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Why is it so hard for MLB to admit it has a competitive balance problem?

John Romano | With opening day just weeks away, the evidence suggests roughly 20 teams have very little hope of reaching the World Series.
 
Recent history confirms that if you have a top-10 payroll, your chances of reaching the World Series are infinitely better than middle class or low-payroll franchises.
Recent history confirms that if you have a top-10 payroll, your chances of reaching the World Series are infinitely better than middle class or low-payroll franchises. [ Archive ]
Published Feb. 10

LAKE BUENA VISTA — Baseball has a money problem. And, somehow, that’s not the bad news.

What makes it infinitely worse is the people running the game do not want to acknowledge there is a competitive imbalance that could ultimately destroy the fan experience in a half-dozen or more markets.

Consider what commissioner Rob Manfred had to say following an owners meeting at the Four Seasons Resort this week. When asked about the $1.725 billion purchase of the Baltimore Orioles, he pointed out that it was nearly a 50% increase in the sale price of the Miami Marlins from just seven years ago. Still, he said, he wished the price was higher.

Earlier, he had been asked about the Dodgers spending more than $1 billion on free agents this winter while a team like the Marlins did not sign a single major-league free agent. Manfred shrugged off the growing chasm and suggested everyone worries too much about spending this time of the year.

So, on the one hand, franchise values are increasing rapidly but he wishes they were even higher.

On the other hand, payroll disparity is growing worse but Manfred doesn’t think it’s a big deal.

“We always watch trends in the market. I think a concern for baseball (that) has always been since I started in 1988 is disparity on the revenue and the payroll side,” Manfred said. “Having said that, you know, last year we were talking about a different team or two (signing) players, and unless my recollection is bad neither one of them were at the little event we hold in late October and early November.

“It’s the time of year to fret about disparity is really my answer. We’ll see how it goes; we’ll see how it goes.”

That response, to put it mildly, is utter nonsense. And I suspect Manfred knows that.

He picks out a pair of big-spending teams — in this case the Yankees and Mets — and points out they did not reach the World Series. Ergo, spending must not matter. If you’re a Rays or Marlins or Guardians or Pirates fan, this farcical line of logic should be infuriating.

Asked this week about the Dodgers spending more than $1 billion on free agents this winter while a team like the Marlins did not sign a single major-league free agent, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred suggested everyone worries too much about spending this time of the year.
Asked this week about the Dodgers spending more than $1 billion on free agents this winter while a team like the Marlins did not sign a single major-league free agent, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred suggested everyone worries too much about spending this time of the year. [ LM OTERO | AP ]

No one ever said spending gobs of money will guarantee a World Series. But spending money does increase your chances of reaching the World Series. And it also makes a significant difference in the enjoyment of watching a team from April to October.

In case you’re skeptical about that, here’s a very simple breakdown of the impact of payroll size in the past five full seasons (excluding the COVID-shortened 2020 season).

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If we divide the 30 MLB teams into three categories each season — the 10 highest spenders, the 10 middle spenders and the 10 lowest spenders — you will see that nine of the last 10 World Series teams came from that high-spending group. To simplify it, if you had a top-10 payroll in the past five years, you had an 18% chance of making the World Series. If you did not have a top-10 payroll, you had a 1% chance of reaching the Fall Classic.

And the commissioner doesn’t think that’s a problem?

You could argue that the lack of hope for lower-payroll teams is an even bigger issue. Those top-10 payroll teams averaged 90 wins a season. The middle group averaged 77 wins, and the bottom group averaged 75 wins. There will always be outliers, but if you spend more you pretty much win more.

Now, it’s important to point out that the commissioner cannot just wave a magic wand and make these discrepancies go away. The players association has no interest in a salary cap, and issues like revenue sharing and payroll taxes must be dealt with through collective bargaining.

There’s also no easy solution for markets like Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay that do not have the financial clout of a New York or Los Angeles or Philadelphia. Revenues will always be smaller in certain markets, so some level of discrepancy is inevitable.

So is there a solution? Realignment is one possibility. If baseball is resigned to the idea of haves and have-nots, the playing field could be evened if teams like the Rays and Marlins were moved out of the AL East and NL East and into divisions where they are competing against teams with similar payrolls. And with MLB talking about expansion in the coming years with the possibility of eight four-team divisions, realignment should be on the agenda.

For now, however, the least baseball could do is acknowledge there is a growing and consequential gap in the fortunes of teams.

Dismissing that reality is a slap in the face to fans who wake up on opening day with almost no hope for glory.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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