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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.

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