The Goal Is Contention In Baseball; Most Teams Still Aren’t Good At It

Normally, when I choose to respond to someone’s blog post, it’s to argue with their point, but after last week’s flurry of Geoff Baker posts (starting HERE, based on an SI article HERE), I couldn’t agree more.  It’s kind of what I’ve been harping aboutevery so often – because I root for a business instead of a sports team (unlike, say, Yankees or Red Sox fans who get to root for both because – SURPRISE – teams that win tend to make a lot of money what with the fact that they generate more fan interest because of all that winning they do).

I’ve said time and again that, in order to have a successful organization on the field, you need ownership who are more fans of the game than fans of money.  Obviously, not to the meddlesome point of a Dan Snyder, but you get the idea.  Deep pockets willing to spend what it takes to make it.  In no sport are those deep pockets more important than in Major League Baseball.

Here is the order of AL teams by payroll right now (according to this source):

  1. New York Yankees
  2. Boston Red Sox
  3. LA Angels
  4. Chicago White Sox
  5. Minnesota Twins
  6. Detroit Tigers
  7. Texas Rangers
  8. Seattle Mariners
  9. Baltimore Orioles
  10. Oakland A’s
  11. Toronto Blue Jays
  12. Cleveland Indians
  13. Tampa Bay Rays
  14. Kansas City Royals

Now, I’m not necessarily willing to vouch for their numbers, but let’s just go ahead and assume that the order is at least accurate.  If we do that, and if we said the season ends today, who are the four teams who make the playoffs?  #1, #2, #6, and #7 (with #3 a game back in the West).  All of those teams mentioned except for the Rangers have team payrolls over $100 million (with Texas making a VERY significant leap in payroll once their ownership group took control and the team signed a massive television deal).

The Mariners, by comparison, slashed their way down to around $90 million (from a high of around $118 million), with no new increases reportedly in sight.  Ostensibly, the Mariners were able to reach such a lofty $118 million high because they had a bunch of success from 1995 through 2003 (at least in the regular season) and that New Stadium Smell kept the fans coming through the turnstiles even when we weren’t so good (from 2004 through the present).

I decided to go back through the last nine seasons (from 2002 – 2010) and take a look at the teams who were good.  Not just the playoff teams, but also the teams in contention for playoff spots.  Teams who could look back at their seasons and say, at the very least, they kept their fans entertained throughout.  Since I didn’t want to take 90 hours on this project, I decided to simply look at the standings at seasons’ end and pluck the teams who were within single-digit games behind either the Wild Card or Division winners.  It may be a little generous to say that a team like the 2010 Oakland A’s were “in contention” because they finished 9 games back (when, obviously, they didn’t have a realistic shot at catching Texas), but nevertheless, them finishing 9 games back CERTAINLY kept their fans interested.  And, really, that’s all I’m asking for begging for at this point in my own fandom.

In this period, the Baltimore Orioles would be the most hard-luck team in all of the American League, for they never even CONTENDED (using my own definition of the term).  The best they ever finished was 20 games back of the Wild Card (and eventual World Series Champs) Boston Red Sox back in 2004.  That’s sick.

Even Kansas City had one season where they were 7.5 games back of the Central winner (their only season of semi-contention, back in 2003).

Next on the list we have our very own Mariners who, along with Toronto, have been in contention 3 times in the past 9 seasons (6.5 games behind the Yankees in 2007, 1.5 games behind Boston in 2003, and 6 games behind the Angels in 2002).  Neither team has made the playoffs (Toronto coming closest in 2006 when they were a whopping 8 games behind Detroit).

Texas, Cleveland, and Detroit have made the playoffs once apiece, contending another two times.

Tampa has made the playoffs twice (in 2010 and 2008), never coming close in any other year.

Chicago has made the playoffs twice and contended another 4 times

Oakland made the playoffs 3 times, contending another 3 times (though, contending only once since the 2006 season).

Minnesota and the Angels have both made the playoffs 6 times in these 9 seasons, contending 1 other season.

Boston has been in contention every year, making the playoffs 6 times.

New York has been in contention every year, only missing out on the playoffs in 2008 by 6 games.

Of the teams who’ve made the playoffs or have at least been in contention over half of the time in the past 9 seasons, only Oakland and Minnesota haven’t been traditional big spenders (though, Minnesota has since upped their payroll in recent seasons as well thanks to a new mega-stadium; and Oakland did most of their contending from 2002 through 2006, before everyone else started copying their style).

You know why baseball is a dying sport compared to football and basketball?  Because if you’re not a fan of the big four (New York, Boston, Anaheim, Minnesota), odds are you’re sick of seeing the same four teams in the playoffs all the damn time.  Odds are, if you’re not a fan of one of those four, then you root for a shitty organization who doesn’t give a damn about winning, only the bottom line.

I root for the Seattle Mariners.  I root for a shitty organization who doesn’t give a damn about winning.  Oh sure, the talking heads Howard Lincoln and Chuck Armstrong care about winning, but they’re not the ones loosening the purse strings.  Ownership, Nintendo, they’re the ones who don’t give a flying fuck.  And as long as they’re running the show, we’re going to be left with a frustrating on-field product that rarely comes close – in pure entertainment value – to the fans than those insufferable dancing groundskeepers.

Call me crazy, but I wish the Mariners would JUST ONCE pay a little more financial attention to the team and not all the fringe qualities that makes Seattle one of the most belittled sports towns in America.

And before I get people crowing about 2008, and not spending money just to spend money, on crappy players and the like, I’ll just tell you that I don’t want to hear it!  You don’t get extra points for winning a World Series by having a sub-standard payroll!  You significantly better your odds of winning a World Series if you spend more money than everyone else!  It’s just common sense!  The best players command the highest contracts; the more quality players you have on your team, the better your odds are of having a good overall record.

Just because one moron made a bunch of astronomically bad decisions doesn’t mean that you just give up spending money and fold up the tent!  What do the Yankees do when they sign a guy to a huge contract and that guy subsequently fails?  Do they keep starting him at third base even though he’s well past the point of no return?  No!  They go out and sign a different, better guy to come and take his place!

What the Yankees don’t do is freeze payroll at a time when attendance is down and the team has lost a bunch of games because they want to wait out all of their bad contracts.  They go out and make up for it the only way they know how – really, the only way the game allows if you want to be a good team year-in and year-out (as opposed to just an occasionally good team surrounded by years upon years of futility) – by spending more than the competition.

I can’t believe this is even an issue that’s up for debate!  The best teams spend the most money; the worst teams are the Orioles and Royals.  And if the Mariners want to be a member of the former as opposed to the latter, they better figure out a way to allocate some more money for personnel.

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