/able of the latter, the solution looks to be the farm system route. For what it's worth, the Astros ranked fourth in the aforementioned rankings. The years 2003-2005 are the years in which the team won their first post season series, and reached the World Series. There were a ton of big names on those teams (and big contracts to go along with them), but players like Brad Lidge, Morgan Ensberg, and Chad Qualls were impact players whose contracts were not all that sizeable. Combine that with bigger names that outproduced their contracts- Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt, and yes-Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, and it's easy to see how the Astros were both successful on the field, and efficient in the front office.

    Drayton need only look back to the best years his franchise has ever had for a model to emulate. A salary cap will not be a cure-all for uncompetitive clubs. I'll close with a quote from Joe Posnanski concerning Bill James jumping ship from the Kansas City Royals to the Boston Red Sox. The Royals had just re-signed Brent Mayne, a light hitting veteran catcher who recently came off a very poor season. A.J. Hinch, a better, younger option, was released during the offseason. Posnanski wrote:

    And that's when James threw his hands up in the air. It's not that he thinks Hinch is Johnny Bench or that he blames Mayne for the Royals' downfall. It's not that this was the dumbest thing the Royals have done, or even in the top 100. No, it's just another spectacularly illogical move by a team that has become the new sports leader in spectacularly illogical moves. This is just the move that finally pushed Bill over the cliff. (Posnanski, "Bill James Finally Gets Enough of Royals," Kansas City Star, November 10, 2002),

Mr. McLane has taken the popular and easy route this off season by lambasting the Yankees. It may fool some, and shift attention away from a disappointing off season for his own club, but it should irritate more savvy fans.