Cliff Lee and CC Sabathia will make for a nice subplot when they face one another on Wednesday night to open the World Series at Yankee Stadium.
But the two lefthanders also represent the persistent problem of competitive imbalance in MLB, a problem worth pointing out as these two well-heeled teams face off. The series will feature a showdown between two teams wealthy enough to acquire players that the Indians could not retain (the Yankees once again had the highest payroll in baseball this season, at approximately $210 million; the Phils had the fifth-highest, at about $130 million).
Lee and Sabathia each won a Cy Young Award in Cleveland. They could have provided that city with an era of classic starting pitching, but the Indians were forced to deal both stars in their prime. The team traded Sabathia to Milwaukee last summer for top prospect Matt LaPorta. Spurning a lesser offer from the small-market Brewers, the lefthander signed with New York during the offseason for $161 million, the richest-ever contract for a pitcher.
This July, Cleveland dealt Lee--set to become a free agent after next season--and talented outfielder Ben Francisco to Philadelphia for a package of minor leaguers: pitchers Jason Knapp and Carlos Carrasco, catcher Lou Marson and infielder Jason Donald. None of those players is considered a can't-miss prospect. Cleveland also dealt star catcher Victor Martinez to Boston.
Indians president Paul Dolan said in July that his team expected to lose $16 million last season, and needed to shed payroll. "The reality is we were suffering financially before we made these deals," he told reporters in Cleveland.
The most extensive information available about the impact of market size on competitive balance in baseball is somewhat dated, but telling nonetheless. A study conducted by major league baseball in 2000, "The Report of the Independent Members of the Commissioner's Blue Ribbon Panel on Baseball Economics," concluded that "large and growing revenue disparities exist and are causing problems of chronic competitive imbalance."
The report claimed that "local revenues"--all the money that teams make in their home market, like ticket sales, cable rights, ballpark concessions, parking, suite rentals and more--are the most significant source of revenue in the game. According to the report, in 1999 the Yankees' local revenue was $176 million. By comparison, the Montreal Expos, who have since moved to Washington, DC, were last with $12 million in local revenue that year. With the Phillies' recent success, their local revenues have surely seen a significant uptick. Regular home sellouts lead to greater revenues in concessions, merchandise, and other areas.
This problem of haves and have nots in baseball creates a vicious cycle. It forces teams like the Indians to settle for lesser players, which alienates fans and drives down revenues. Widespread disenchantment plagued Cleveland over the last two summers, as fans saw a potentially great team slowly dismantled due to financial necessity.
The problem threatens to undermine baseball's popularity in all but a few fortunate markets. When smaller-market teams like Cleveland, Minnesota, Milwaukee and Tampa Bay make the playoffs, the face a far smaller window for success than richer teams like the Yanks and Phils.
After years of drafting, acquiring and developing talent like Lee and Sabathia, small market teams quickly face decisions on whether they can afford to keep these players. The Brewers, for example, must already ponder whether to trade All-Star first baseman Prince Fielder before he becomes prohibitively expensive. The Rays already parted with pitcher Scott Kazmir and are surely wondering whether they can retain cornerstone players like outfielder Carl Crawford.
Unlike less privileged teams, the Yanks and Phils can afford to absorb ill-advised and expensive contracts. New York paid pitcher Carl Pavano nearly $40 million over four seasons, and Pavano won just nine games in that span.
The Phillies, too, can compete despite expensive mistakes. This year alone, they released pitcher Adam Eaton with $9 million still owed to him, and outfielder Geoff Jenkins, despite the $8 million owed to him. Add the $3 million paid to Jim Thome, long since traded to the Chicago White Sox, the Phils swallowed approximately $20 million this season.
It has been an entertaining October for fans of the Phillies, Yankees, Los Angeles Angels and Los Angeles Dodgers. The four teams who advanced to their respective league championship series all ranked in the top ten in payroll this season. For fans of the Indians and many other clubs, the year was not nearly as much fun.
That doesn’t mean that Yankee and Phillies fans need to worry much about this, or feel guilty—especially Phils fans, whose team was more of an underdog-type for years before it rose to become part of the wealthy elite. But those two would-be Cleveland aces make competitive imbalance an impossible issue to avoid.
Charlie Manuel created an fascinating subplot to an already exciting series this morning when he told radio host Michael Smerconish that Pedro Martinez would start Game 2 at Yankee Stadium. Those fans will be sure to dust off those “who’s your daddy” chants, and it will make for great baseball theatre to watch an all-time pitcher get one more shot at his primary adversaries.
More on that later in the afternoon, from the workout at Yankee Stadium.