Globe iconLogin iconRecap iconSearch iconTickets icon

Competitive balance alive and well in MLB

World Series featured both small- and big-market team; high payroll no longer vital to winning

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- There was a time when baseball worried it might never get to this place. Could the Kansas City Royals be competitive? Could the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Tampa Bay Rays?

There was a fear inside the industry that the sport might be reduced to one league of haves and another of have-nots. And of all the avalanche of good things that have happened to baseball in the past few years, none has been more important than this.

The Royals do indeed have a chance to compete. Two consecutive American League pennants -- and the 2015 World Series title -- are proof. So do the Pirates, Rays and every other mid- to small-market team.

That's one of the messages baseball has delivered to its fans these past few seasons, and it's one Commissioner Rob Manfred happily addressed Tuesday morning at the General Managers Meetings.

When Manfred was asked about competitive balance at a morning news conference, he began with the World Series champions.

"Let me say two things," Manfred said. "Let me give you the anecdotal and the analytical. The anecdotal is the Kansas City Royals, right? Great team."

The Royals are a tribute to great ownership and to hiring good baseball people and allowing them to formulate and execute a sensible blueprint. Kansas City had tough times along the way, but once the franchise turned a corner, it turned it emphatically.

The Royals are 158-99 since July 22, 2014, and despite the possibility of losing left fielder Alex Gordon and second baseman Ben Zobrist in free agency, they believe they're nicely positioned for the future.

Video: Scouting, retaining free agents key for Royals in '16

"My favorite fun fact about the World Series is that we had a small market [Royals] against a big market [Mets], and the small market had a higher payroll than the big market," Manfred said. "That's all good from my perspective."

This was a season in which eight of the top 11 payroll teams missed the postseason, and Nos. 17 (Royals) and 20 (Mets) played in the World Series. In the past 10 seasons, the average payroll rank for baseball's 10 championship teams has been eighth.

"I think analytically what I would tell you is that the correlation between winning and payroll [has gone down]," Manfred said. "A perfect correlation is one. The correlation between winning and payroll is down under three. It's the lowest it's been in more than a decade.

"So the correlation between winning and payroll going down, I think is a great analytical indicator of competitive balance in the game."

This competitive balance makes for chaotic pennant races. Half of this season's playoff teams were clubs -- the Astros, Blue Jays, Rangers, Cubs and Mets -- that didn't make the playoffs in 2014. Baseball's formula for success in this era begins with player development. The Royals didn't come close to going to the playoffs until general manager Dayton Moore arrived and began putting first-rate baseball people in place in every level of his organization.

Similarly, the Mets won the National League pennant in 2015 because their Minor League system produced great pitching, and when it was time to add pieces from outside, general manager Sandy Alderson made a series of shrewd acquisitions -- most notably outfielder Yoenis Cespedes.

Cespedes may depart Queens through free agency, and so might second baseman Danield Murphy. But in second baseman Dilson Herrera, outfielders Brandon Nimmo and Michael Conforto and those young pitchers, the Mets believe they have a core that will keep them competitive.

In these basic ways, the formula hasn't changed dramatically. Maybe the change is how teams view free agency. It's now seen as a way to supplement a roster rather than construct a core.

This puts pressure on general managers to get it right in player development and to take advantage of the sport's new landscape. With 23 of 30 teams having made at least one postseason appearance the past five seasons, there are few excuses.

This is a place baseball has spent a long time trying to get it.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.