Baseball: Brewers, Rays Lead Small Market Revolt

by Hayden Alfano

Unlike the major professional football and basketball leagues in the United States, Major League Baseball (MLB) does not have a salary cap. As long as they can afford it, teams are free to spend as much as they want on players’ salaries. And they do — according to this list of team payrolls, the New York Yankees paid out more than $209 million to players this year.

The consequence of this is an imbalance that has threatened parity in the sport for years. This season, the Tampa Bay Rays have done a nice job of overcoming this inequity: The Rays, with the second-smallest payroll in MLB ($43 million) won the American League East over the Yankees and Boston Red Sox (fourth on the payroll list with a tab of $133 million).

But heading into the regular season’s final scheduled day, another battle of the haves and have-nots was playing out. The New York Mets (third on the list, $138 million) and the Milwaukee Brewers (fifteenth, $81 million) were tied for the National League (NL) wild card playoff berth. As it happened, Milwaukee earned the post-season spot, beating the Chicago Cubs while the Mets fell to the Florida Marlins.

Despite their similarities as small-market Davids defeating Goliaths in Gotham, the Rays and Brewers have arrived at this point in different ways. The Rays are here in large part because, well, they were so bad for so long. Prior to this season, the Rays had been in existence for ten years. Only once did they win 70 games. With an overall record of 645 wins against 969 losses, they had never even sniffed a playoff berth.

As such, Tampa Bay was always picking at or near the top of the amateur draft, with access to the best players available. Furthermore, they were able to trade any costly veterans they did have to contending teams for younger, unproven players who had shown potential. All of that potential has finally blossomed this year.

There’s an element of that in the Brewers, as well; after all, this is a team that hadn’t been to the playoffs since 1982. They have their fair share of homegrown talent, including 2007 NL Rookie of the Year Ryan Braun, whose two-run homer in the eighth inning Sunday was the game-winner.

But they also have C.C. Sabathia, and Sabathia — or, more precisely, his left arm — is the biggest reason the Brewers made the playoffs this year. But C.C. and his left arm came at a price — the Brewers had to trade a host of prospects to the Cleveland Indians to get his services for the last two months of this season. And the Brewers are basically renting Sabathia; he’ll be a free agent next summer, and Milwaukee simply won’t be able to pay him the amount he’ll command on the open market.

They won’t be able to afford Ben Sheets, either, their second-best starting pitcher, who is also a free agent. Realistically, the Brewers as constructed have a very small window with their core group of young players. If they want to extend it beyond this year, they’ll need to do so at the expense of some of their other prospects — a risky practice that is falling out of favor.

In contrast, the Rays actually have a chance to keep this going for a little bit longer. Even so, their route to this point isn’t exactly highly replicable — no team wants to be the worst in baseball for a full decade. The Brewers’ method of getting here is the one most common among baseball teams. Over the next month, we’ll see if it was worth it.

(To see more background on baseball's salary structure, please see: "The Real Cost of Spiraling Baseball Salaries." And to see last year's reaction to the season-ending collapse of the Mets, please see: "Ain't the Mets Amazin'?")

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