Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Scribe's Baseball Week: The Shifting Small Market Narrative

If you missed the 3/28/11 post to start baseball week, here you go.

What made the 2010 baseball season so compelling was that the usual national narrative of the ‘big market’ dominance didn’t hold water. In fact, you could say that the overarching theme of the stories in these cities was ‘coming up short’.
  • In the summer, the Yankees were spurned by the Seattle Mariners in favor of the Texas Rangers for the services of Cliff Lee.
  • The Mets had the season from hell and that’s tame compared to its Madoff-infested offseason.
  • In Southern California, the McCourts are splitting up, putting the Dodgers essentially in a custody battle. Meanwhile, the Angels were not as good as advertised (still hilarious how much many baseball media members missed that).
  • Boston’s injuries and a surprising lack of power took over as the season wore along.
  • In the NLCS, Philadelphia’s offense couldn’t help their stellar starting pitching.
  • In Chicago, the Cubs were their perennially bungling selves and the White Sox withered away.
So what does 2011 bring?

If it’s more of what 2010 provided, this is actually for the betterment of the game.

For too long, several teams operated essentially as AAAA affiliates of the higher profile teams. That may not change so much this season if you’re a Pittsburgh Pirates fan, but this new decade of baseball looks mighty bright after watching teams in Colorado, Cincinnati, Texas, San Francisco, Tampa Bay and Milwaukee become relevant and more in the last four years. And while there have always been teams with strong systems that kept division races intriguing – looking at you St. Louis, Atlanta and Minnesota – it’s the coughing up of the dough that has given baseball a bit more late summer intrigue in recent seasons.

Heck, even Washington has hope for the future.

The fact that the San Diego Padres – a cash-starved team that was expected to be baseball’s worst – actually lost the NL West on the final week of the season after holding the lead for much of the way, tells us much about how much the dynamics of the game are changing.

Look at last year’s World Series.

Fifty years in the making for San Francisco - Credit examiner.com

Contrary to popular sports media opinion, the Dallas Metroplex and San Francisco Bay Area aren’t exactly small markets; both areas possess the fifth and sixth largest television markets in the United States, respectively. In fact, though slightly, they’re actually larger than Boston. Even though the Rangers were sold during the season with a major assist from MLB, prior to Tom Hicks’ financial issues, general manager Jon Daniels had been able to make shrewd moves to bring the Rangers to the point of contention since 2007. San Francisco, on the other hand, patched together an offense that had no pop with players like Aubrey Huff, Jose Guillen and Cody Ross (or RAWSE, if you prefer). Yeah, even with a history of albatross contracts – including Barry Zito’s ongoing pact – they’ve put pieces around Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, Brian Wilson and now, star-in-the-making Buster Posey.

Those teams didn’t let previous limitations and perceptions of being small markets keep them from making a postseason run. Instead they funneled whatever resources were at their avails and gave homegrown players a reason to stick around.

Obviously, plenty of financial stimuli aid these teams in building contenders. Minnesota, for example, had long been able to squeeze something out of nothing with a rich farm system that allowed them to not only develop players such as Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Francisco Liriano, but they were able to pawn some players off for on-the-cheap veterans. Yet, the public funding of Target Field made it easier to retain Mauer and Morneau with huge paydays in the last two seasons. The Florida Marlins, in a far more dubious manner, are trying to replicate the same success when their new stadium opens in downtown Miami next season.

Bruce's walkoff HR won Cincy's first division title since 1995 - Credit SB Nation

Move a few states east and you have Cincinnati. You could think of them as Phillies Lite, with their best players manning the right side of the field; MVP Joey Votto at first, talented sparkplug Brandon Phillips at second and burgeoning hitter Jay Bruce at right field. A couple of smart trades netted the Reds Edinson Volquez (sending Josh Hamilton to Texas) and Scott Rolen (from Toronto for Edwin Encarnacion & others). Rookie pitchers, Mike Leake and Travis Wood, performed remarkably well because unlike other franchises that bring up rookies in dire situations, Cincinnati had been preparing for a breakout with savvy moves in the front office for a few seasons. Letting Votto, Phillips and Bruce play as a group while making key moves speaks to the age-old blend of unbridled youth with wily veteran experience. Plus, even if he’s not revered in Chicago, Dusty Baker’s managerial record is far better than any other skipper in Cincinnati since Lou Pinella won a World Series in 1990.

What does all of this mean? This means that instead of crying poor, some franchises will choose to work with what they have right now. If they’re forward thinking and owners support their managers as they should, they will find creative ways to build clubs. They’ll do more than talk about multiple revenue streams, but actually use them. They’ll stop comparing themselves to the proverbial ‘haves’ and stop viewing themselves as ‘have nots’. They’ll actually do battle with them on a still-leveling playing field.

It’s not an iron-clad concept. After all, Milwaukee very well may lose Prince Fielder in free agency and have little to nothing to build around Corey Hart and Ryan Braun for a couple of seasons. Pittsburgh will always be Pittsburgh because unless the league office intervenes, you can’t force a man (Robert Nutting) to sell a business. The Oakland A’s can’t rely on the Moneyball philosophy or dreams of a new stadium in nearby San Jose forever. The Rays’ future in Tampa Bay is murkier without a new stadium and in all honestly, a sizable fan base. Those teams will keep crying about the lack of money to keep up with the higher profile teams because, well, they’ve always done so.

When the Rockies rolled into the 2007 World Series, it might have been the biggest nightmare for Pittsburgh, Florida, Kansas City and the like. Even though they were compelled to trade Matt Holliday to Oakland in 2009, they locked up Troy Tulowitzki and Holliday’s replacement, Carlos Gonzalez into their primes. Colorado inspired other franchises to finally step up to the plate and also inspired something from their fans; heightened expectations.

While Kansas City is finally getting a clue again, there will remain situations like Florida (Miami) and Pittsburgh where questionable ownership and welfare without returns on investment will persist. What makes these situations so maddening for the sport is that they can no longer point to any of the teams in Boston, Chicago, New York, Southern California or even Detroit and cry competitive poverty. They have to refer to teams from smaller markets and ask “why aren’t we doing the same thing?”

Say What?!?!: as you can gather, in the blogosphere, there are far better baseball writers than yours truly. I highly suggest that if you enjoy the game stripped of Ď‹ber-levels of snark and venom, do yourselves a favor and read Pitchers and Poets. Eric Nusbaum – who wrote this great look at stadiums of the never for Slate – and Ted Walker are not only fellow Norman Einstein writers, but maintain this fun look at the game. They’ve managed to be removed of the media and blogger insanity that increasingly tends to keep people away from enjoying the sport. Make sure you check their Scorekeeping series.

1 comment:

Eric said...

Jason, thanks for the kind words. I appreciate it. I also appreciate that we come off as non-venemous and as existing outside the insanity. Those things may not be completely true, but hell, we appreciate it.

Also, "better" baseball writer? I would just say "weirder."