Yes there have been eight different World Series champions in the last nine years, but that doesn't really tell the whole story. The playoffs can be a crap shoot. A red-hot team that is undermanned can upset a more powerful team. The shorter the series the greater the possibility that an individual player can carry a team and take over. The reality is that getting to the playoffs is what most teams set as a goal. (Except for the Yankees, of course, who ridiculously believe any season that falls short of a championship is a failure.)
The Red Sox and Yankees have been reaching their goals better than everyone else over the last 15 years. They have both made the playoffs in eight of the last 15 years, and at least one of the two has been in the playoffs in all 15 years. It is not a surprise then that the Yankees and Red Sox are also always at or near the top of another category in baseball -- payroll.
There is a notion that payroll equals success in baseball. Just this past week Milwaukee Brewers owner Mark Attanasio lamented that his club would have difficulty signing star first baseman Prince Fielder to a contract extension.
Attanasio's frustration is understandable. He wants to hold on to his charismatic star because he gives him a much better chance to get to the playoffs. He stated the obvious that his club didn't have the kind of money the Yankees do. He remarked that the Yankees infield combines for a higher salary than the entire Brewers team. What he stated are facts! But there is another fact that should be mentioned: Attanasio bought the Brewers and not the Yankees, and he did so with the full knowledge of the difference between the two.
Randy Levine the president of the Yankees, lashed out at Attanasio reminding him that the Yankees have paid hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue sharing and luxury tax money to clubs like the Brewers. Levine could have also stated that other teams should be grateful for the Yankees -- not only for the subsidies they give, but also for the fact that when the Yankees come to town attendance numbers typically spike dramatically. Plus, Levine could have argued that the sale of Yankees licensed merchandise benefits the Brewers far more than the sale of Brewers merchandise benefits the Yankees or anyone else.
But to be fair, Levine probably could have also acknowledged that the Brewers, under Attanasio, have used the money they have gotten as a small-market franchise in the proper way -- to increase payroll. Levine is a smart guy and a good guy. He can understand the pain the Brewers must feel to not be able to keep their young star. What should Levine and the Yankees do? Nothing. It is not their problem to fix.
Using 2010 Opening Day payroll numbers, the disparity between the highest-spending and lowest-spending team in each division is remarkable:
|Division||Highest Payroll||Lowest Payroll||Disparity|
|AL East||Yankees||$206.3M||Blue Jays||$62.23M||$144.1M|
There isn't nearly enough revenue to share to make up for that kind of disparity. And that's why some clubs know they have no real chance of competing despite being on top of their division a week into the season.
Ultimately, this is a debate for all of Major League Baseball and the players' union. The easy answer is to put a salary cap in place which would limit player salaries and give teams like the Brewers a better chance to keep their stars. That isn't going to happen because the union will never go for it.
Quite honestly, it wouldn't be fair to the Yankees anyway. George Steinbrenner bought a baseball franchise in New York and paid a price, which, at the time, took that fact into account. Putting a salary cap in place would be like tying one of the hands of a heavyweight champion behind his back in order to try and even a fight with a lightweight contender.
Here is the problem with the current system: Using my boxing analogy, Major League Baseball currently has heavyweight and lightweight boxers competing against each other without any real acknowledgement of the disparity between them. Lightweight boxers have very little chance of beating heavyweight fighters, but at least the little guys can make some extra money. The heavyweights are so generous that they are willing to share some of the revenue from the fights with their smaller opponents. It makes the little guys feel somewhat better, but it doesn't really give them much more of a chance to win the next fight.
Believe it or not the answers to baseball parity rest in the rings of boxing.
Every general manager will tell you that if you give him a level playing field, he will take his chances that he can put a team together to compete and win a championship. Short of a salary cap, there is only one way to level the playing field: realign the divisions.
In boxing the heavyweights have to beat heavyweights, middleweights have to beat middleweights and featherweights have to beat featherweights. So why not do the same in baseball?
Bud Selig's Special Committee for On-Field Matters has discussed an idea to address the lack of parity in baseball called "floating realignment." It would allow teams to change divisions based upon geography, payroll and their likelihood of contending. This allows teams the freedom to decide who they compete against and the freedom to run from a division with the Yankees and Red Sox. It is a creative idea, but will lead to instability and uncertainty for the fans.
What if we realign the divisions in a way that dramatically reduces the difference between the highest and lowest payrolls within those divisions? It would allow just about every team a legitimate chance to compete. If they can't compete then they have no one to blame but themselves. The Brewers still might not be able to sign Prince Fielder, but they will be competing against other teams in the same predicament with their young stars.
Here is a look at a division realignment which drastically reduces the salary disparity in each division. The bold teams are the clubs with the highest payroll in their division and the italicized teams are the clubs with the lowest payroll in the division. The new differential in salary within the division (where Large corresponds to East, Mid to Central and Small to West) is noted in green.
|AL Large||Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers, White Sox, Angels||$101.37M||$144.1M||$40.73M|
|AL Mid||Twins, Mariners, Orioles, Astros, Rangers||$42.35M||$61.66M||$19.31M|
|AL Small||Rays, Royals, Blue Jays, Indians, Athletics||$20.27M||$53.31M||$33.04M|
|NL Large||Cubs, Phillies, Mets, Dodgers, Cardinals||$53.06M||$77.39M||$24.33M|
|NL Mid||Giants, Braves, Rockies, Brewers, Reds||$26.88M||$111.67M||$84.79M|
|NL Small||Nationals, Diamondbacks, Marlins, Padres, Pirates||$26.46M||$60.84M||$34.38M|
OK, before you start poking holes, let me explain some of my rationale. Remember the top priority is trying to give every team a fair chance of making the playoffs. That priority changes the manner in which the divisions and the schedule are currently configured.
First, I moved the Houston Astros to the AL in order to balance the two leagues at 15 teams apiece. This is about leveling the playing field, so there needs to be an equal number of teams in each division. This means that there will always be an AL team playing an NL team and interleague play lives on.
Second, there are teams in the same division despite being in different time zones which will increase travel costs. Major League Baseball and the Players' Association are always so concerned about travel costs, but how can that be more important than fairness and parity. Since, I want my plan to be implemented as part of the next Collective Bargaining Agreement, I am going to make travel costs a non-issue. Let's resolve it by returning to a balanced schedule in which every team plays each other team in its league and division the same number of times. The issue really isn't who a team plays how many times. The issue is that clubs are graded against similar teams playing a similar schedule.
Third, I propose that there be two wild-card teams in addition to the three division winners. The wild-card teams will play a one-game playoff to see who gets to play the division winner with the best overall record, regardless of whether they are from the same division.
I didn't follow the payroll rankings perfectly in formulating the divisions as some teams are spending more than their market indicates and some are not spending enough. Detroit doesn't feel like a large-market team but its payroll says it is. The Giants have a higher payroll than the Dodgers and Cardinals but I put them in the mid-market division because the Dodgers will, at some point, act like a large-market club again and the Cardinals are going to pay Albert Pujols a bunch of money in the next 12 months. The Rangers' current payroll ranks 27th, but that has to do with an ownership issue that should be resolved with sale of the team. They are a mid-market team so I put them there.
Perfect parity without a salary cap is impossible, but we can come much closer to leveling the playing field by rearranging the divisions. In fact, as time goes forward, the gap between the top salary and the bottom salary in each division will narrow. Clubs that don't spend now will realize that they are not that far away from competing and should spend more.
This formula for realignment may not help the Brewers keep Prince Fielder, but it will give them a much more realistic chance to make the playoffs every year. Once a club makes the playoffs, they are only a roll of the dice away from becoming a World Series champion.