09/04/12 10:00 AM ET
Balanced attack: Revenue sharing working
By Paul Hagen / MLB.com
There was one intriguing aspect to the transaction, though. There was cash involved. And it was the Pirates, with baseball's 26th highest Opening Day payroll, according to the USA Today salary database, who chipped in a reported $225,000 to the team that spends more on player salaries than anybody else.
That's right. The Pirates -- who haven't been to the playoffs since 1992 -- evened out the deal by sending money to the Yankees, who have appeared in the postseason 16 of the last 17 years.
That's just a small indication that Major League Baseball's competitive balance measures might be starting to gain traction.
Each year at the All-Star Game, Commissioner Bud Selig addresses a luncheon for the Baseball Writers Association of America. And each year, he notes how many clubs still have a realistic shot at making the playoffs.
As of Labor Day, there were 15 teams positioned within 3 1/2 games of a Wild Card spot. More significantly, seven of those teams were in the bottom half of teams ranked by payroll. These include the teams with baseball's two best records (Reds and Nationals), the two teams with the most dramatic turnarounds (Orioles and Athletics), a team that seems to defy gravity every season (Rays) and of course, the Pirates.
It's not possible to draw a straight line between revenue sharing and the ability of smaller market teams to compete, and it remains a touchy subject; a half-dozen executives from teams receiving money from the league chose not to respond to requests to comment for this story.
Still, it's not a leap to suggest that some of the moves these teams have made might not have been possible without the augmented income provided by revenue sharing.
Pirates president Frank Coonelly talked to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette during Spring Training about the current system.
"The combination of revenue sharing, the competitive-balance tax and the debt-service rule gives us the wherewithal to field teams that [could] compete for championships," Coonelly said.
"Certainly, we cannot afford to make mistakes that a team like the Yankees can afford to make, we cannot afford to commit $180 million to any one player, and we need to work harder and make smarter decisions than clubs with larger revenue streams. But all of this is a challenge that we relish."
There are signs that smaller market teams are spending more. For example, the Pirates allocated more money on signing Draft picks -- $52 million - than any team in baseball from 2007 through '11. They acquired right-hander A.J. Burnett from the Yankees, agreeing to take on $13 million of the $31.1 million he was still owed, and that was after signing lefty free agent Erik Bedard.
Oakland surprised the baseball world by signing Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes before this season, even after trading All-Star pitchers Gio Gonzalez, Andrew Bailey and Trevor Cahill.
The Reds outbid every other team in baseball to sign flame-throwing closer Aroldis Chapman, another Cuban defector, before the 2011 season. The Nationals spent big on signing free agent Jayson Werth, signed Gonzalez to a long-term extension after acquiring him from Oakland, and paid top-dollar for current All-Stars Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper after drafting them.
The Rays had the largest percentage increase in payroll from last season to this season, partly due to extensions given to first baseman Carlos Pena and designated hitter Luke Scott.
These are the sorts of moves that were envisioned when meaningful revenue sharing first became a reality in 2002. That was a step in the right direction, although revisions were made in '07 to encourage the teams receiving money to spend it on improving their teams. The new collective bargaining agreement requires teams to demonstrate specifically how they're spending their revenue-sharing money to improve the big league club.
And that's not the only measure baseball has taken. There's the luxury tax, which has been strengthened to the point that even the Yankees have said they plan to be under the threshold by the end of next season. Tough limits on how much teams can spend on draft choices went into effect this season, along with a new competitive balance lottery that will award an extra draft pick to a handful of teams.
There are those who believe further steps must be taken, with the Rays among the most outspoken.
"[We are] short-stacked relative to our direct competitors," Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said to the Tampa Bay Times before Spring Training. "So I think that motivates and challenges all of us. We know that we have to approach things differently. We have to work harder to overcome some of the disparity in revenues."
Rays president Matt Silverman agrees.
"We've been involved in baseball for seven years, long enough to see two new basic agreements get ratified," Silverman told the newspaper. "From Day 1, we have advocated for meaningful change, especially when it comes to addressing the dramatic imbalances in our game. Meaningful change has not occurred."
The playing field will never be perfectly level. Some teams will always make more money than others. And Tampa Bay and Oakland are dealing with stadium issues that no revenue sharing plan can solve.
But in July 2000, the Commissioner's Blue Ribbon Panel on Baseball Economics issued a report that proclaimed the hope of creating a system in which "every well-run club has a regularly recurring reasonable hope of reaching postseason play."
With a month remaining in the regular season, it's difficult to look at the standings and suggest that real progress hasn't been made toward reaching that goal.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.