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September 11, 2001

The Imbalance Sheet

Reader Response - Hope and Faith

by Keith Law

A number of readers found more in my Labor Day column on "hope and faith" than was actually there. The primary point of the column was to dispel the Chicken Little garbage frequently spewed by some mainstream sportswriters who argue that fans of most baseball teams can't hold out any hope of contending in April unless their team's payroll ranks among the top eight (or nine, including Baltimore) in the majors. It's pretty clear that that isn't the case; just this year, fans in Minnesota, Philadelphia, Houston, Oakland, and Florida saw their teams contending at the All-Star break, and at least two of those teams will make the playoffs despite slim payrolls.

However, several readers responded to argue that single-season contention is an anomaly, or that it's a matter of random chance that there will be "Cinderella" teams. The facts don't support this claim:

  • Oakland just missed the wild card in 1999, won the AL West in 2000, and will almost certainly be the AL wild card in 2001, all on meager payrolls. They'll also probably go into 2002 with most of the team intact, although they'll lose either Jason Giambi or Johnny Damon.

  • Houston is on the verge of winning its fourth division title in five years, also on relatively low payrolls. Their revenues were quite low for the first three titles, and while their revenues have increased this year, their payroll hasn't increased accordingly, ranking just 17th in the majors.

  • San Francisco has finished in first or second place in each of the last four years, and while they might finish as low as third this year, they're still very much in contention for both the division title and the wild card at this point and should remain so until the season's final days. The Giants' payroll this year is up to 15th in the majors, its highest rank in several seasons.

Beyond these teams, we're likely to see the Chicago White Sox and the Phillies run off several years of contention--the White Sox could have taken the division this year had they spent less money and not acquired Royce Clayton and Sandy Alomar Jr.--and several analysts see the Marlins and Padres as forces to be reckoned with in the near future.

A second theme common in reader e-mails focuses on the A's: they won't be able to keep their team together, and so they can't win forever. This is a wonderful argument because it's so difficult to refute; my crystal ball is in the shop, and so I can only talk about possibilities.

The A's currently have Miguel Tejada (2003), Eric Chavez (2004), Terrence Long (2005), and Tim Hudson (2005) locked up under long-term deals. Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, and possibly Ramon Hernandez are likely to follow this winter, especially if Jason Giambi departs. If so, the A's will have at least seven critical players signed through 2003, with most of them signed through 2005, and we're not even considering future products of the A's still-bountiful farm system. Even a modest forecast, then, puts the A's in contention through 2005, which, if it proves to be the end of the line, would mark the end of a seven-year run of contention. That's hardly the stuff of small-market disasters.

The A's are hardly alone, of course; baseball's current economic setup, where a team has complete control over its players until each accrues six full years of major-league service time, allows even low-revenue teams to build winners that last for several years. The Astros can keep Richard Hidalgo through 2005 (if they exercise his option for that year); Wade Miller and Lance Berkman through the end of 2006; and Roy Oswalt and Tim Redding through the end of 2007, with Keith Ginter and Morgan Ensberg on their way. It's up to them to start signing these players to long-term deals now, but the opportunity is there. The White Sox and Marlins have similar opportunities for their GMs to demonstrate some foresight and lock up the core of future contenders.

It's not clear that any long run of contention will satisfy those who believe that baseball must do something about fiscal inequity, regardless of what the standings say each year. But for those who take a more reasoned approach, the next few years should provide plenty of evidence that a well-managed low-revenue team can run off several years of contention without running into Chapter 11.

Keith Law is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

Related Content:  Contention

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