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In period of parity, not even a high payroll guarantees a playoff berth


The conventional wisdom is that the Phillies and Red Sox have turned themselves into prohibitive favorites with their great winters. But based on recent history, the conventional wisdom is worth even less than an obstructed-view bleacher seat.

Not that the Phillies and Red Sox didn't have great winters. They did. But baseball isn't nearly as predictable as one might think.

Favorites don't always win, and in fact they rarely do these days. Big payrolls don't guarantee success. As a result, parity, often credited as a big part of the NFL's popularity, is a recent strength for baseball.

"The changing of our economic system has done what we set out to do,'' baseball commissioner Bud Selig said while in New York this week.

Indeed, as hard as it may be to believe, dollars aren't necessarily making a big difference lately. Only two of the top nine teams in terms of Opening Day payroll qualified for the 2010 postseason. Meanwhile, three of the bottom 12 teams in payroll reached the postseason: the Reds (19th), Rays (21st) and Rangers (27th).

Nine teams have won the last 10 World Series, Boston being the only franchise with multiple titles (2004 and '07). Eleven of the last 12 World Series berths have gone to different teams, the Phillies being the only repeat league champion (2008 and '09).

Four of eight teams in the 2010 postseason returned after absences ranging from five to 15 seasons. In 2010, for only the fourth time in the wild card era, the best team in baseball failed to have a .600 winning percentage or better.

The Giants won the World Series for the first time since 1954, joining a quartet of teams in the past seven seasons to break long streaks without a World Series winner; the Red Sox (2004, after an 85-year drought), White Sox (2005, after an 87-year drought), Cardinals (2006, after a 23-year drought) and Phillies (2008, after a 27-year drought). The Rangers made the World Series for the first time last year, making it six times in 10 seasons that a team made its initial Series appearance, joining the Diamondbacks (2001), Angels (2002), Astros (2005), Rockies (2007) and Rays (2008).

What's more, only three of the eight teams that qualified for the 2010 postseason were also in the 2009 postseason -- the Phillies, Yankees and Twins.

"Compared to any other decade, there's more competitive balance now,'' Selig said. The former owner of the Brewers cited small-market success in Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Minnesota and Tampa Bay over the past few years as more evidence of such balance.

The NFL is often credited for having great parity. Yet, despite a salary cap and a schedule that is rigged to favor teams with weaker records, many of the same teams seem to keep winning. Only four teams have represented the AFC in the Super Bowl this decade and three of them -- the Colts, Patriots and Steelers -- have made multiple appearances.

Rangers managing partner Chuck Greenberg recently raised the issue of the mysterious Cliff Lee negotiations, and in so doing raised the ire of the Yankees. Greenberg suggested at a Rangers fanfest that his third trip to visit Cliff Lee in Arkansas helped move the Rangers into second place, ahead of the Yankees but still behind the Phillies in this winter's most interesting free-agent derby.

Of course, it doesn't really matter who finished second. There's also no proof that Lee would have returned to the Rangers if the Phillies didn't re-enter the picture and sign him. And of course, there's no proof that Greenberg's trio of junkets moved Lee one way or the other,

Yankees president Randy Levine called Greenberg "delusional'' and said that he shouldn't guess at what Lee was thinking. Well, no need to guess anymore. A series of interviews with several people either involved in the talks or with knowledge of them revealed the following picture:

"Delusional" may be a tad colorful, but Greenberg is likely wrong that his frequent trips moved the Rangers ahead of the Yankees, if indeed they were ever ahead. If the Rangers had a slight advantage over the Yankees, it was very likely because Lee enjoyed his time in Texas, not his visits with Greenberg. According to people in the know, the frequency of trips very likely had nothing to do with Lee's decision at one point to counter Texas' $120 million, six-year proposal (their $138 million, six-year bid had so many deferrals that it was worth almost exactly the same as the straight $120 million offer) with a request to approximate the Yankees' $148 million, seven-year offer.

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Greenberg and Co. were slower than all the other interested teams in making offers, and certainly in making competitive offers, according to people familiar with the talks, and Team Lee certainly had every reason to keep them alive in the bidding. So there was no desire to bar them from Arkansas. The Rangers are said to have started with a "lowball'' suggestion before moving to $100 million over five years, which was still well behind several other teams, then ultimately to $120 million over six years, which was still behind.

The Rangers were all the time emphasizing that their offer should be considered 25 percent higher because Texas has no state income tax -- but Lee consulted with several tax people who said that he would be considered an Arkansas resident and playing in Texas would be worth no more than a $1-2 million discount over the full term, as the Yankees contended all along. So Texas' big tax plea fell flat.

In retrospect, it's obvious that the Phillies were far and away Lee's first choice. But twice talks with the Phillies broke off before they ultimately re-engaged a third time and led to a $120 million, five-year deal, a pretty high price considering that Philly had no need for a fourth star starter and Lee very much wanted to play there.

Lee has made his great affection for the Phillies well known since re-joining them. But after talks broke off with them the second time and the Phillies were about $45 million behind the Yankees, Lee's team went to the Rangers with a proposal, not because he enjoyed Greenberg's visits but because he was comfortable with their team. That proposal was also about $30 million more than Texas had offered, giving it a very low probability of being accepted.

The Rangers said no to Lee's request, a decision that most people involved in the talks seem to believe was ultimately influenced by Rangers president Nolan Ryan, who early on informed the Lee camp that anything beyond five years was out of his "comfort zone.'' Others believe that Greenberg was so emotionally into the talks that left to his own devices he would have gone to a seventh year, although that is conjecture.

The moment the Rangers said no, Lee appeared likely to wind up with the Yankees, according to people familiar with the situation. Lee is said to have had no qualms about playing for New York; he simply preferred Philadelphia. And not that it matters, but Lee's camp appreciated the professional way in which Yankees GM Brian Cashman handled negotiations -- that he made offers in a timely manner, didn't push them and probably also that he didn't keep flying to Arkansas.

But the Phillies started talks back up again and ultimately gave Lee a contract that guaranteed a record $24 million average annual salary and was deemed to be acceptable by the pitcher who obviously didn't put money ahead of all else. Had the Phillies not re-engaged in talks, the belief is that Lee would have become a Yankee, even if they were very likely his third choice all along.

• Vladimir Guerrero remains the biggest name still available on the free-agent market. Orlando Cabrera is also a late holdout for a second straight year. Barring injury, it doesn't look like there's a starting shortstop job left for the talented player. It had to hurt when his old Reds team took his archrival Edgar Renteria instead. But one GM said that Cabrera still isn't taking a reasonable stance. That GM said, "I don't think he gets the position he's in.''

• The Brewers are about to add Mark Kotsay. Perhaps no club has improved as much as Milwaukee this winter. The Brewers look like a contender, but in case they fall out of it and trade Prince Fielder at the deadline, Kotsay gives them a viable first base option.

• Vernon Wells seems like a nice man but his claim to only want to go to a winner falls flat when it becomes known that the only two teams he told Toronto he'd accept were the Rangers and Angels. Those are fine teams, but are they the two best teams in baseball? People involved in the talks believe that he liked Texas in part because he's from Arlington. The Angels are in the same division, are in a pleasant locale and give Wells a chance to play nine games in Arlington. The Rangers never showed any serious interest, making the job that Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos did in trading Wells and only agreeing to pay $5 million of the $86 million remaining on his contract that much more remarkable.

• Baseball higher-ups seem to believe that Albert Pujols will wind up re-signing with St. Louis. Very little has come out about those talks since reported a few weeks ago that the sides were as much as $100 million apart, or even more, with Pujols looking for an A-Rod type deal and the Cardinals believed to be offering at least a bit under $200 million, at least at the time. But baseball executives don't see a divorce happening. If it did, one competing exec opined that the Cubs may be "best positioned'' to make a run at Pujols. "They may want to make a splash,'' surmised the exec. Ah, yes, that would be quite a splash.

• New Mets GM Sandy Alderson insisted that the Mets' winter of non-spending had nothing to do with Bernie Madoff, and further stated that they intend to lower the payroll next winter when several big contracts come off the books. There is no evidence yet that the Mets intend to offer Jose Reyes a long extension, even though he has said publicly that he'd like one.

• The Angels are still interested in acquiring a leadoff hitter, either via free agency or trade.

• Jim Edmonds' agent, Paul Cohen, said that Edmonds will decide after one more doctor's appointment, probably by early next week, whether he will retire or play another year. Edmonds, who turns 41 in June, was very productive last year but suffered a season-ending Achilles injury.

• The Rays should get a decent impact for the relatively reasonable price of $7.25 million for Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez ($5.25 million plus attendance incentives for Damon, and $2 million for Ramirez), provided Ramirez behaves. The two together are a good idea, since Damon can only be a good influence on Man-Ram. But as GM Andrew Friedman admitted recently, the Rays still need a veteran bullpen arm. At least one.

• Wandy Rodriguez's splits based on catcher were remarkable in 2010. He had a 1.96 ERA in 18 games with Jason Castro catching and a 6.19 ERA in 15 games with Humberto Quintero behind the plate, a difference pointed out by emailer Eric Kane.

• One competing exec opined that if the Rangers go to an arbitration hearing with MVP Josh Hamilton "Hamilton will win.'' He seeks $12 million. The team's figure of $8.75 million seems on the surface like a reasonable raise from the $3.25 million he made this past year and puts him in line with Matt Holliday's $9 million, fifth-year salary. But Hamilton's year was so special that he could pull it off. League sources suggest that the Rangers won't bring up Hamilton's drug past if they do go to a hearing, which is the right way to handle things. Even arbitrators are aware of the history. No sense needlessly upsetting their cornerstone player.

• Another competing exec said he believes that Michael Young is staying put in Texas, not a shocker since he has a 24-team no-trade list and time is running short.