You have to hand it to the Tampa Bay Rays. They have managed to assemble a first-class team without spending much money. They remind me of the Expos of the 1980s. They excel in scouting and development but can't afford to keep a great young team together unless the owner is willing to lose a lot of money. Like the Expos, the Rays have a woeful stadium and a small broadcast market.
Even with the revenue the Rays get from the distribution of the luxury tax, there is no way they can generate enough income to hold on to their nucleus players. They made it to the World Series in 2008, and may make it again this year, but in the long term, they will likely fade. There is just no way they can keep up with the Yankees and Red Sox.
The Expos weren't so lucky. They made the playoffs one year and were knocked out in the deciding game with the Dodgers on a dramatic Rick Monday home run. Then, in 1994, they had a sizable lead over the Braves in the National League East in early August when the players went on strike. The strike continued through September and October and into Spring Training the next year. It even delayed the start of the 1995 season. The Expos lost their chance to go to the World Series in 1994, and in 1995 they had to give up some of their young talent in a vain attempt to balance the budget.
In 2011, current Rays Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena and Rafael Soriano will likely play for fat-cat teams, echoing how the Expos lost Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, John Wetteland, Pedro Martinez and Vladimir Guerrero to the bright lights of big cities. Imagine the team the Expos would have had if they could have kept all of those great players.
Now the Montreal franchise is in Washington, and the Expos have become the Nationals. The financial conditions are better in D.C. -- better than the Rays have in St. Petersburg -- but still not good enough for the Nationals to go on a spending spree, and D.C. may have been the last viable U.S. market without a franchise.
There will always be small-market teams creating big splashes. They finish down in the standings for five years or so. They get favored positions in June's First-Year Player Draft, choose the right players, develop them well and get lucky when they all stay healthy. They compete for a few years, then they allow their best young players to become free agents and get more good Draft picks. If five years' worth of talent-mining hits pay dirt, all the young talent comes to the big leagues at about the same time.
That's how teams with small payrolls have made it to the playoffs. It has happened with Florida, Tampa Bay, Milwaukee, Oakland, Minnesota and Seattle in the past decade. And with so many small- to mid-market teams, one or two of them is bound to make it to postseason almost every year (despite the wishes of the TV networks).
But to be successful in the long term, you must have the potential to generate great revenue every year, the way the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, Angels, Cubs and Phillies do. The Rays are high on tiny bubbles now and are seeking a new stadium. Perhaps they should be seeking another city. But which city? All of the good ones are taken.
Under the current system, the big-city franchises can field a competitive team year in and year out. The mid-market teams, such as the Cardinals, Astros, Blue Jays, Braves and Giants, can win year after year, but they don't have much margin for error. A bad trade or a rash of injuries can do them in. The big boys can overcome these obstacles by spending more money. There will always be teams that reach the end of July with a big payroll and scant hopes. And they will be looking to cut payroll.
The Rays and Twins are excellent teams, but I wouldn't want to make a long-term investment in either. I don't think the new stadiums in Detroit, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Seattle will enable those franchises to compete in the long run either.
Each time the owners and players negotiate the system -- the Basic Agreement -- the small-market owners seek to level the field. But they're outnumbered. The large-market teams don't want a salary cap to weaken their advantaged positions, and the Players Association doesn't want anything that would mitigate the escalation of salaries.
The last time the Basic Agreement was negotiated, there were no headlines. The luxury tax was helping the disadvantaged teams, and the sharing of Internet revenue was helping, too. Merchandising income has improved, and most small-market teams make the playoffs often enough to satisfy their fans.
The Players Association has steadfastly maintained that market size is less important than good franchise management. It has always had (and always will have) examples to cite. At various times, the Pirates, Royals, Twins, Marlins, A's and Rays have upstaged their more affluent foes in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Still, it's discouraging when such great young teams as the current Rays or the Expos of old have to part with their most talented and popular players to stay in business.
The lure of continued success can be an opiate to a team with a limited budget. The Astros were playoff contenders just about every year between 1995 and 2005. Their payroll thickened. In an attempt to continue in that vein, they hung on to such high-dollar players as Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman a little too long. They signed free agents during the offseasons, losing top Draft positions in the bargain. Then they traded several young prospects for one key veteran in July, hoping to make the playoffs again. They finally traded Oswalt and Berkman last week -- at least a year too late. Now they have no veteran stars and no depth in the Minor Leagues. Houston is a good market, and the Astros will challenge again, but it may be a while before they do.
I understand the desire to win, but unless you are in a major market, you have to look at the future dispassionately. In other words, you have to heed the advice of Branch Rickey and trade star players too early to avoid having to trade them too late.
In closing: A tip of the old chapeau to the Red Sox and Yankees. Sure, they spend the most money on players. But they also produce good young talent in their own systems despite having low Draft positions and losing picks by signing stars in the offseason almost every year. And on top of all that, they seem to have enough young Minor League talent to trade for star players in July. The Players Association has a point when it states that it's more about good management than money. The unbeatable combination is to have both.