For one day in February, fans in Boston got a taste of what 70% of the rest of the league’s, and certainly the Pittsburgh Pirates, fan bases experience. One of their very best players, Mookie Betts was traded in an effort to get something in return for a player that Boston didn’t feel they could afford to resign, and as a vehicle to convince another team to take on the bloated salary of David Price.
Boston exploded, the fans, the media, and I’d love to tell you I feel for them, but this is nothing new and I don’t remember anyone holding a gun to their heads in order to force the contract they offered an aging pitcher. See, the thing is, these types of contracts cut both ways. That’s why Gerrit Cole was so very attractive on the free agent market this off-season, because he was still young enough that finishing out his contract as a reasonably good pitcher is still relatively possible.
Boston could afford to keep Price you say. Oh yes, they absolutely could, but that’s where the luxury tax comes into play. We’ve seen more teams in recent years right up against the faux cap, and even exceed it, opting to pay the penalty and go all in to bring home a championship, but the chickens are starting to come home to roost. Boston knows they aren’t going to beat the Yankees this season, and I suspect they aren’t sure they can beat the Rays either and they decided to pull the rip cord, get a nice young player in return and give themselves some flexibility. Alright Pittsburgh, I know flexibility is a bad word around here, but hear me out. My suspicion is Mookie wanted somewhere in the $25 to $30 million AAV range, and if he is the piece they needed to go toe to toe with the Yanks, I bet they throw caution to the wind and go after it, but he isn’t. Too many aging stars and not enough talent left in the pipeline that Ben Cherrington himself once built into a powerhouse that churned out two or three players a year.
The Red Sox don’t rebuild, they resurface. That above all is the difference between the teams that have money vs the teams that don’t.
Baseball has a larger problem, and moves like this highlight it, which is not ideal for MLB as they barrel toward the CBA negotiations. The luxury tax isn’t working, at least not how they intended. Even the high-spending teams have come to realize you still have to build most of your club, the money really comes into play when it comes time to keep those men and some teams have been extremely reckless on this front. David Price is a perfect example of this, you could argue he delivered a championship for Boston, but $35 million a year for a pitcher who can scarcely scratch together a 20-game season and on top of it go .500 is unacceptable. Keep an eye on his destination team, the Dodgers, I wouldn’t be shocked if they flip him and eat half his salary. I could see as many as three clubs paying portions of his salary for the rest of his career.
The luxury tax was implemented to placate the small-market clubs and give them the feeling that most teams wouldn’t come anywhere near the limit, and the ones that did would help pay the price. Problem is, there are not enough teams that even could hit that cap. Red Sox, Yankees, Dodgers, Angels, Cubs, that’s the list. When you have a 30-team league and five teams that can possibly hit or exceed your redistribution point, the system can never work, especially when none of them want to hit it. Look for the Yankees to move Giancarlo Stanton for peanuts too, because he is their key to keeping Judge.
There is no way to avoid the falsehoods that were put forth in the last CBA. Parity has not been achieved and the spending gap has done nothing but grow. Case in point, the poor Red Sox will still probably spend around $175 million this season. Here are the arguments that parity exists in MLB, the Rays, A’s, Twins, Indians, Royals. OK, notice anything there? Three of those teams are in the same pathetic division. Put the Pirates in the AL Central and they might actually compete most years, and I mean REALLY compete. The Rays are experts at developing, acquiring, and drafting talent, but as exciting as they’ve been, they are still a long shot to win every season. The A’s do the same AND compete in an equally weak division. They too are often close but no cigar.
When you start a season in any professional sports league, it's not interesting for the fans, and let’s face it, that’s what its supposed to be about. When you can name 4 or 5 teams that should win and 3 or 4 that could if everything goes exactly right. That leaves 21-23 teams who have no chance.
The most recent example of a small-market team winning it all was of course the Royals. They had a great team, and fans immediately had to watch their champions leave the parade and start packing their bags. So yeah, good for you Kansas City (which is in Missouri in case you didn’t know), but the likelihood it happens again under this system is just about nil. All it did is allow the teams like the Yankees and Red Sox to say look over there, they won. See, it’s fair!
When you want to see your game expand and look at adding teams in Puerto Rico, or Montreal, perhaps think about expanding competitiveness first to the flyover cities. Because right now, baseball is largely a coastal sport, and in order for the game to grow, it needs to first become popular in places that have long since given up hope that they can compete.
Rob Manfried spends a whole lot of effort trying to find ways to speed up the games in an effort to bring fans back to the sport they used to love and introduce an exciting product to a new generation. Well Rob, you know what gets young fans involved? Winning. Having a chance to win. Speed of the game is only important if you can’t wait for the pain of getting your brains beat in by a club with a $250 million payroll to be over.
I love this game, and I always will. But the inequality is highlighted when one player can get moved in a salary dump and you see he makes about $9 million less than the Pirates will spend on payroll this season.
Actively try to remember the last time you really believed a team outside those five I listed were a real threat to win it all. Maybe the Braves this season?
Its time for the growing number of clubs who aren’t in the picture to finally start seeing it for what it is and make some changes. If not, I won’t rule out contraction coming rather than expansion.
Follow Gary on Twitter: @garymo2007