Gammons: Revenue gap widening
Concern grows for Marlins, Rays; Selig's meetings a success
We pass the ides of January and we start thinking about seeing Jason Heyward and Michael Stanton, Casey Kelly and Jason Donald in Spring Training.
We keep listening to Todd Thibaud's "We Love this Game."
"It's in our blood / It's who we are."
Hoping Brandon Webb is healthy again.
We do have reason for concern. The three American League Cy Young Award winners prior to 2009 -- Johan Santana, CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee -- were all traded for financial reasons, and that doesn't touch the six-month soap opera of another Cy Young winner, Roy Halladay, Toronto. And don't forget that 2007 NL Cy Young recipient Jake Peavy was expressed to the White Sox last summer.
Two seasons after being one win away from the World Series, the Indians had to deal their leader, Victor Martinez, for two young, albeit talented, pitchers. The year after their dramatic run to the World Series, the Rays moved Scott Kazmir. Will Carl Crawford, in his last season with Tampa Bay, need to be moved in July if the Rays don't get off to a good start? Toronto cleared $60 million by dumping Alex Rios on the White Sox on a waiver claim. Javy Vazquez was essentially a Christmas present for the Yankees after a season in which he won 15 games, had a 2.87 ERA and a 238-to-44 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 219 innings.
It is actually a positive statement about the people who run the business of baseball that in this economy, attendance was down only 6.9 percent, revenues were flat and those revenues, which were $1.3 billion in 1995, are projected to break $8 billion in 2010. It is unfair to label the Yankees' championship season as a World Series purchased, because general manager Brian Cashman has turned his club into an efficient organizational model that has depth running through the system. The Yankees smartly shed payroll and still were able to radically change the team, targeting Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett.
Hey, they are the Yankees, and they should have the highest payroll, and they are better run than they used to be. The fact remains that Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Teixeira were the three highest-paid players in the AL, and according to Maury Brown's Business of Baseball, the Yankees had six of the 10 highest-paid players.
Reality is that three of the seven free agents who have signed for more than $15 million (average annual value) over the past two years have gone to the Yankees. Manny Ramirez went to the Dodgers, John Lackey to the Red Sox, Jason Bay to the Mets and Matt Holliday to the Cardinals. All four of those clubs are among the top eight franchises when it comes to revenue.
The Marlins have been singled out for not allocating enough of their revenue-sharing money on Major League salaries, but they must have allocated something right, because they've had winning seasons five of the past seven years, including 2008 and 2009. They have finished ahead of the Braves, proving that paying for good scouts and minds is more important than $3.1 million of mediocrity. That $3.1 million was the average salary of an NL player.
"The way the system is right now, there really is no difference between a $75 million and $40 million payroll," said Oakland GM Billy Beane. "I think a lot of small-market clubs look at that and ask, 'Why pay $75 million when $40 million will buy me as many wins?' "
One of the reasons Bud Selig ascended to Commissioner is that he was and remains a strong advocate for revenue sharing, and the plans he has pushed through have greatly contributed to the sport's growth. Yes, in the past 29 years, 19 of the 30 clubs have won a World Series (five for the Yankees, and two apiece for the Blue Jays, Twins, Marlins and Red Sox). The Rays and Rockies have won pennants in the past three years, and Colorado has been in the playoffs twice in that time.
But the dichotomy between large- and small-revenue franchises is again widening.
"When [GM] Theo Epstein took over in Boston, he changed the industry," said Indians GM Mark Shapiro. "Now we see the Red Sox and Yankees operating as if they're creative mid- to small-market teams, and it's widened the gap between them and some of the other franchises."
The economy in Cleveland is stagnating the Indians' energetic organization. Major League Baseball is gravely concerned about the future of the Rays, who last year realized little bump from their 2008 run. A respected organization industry-wide, the Rays are stuck in a ballpark and location that Peter Ueberroth once predicted would suit only tractor pulls. Pittsburgh is trying to be aggressive in the domestic and foreign talent pools, spending the money to get top scouts and development people, but has yet to show progress. MLB still isn't certain that the Marlins' new facility will make Miami a viable baseball market.
Oakland, stranded in a facility that the Altamont Raiders have systematically trashed, is close to beyond hope if the team can't move to San Jose. Beane offered more years and money to Marco Scutaro and Adrian Beltre, and they both signed with Boston. Holliday admitted that he was miserable playing in the dank mausoleum.
"You start to wonder," Beane said, "if anyone wants to play here."
Which brings up the next line of major free agents. Will the Twins sign Joe Mauer after the 2010 season, knowing that the Red Sox and Yankees might be willing to go to $30 million? Will the Padres sign Adrian Gonzalez past 2011? Will the Indians re-sign Grady Sizemore after 2012? Who among Crawford, B.J. Upton, Carlos Pena and Jason Bartlett will be with Tampa Bay in 2013, presuming the Rays are still there?
Meetings of the minds: There had been despair across the Rust Belt of the industry, but with one meeting called by Selig last week, some of that despair lifted. For years there has been a disconnect between Selig, the owners and the GMs.
"It was as if a lot of owners don't know what we do, and how much the general managers have changed in the last 10 years," said one GM after returning from the meeting. "But this was really beneficial. The Commissioner genuinely wanted our input. He listened; he's trying to address every problem across the board. We're all encouraged, because Rob Manfred [MLB's executive vice president of labor relations and human resources] is a really smart guy who has built trust with the union."
The GMs and the Commissioner's Office discussed fixing the way teams acquire players, meaning the Draft.
"The Commissioner's Office thinks we can have a worldwide Draft in place by 2012," said another GM.
Many, however, are skeptical, because of the problems inherent in getting accurate information on players in such countries as Cuba, the Dominican Republican and Venezuela.
Everyone focused on how to make the Draft meaningful and allow the best players to go to the worst teams, regardless of agents and circumstances. Many addressed the thought that a strict slotting system might drive the best athletes to other sports. One proposition is that each team is allowed a capped number of dollars it can allocate to amateur acquisitions, and each team can choose how it allocates its dollars between the Draft and international signings.
"I heard a stream of great ideas from the general managers," Selig said. "They will be at our next Owners Meetings, in May. We want everyone involved in fixing whatever needs to be done to move our game forward and make it better."
Selig also met with his newly formed committee of owners, GM, managers and outsiders, such as George Will.
"Our sport is prospering," said Selig, "but we cannot ignore problems."
Attendees discussed the situations in Cleveland, Oakland, Tampa and Pittsburgh, and other issues.
"I went there expecting it to be the same old thing," one NL GM said. "I was stunned. I think every one of us feels much better than we did three months ago."
Leveling the playing field is not just taking central funds and handing them to players. It's about scouting and bringing the development of 16-to-24-year-olds into the 21st century. It is not going to happen quickly, although Selig constantly reminds the owners of the Red Sox and Yankees that they need competitive teams playing in their sold-out parks every night. Executives from two teams projected both the Yankees and Red Sox to win 110 games this season. However, ask Cashman or Epstein and they'll tell you that they genuinely fear the Rays because of the organization and creativity of Andrew Friedman, the team's executive vice president of labor relations and human resources, and they see the Orioles being restored to the power they enjoyed in the mid-1990s, before CEO Peter Angelos ran out Pat Gillick.
As the common thread between the reigns of the Jays, Orioles, Mariners and Phillies, Gillick is proof that, in the end, competency and creativity can make up for some of the revenue differentials.
Medical intervention needed? While Selig is looking for ideas to level the playing field, improve umpiring (such as having MLB, not umpires, run the development programs) and avoid a labor showdown that might result in a work stoppage, there is one more issue that bears investigation. The Carlos Beltran "He Said, Knee Said" (thanks, New York Post) incident caused many agents to ask why MLB and the union cannot agree upon an independent board of doctors that can be consulted for independent opinions?
Everyone in the business understands that the Mets did not insure Beltran, so that when team physician Dr. David Altcheck and trainer Ray Ramirez signed off on Dr. Richard Steadman's decision to perform arthroscopic surgery in Vail, Colo., it was clear they were afraid that their worst time-frame fears might be realized and that Beltran could be out for -- and paid for -- much of the 2010 season. The assumption is that COO Jeff Wilpon had to know of the decision. He decides who is signed, and for what. Three agents last week said that he runs the Mets' committee. As it turns out, Steadman removed 20 to 30 fragments of ligament that caused Beltran considerable pain, and Beltran likely will be playing much sooner than had the Mets waited or done nothing.
But Wilpon's handling of the situation and the attempt to spin it off on agent Scott Boras may widen the suspicions between the club and its best player.
"The nature of the club doctor-owner relationship is in itself a conflict of the doctor-patient relationship," said one agent. "One team had a doctor pay them to be their 'team doctor' because of the publicity. We've seen the questions raised in the cases of Scott Rolen and Chris Carpenter in St. Louis."
Not to mention Bay in Boston. At last season's All-Star break, the Red Sox offered Bay four years and $60 million. At first the offer was rejected, and Bay's agent, Joe Urbon, asked for six years with a $19 million average annual value. Near the end of July, Bay changed his mind and decided that he was so happy in Boston he would stay. Urbon flew to Boston to prepare for the signing and ensuing news conference.
But when Bay underwent his pre-signing physical, Dr. Thomas Gill and the orthopedics at Massachusetts General Hospital raised several red flags. They claimed that one knee had issues and the other was bone-on-bone. The club then said that the deal as agreed upon was off and that the offer had to be two years guaranteed, with two years of vesting options based on health. According to Urbon, the club also wanted Bay to pick up a portion of the insurance costs.
Urbon and Bay sought a second opinion that did not share the concerns about Bay's knee. Urbon cited the fact that Bay hadn't been on the disabled list in five years, so Bay decided to play it out. To everyone's credit, Bay never complained publicly. He hit 16 homers the last two months and led all AL outfielders in OPS. Urbon did not engage in a public firefight with the Red Sox, and Epstein refused to release their medical information because "he played his heart out for us."
At the Winter Meetings, Epstein increased the offer to include a third guaranteed year and was turned down. He made a brief run at Holliday, then signed Lackey. Urbon and Bay moved on, and though it took so long for him to sign with the Mets that many felt he didn't want to play there, that notion was wrong. Bay wanted to play for the Mets, but they wanted due diligence on the knee issues, and when they were convinced he was fine, they signed him.
New York's Dr. Altcheck is very well respected. Steadman had a different idea, and Beltran was at ease with it. Dr. Gill is one of the most respected orthopedics and ethical people in the world's finest medical community; he had concerns, and some other doctors -- including Altcheck -- did not.
As Selig is trying to gather ideas, perhaps he should bring in MLBPA chief Michael Weiner. Perhaps the next time he gathers the GMs and his special committee, he should include not only Weiner but some of the most respected agents. Eventually, perhaps some of the walls that were built in the Marvin Miller/Bowie Kuhn era and heightened in the Dick Ravitch/Donald Fehr days can begin to be torn down.
I'm like you. I can't wait to see Heyward and Stanton, Stephen Strasburg and Kelly. I'd like to think that baseball realizes it needs to find a way to ensure that not only can Mauer, Gonzalez, Zack Greinke and Sizemore play where they belong for what they deserve, but that in 2018, Stanton and Strasburg can be the faces of the Marlins and Nationals, not further chapters in the Hundred-Year War between the Yankees and Red Sox.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.