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Does Baseball Need to Wear a Cap?

Nov. 25, 2009
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The Observers confabbed by phone last week with Frank visiting family in New York. Considering the outcome of the World Series, that made baseball the topic.

Frank: New York, New York, it's a wonderful town. The Yanks are up and the Mets are way down!

Artie: It's good for baseball to have the Yankees on top again. It stirs the passion for all fans, a few of them happy but most of them outraged.

Frank: The Yankees take that public service seriously. Already the talk here is about their free-agent targets for 2010—Matt Holliday? John Lackey?

Artie: Cripes, they ponied up more than $400 million last winter for CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira. That ain't enough?

Frank: Not in the city where expectations never sleep. Of course, the Yankees' success with a $200 million-plus payroll fuels another passion.

Artie: The one for having Major League Baseball enact a salary cap. The owner of our Brewers, Mark Attanasio, is a big advocate.

Frank: He called for a salary cap, or more accurately a payroll cap, after the Yankees splurged for Sabathia, Burnett and Teixeira. He said, "I am concerned, especially in a bad economy like this, that you have a segmenting out of the haves and the have-nots. When the gap widens between the haves and the have-nots, it throws the competitive balance out of whack."

Artie: Small-Market Economics 101, as we heard for decades from the commish, Bud Selig, when he was the Brewers' kingpin, ain’a?

Frank: Bud used the "woe is us" line so much that it became self-fulfilling. If you believe you can't compete, maybe you don't do everything you can to compete.

Artie: I'm all for screwing the Yankees, but I don't think a salary cap gets small markets any more represented in playoffs and titles. The NBA has a cap, but it's always the same teams at the top.

Frank: In the NFL there's a salary cap and the notion of "parity," thanks to a somewhat weighted scheduling system. But is that parity or just volatility?

Artie: This year there sure are a lot of NFL teams that stink. At the halfway mark eight teams, a quarter of the league, had only one or two wins.

Frank: I'm embarrassed by the Yankees' spending, and if MLB put a cap on payrolls I wouldn't squawk. But I've crunched some numbers indicating that competitive balance does not necessarily depend on a salary cap.

Artie: To quote Tom Cruise, show me the data!

Frank: I looked at MLB, the NFL and NBA over their last 10 completed seasons, and how many teams reached the playoffs.

Artie: There are big differences in the playoff spots available.

Frank: Twelve NFL teams out of 32 make the playoffs. More than half the NBA gets there, 16 of the 30 teams. For baseball, it's eight out of 30.

Artie: I love this stuff. It's so precise—like rocket science!

Frank: In the last 10 NFL seasons, 29 of the 32 teams had at least one playoff appearance. Twenty-three teams reached the conference finals at least once and 13 appeared in the Super Bowl.

Artie: That's with a salary cap, although it's completely incomprehensible to Joe Fan and me.

Frank: In the NBA, 29 teams had at least one playoff year, 19 reached at least one conference final and 11 made the NBA Finals.

Artie: NFL-like numbers, and again with a cap.

Frank: Now consider baseball, with no cap. In the last 10 seasons, 24 of the 30 teams have made the playoffs at least once, 21 have reached the league championship series and 14 have reached the World Series.

Artie: And that's with the fewest available playoff spots.

Frank: Now take the number of teams that reached the top. Over the 10 seasons there were seven different Super Bowl winners; New England won three times and Pittsburgh twice. In the NBA, only five teams shared the titles; the Lakers took four and San Antonio three. But in baseball there were eight World Series winners, with the Yankees and Boston taking two each.

Artie: That's more diversity at the top than in the two sports with salary caps.

Frank: The Yankees have been in four of the last 10 World Series. Isn't that better than in the 1950s, when they were in eight? Free agency, divisional play and wild cards have produced balance. Even Mr. Attanasio said last winter, "Competitive balance has been great in baseball for the last decade or so and we have to keep it like that."

Artie: So it's too early to say the Yankees' latest title has messed it all up.

Frank: Baseball already has some revenue sharing as well as a luxury tax on teams that exceed a certain payroll. The Yankees paid $148 million from 2003-'08, with this year's bill coming soon.

Artie: In the old days everything depended on signing and developing your own players, and guess what? The bigger markets had an edge in money then, too. But with free agency there's a flow of players into the open market, and a team that spends wisely can make big changes.

Frank: The key is "wisely.” The Yankees spent a ton on guys who didn't produce championships: Randy Johnson, Kevin Brown, Carl Pavano, Jaret Wright, Jason Giambi.

Artie: Their payroll was more than double the Brewers' last year, but the Crew made the playoffs and the Yankees watched. I say no salary cap. Let teams sink or swim by shrewd management.

Frank: How do the Twins keep getting to the playoffs? How did Tampa Bay suddenly make the World Series in '08? How do the Marlins rebuild every few years?

Artie: And Florida's on the rise again, with young talent.

Frank: When did the Brewers become contenders? When they scouted and drafted well and produced Ben Sheets, Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, J.J. Hardy and Yovani Gallardo.

Artie: And then used their pool of young talent to "rent" Sabathia. True, the Yankees lured him away, but would Brewer fans have preferred to not have CC at all?

Frank: Unfortunately, Attanasio is right when he says the Brewers have a lot less margin for error. When they spend $42 million on one guy, they're hamstrung if it doesn't turn out well.

Artie: Which it surely hasn't with Jeff Suppan.

Frank: I repeat, I'd have no problem with MLB capping payrolls or increasing the luxury tax to restrain the Yankees. But I don't think it would make a huge difference in competitive balance.

Artie: I'm not sure Attanasio could get enough owners to back a salary cap.

Frank: Unlike NFL owners, who committed to revenue sharing in the 1960s, baseball owners have remained largely "every man for himself." The Yankees aren't the only big spenders. It was Texas that gave Alex Rodriguez that 10-year, $252 million deal in December 2000, and Colorado that spent $170 million on Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle that same month.

Artie: Plus, the players' union can't possibly want a salary cap.

Frank: You'd hear howls aplenty if MLB tried to put a cap into the next labor agreement after the 2011 season.

Artie: Besides, a salary cap can get so byzantine that it discourages trading. You almost never see a straight trade in the NFL, and NBA trade talk focuses not on the players' skills but their contracts.

Frank: The Bucks dealt Richard Jefferson after one season to dump salary so they wouldn't pay a luxury tax.

Artie: With a salary cap, the Brewers might not have been able to trade Hardy for Carlos Gomez because Hardy has a much bigger salary. A cap would stifle trading, and that's what the fans find compelling. 

Frank: That, and hating the Yankees.

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