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Does Baseball Need a Salary Cap?

The Pirates have drifted aimlessly ever since Barry Bonds marooned them in the early 90s.

The NFL famously boasted a salary cap for years until this season, when it was removed entirely and may or may not return under a future collective bargaining agreement. Regardless, it seems like the same teams find themselves in the Super Bowl every year – Colts, Patriots, Steelers, repeat. This winter’s spending spree has once again sparked the salary cap debate. Supporters of a league-wide spending limit claim that the league is rigged in favor of the big market clubs, while opponents say that teams are already separated into the deep and shallow ends of the economic pool, yet small and mid-market teams like San Francisco, St. Louis and Florida have managed to win the World Series in recent years. The second argument has always seemed more viable to me because there’s simply too much evidence that says baseball’s postseason is unpredictable, and the salary of say, the eighth man in the lineup, has no effect on the outcome of a series. If you were thinking of Alex Rodriguez’ infamous appearance at the bottom of the Yankee order in the 2006 ALDS, give yourself a pat on the back.

For all the spending the New York clubs have endorsed – and the Boston franchise, and the LA clubs, and the Chicago teams, for that matter – they have but 5 titles amongst all of them over the last decade. Five. The 2002 Angels, 2004 Red Sox, 2005 White Sox, 2007 Red Sox and 2009 Yankees are the lone victors. Take Boston out of the equation and you have just three World Series from six of the deepest pockets in the league. The Yankees, after all, hadn’t won since 2000, and they only increased payroll from that point on, failing to get back to the World Series, which they managed to do only one time (in 2003) since the end of the 2001 series against Arizona. The Mets, who now look like they’re destined for years of obscurity in the NL East, have routinely been close to the top of the payroll leaderboard, yet haven’t made the postseason since 2006. October baseball hasn’t been common for the Dodgers either. The Angels routinely won the AL West until last year, and are primed for a recovery, but the Cubs have little excuse for their consistent mediocrity. The White Sox look like a fringe team every year even though they play in the worst division in the American League.

If you ignore the AL for a moment, and examine the National League, it becomes obvious how little payroll matters. The Phillies had the 4th highest payroll and performed admirably, but the next highest payroll for a playoff team was the Giants, who came in 10th at just under $100 million. Atlanta was 15th at about $84 million, and the Reds, who hadn’t played a meaningful game this late in the year since 1999, were 19th. San Diego won 90 games with the second cheapest sum of salaries (only the Pirates spent less). The Cubs and Mets, 3rd and 5th respectively, were both well under the .500 mark. Even in the rough-and-tumble American League, the Rangers, 27th in payroll, made it to Game 6 of the World Series. So much for parity.

Of course, it’s tough to argue these points to someone who roots for a small market team like Tampa Bay, who lost Carl Crawford and its entire bullpen, mostly to a division rival, no less. They most know, though, that there are often factors not related to winning baseball games that determine the financial prowess of a franchise. Stadium-based revenue is a big one – Oakland is always competitive but never gets anyone to show up to the park. The Rays have a similar problem. Stingy owners, like Jeffrey Loria of the Marlins, can stagnate a team incessantly. Mid-market teams like Milwaukee manage to survive, though (10th in home park attendance last year), so geographic factors and fan demographics probably act as a big piece of the puzzle too. It doesn’t make sense to lump all the poor teams together when some of them are finishing ahead of Boston and New York and others are struggling to win 60 games in a season. Contrary to the popular beliefs professed by media giants like ESPN, not all teams are created equal. Some are born with more toys than others, but that doesn’t mean the other kids can’t play. Sometimes it takes a few years. Just ask the ’01 D’Backs and ’97 Marlins.

World of Jenks

 

Jenks should adjust to Fenway's confines without much trouble.

Bobby Jenks, who first burst upon the scene in 2005 with the World Champion Chicago White Sox, has exchanged his plain stockings for those of the Boston Red Sox. Chicago non-tendered him a few weeks ago, fearing that he would command too much salary in arbitration. Boston jumped in with a two-year, $12 million deal, driving the knife into Yankee fans’ hearts even deeper. New York presumably had interest in the righthander, and to make matters worse, they failed to hold on to Kerry Wood, who signed a surprisingly cheap deal with the Cubs.

Jenks is known for his blazing fastball. Despite a dip in strikeouts the past few years, he managed to bounce back in 2010, striking out more than ten per nine innings. His walk rate has always been right around 3 per 9, and he’s inducing a high number of ground balls to boot (58.3% in 2010). Home runs are not common when he’s dealing (.51/9). It’s tough to not like this signing if you’re in Boston’s camp.

Boston now has three top quality relievers in Jenks, Jonathan Papelbon and Daniel Bard. While Bard may end up pitching the 8th, Bobby Jenks is a force to be reckoned with out of the bullpen. He instantly makes the pitching staff better. You can bet that more than a few clubs are disappointed that Jenks is the latest free agent to sign with baseball’s new highest-paid team.

Plan B – Avoiding a Panic Attack in the Bronx

Martin, who's still south of 30, gives the Yankees a clear advantage over the Red Sox at catcher.

Cliff Lee has returned to Philadelphia, which means that the New York Yankees’ offseason aspirations have deteriorated beyond repair. Or at least, one would think.

On Tuesday, all indications point towards Russell Martin signing with NY. This would give the team a legitimate, above-average catcher in addition to Jorge Posada, who will get most of his reps as the team’s designated hitter. Martin, who fell out of favor with the Dodgers after a spectacular run in the 2007-2008 seasons, has the potential of a 3-4 win player if he can rejuvenate his bat. As it is, he’s a solid bet for 2 WAR or so, which is average.

What this really means is that the Yankees no longer have an immediate need for top catching prospect Jesus Montero. A lumbering 20 year-old slugger, Montero’s ability to receive is questionable, but his bat is for real, and assuming he’s still with the organization in a few months, he’ll likely see a tour of duty with the Bronx Bombers before season’s end. However, with Posada, Martin and Francisco Cervelli in the fold, he’s of little use to the Major League roster. Coupled with the fact that NY’s pitching staff is in shambles, and may also lose Andy Pettitte to retirement, and it becomes obvious that Montero will be shopped for the best starting pitcher the Yankees can buy.

Brian Cashman has been willing to deal Montero in the past, offering him for Cliff Lee and Joakim Soria at various points during the past summer. There’s some indication that they’ve soured on this idea, though, and would like to see what he can do in Yankee Stadium before sending him off for an established veteran. A starting pitcher is priority number one. Zack Greinke is likely the best pitcher to be had, and if Kansas City is willing to swap him for Montero and a few lesser prospects, the Yankees will have to make a decision – try to win now, or win later. Whoever it is, if the right player comes along, Montero will be shipped out, and someone will take advantage soon enough.

Apocalypse Now: What Happens if the Yankees Don’t Sign Cliff Lee?

Cliff Lee will probably make his decision before the week's end.

The Yankees have been trying to acquire Cliff Lee for what seems like an eternity, even though this is the first time he’s ever reached free agency. While Cliff is expected to decide which team he’ll play for soon, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s heading to NY. Texas has kept up with the bidding and other dark horse teams may be involved, such as Washington and the Angels.

If the Yankees don’t get Lee, the brass will need to do something drastic to keep up with the resurgence in Boston. Carl Pavano will never be seen in the Tri-State Area ever again after what happened the last time he played for the Yankees. If Andy Pettitte retires, the Yanks will need two starters. Armageddon is nigh in New York.

As it stands right now, the Rays have two of the better pitchers who look like trade candidates: Matt Garza and James Shields. The problem is that they still want to compete in the AL East, and trading a pitcher of Garza’s or Shields’ caliber to the rival Yankees would be suicide. Francisco Liriano of the Twins is probably off limits despite the rumored talks between the New York and Minnesota. Kevin Slowey is a possibility, but he’s hardly a consolation prize for Lee. Zack Greinke of the Royals is the best pitcher who should be traded, but there are concerns that his alleged mental instability will get the best of him in the Bronx. He’ll also cost top prospects – namely, Yankees catcher Jesus Montero, who is integral to New York’s plans this year.

Unless someone comes out of the woodwork, the Chicago White Sox look like the best candidate to trade a pitcher. Both Gavin Floyd and Mark Buehrle appear to be available for the right price. Floyd would net a greater return because he’s younger, slightly better and cheaper. Buehrle is owed about $14 million in his final year, so it’s conceivable that he would head east. The Sox and Yanks matched up on the infamous Nick Swisher trade a few years back. Maybe Kenny Williams isn’t so eager to deal this time around.

If all these options fail, the Yankees will have to overpay someone with prospects. A pitcher like Josh Johnson could be moved if there’s enough of a return, but it would have to be a lot. The Yankees know that if Cliff Lee snubs them they’ll have essentially no leverage in a trade. If that happens, say goodbye to every top prospect not named Montero. Brian Cashman may be in for many more weeks of winter.

Fantasy 2011: Players to Watch – NL East

Despite missing a third of the year, Utley was still one of baseball's most valuable players.

Chase Utley, 2B, Philadelphia Philies
– It’s easy to forget how good this guy is because of the injuries he sustained last year. Nevertheless, he managed to accrue 5.2 WAR in only 115 games. Wow. While Robinson Cano has become the trendy pick for the best keystone player in baseball, Utley is still the man. Chase also seemed a bit unlucky in terms of HR/FB% as well (11.2 in ’10, 13.6 career). A hitter with Utley’s power will typically exceed that number, so he should end up with 25-30 home runs again, assuming that he gets his usual 600 PAs. Mock Draft Central shows him at #43 overall, sandwiched between CC Sabathia and Dan Haren. You know what to do if a player of Utley’s caliber falls to you that late. Surprisingly, players like Rollins and Reyes are being taken before Utley, so using a 2nd or 3rd round pick to snag him is a good idea.

Josh Johnson, SP, Florida Marlins
– Johnson has put together a 3.20 FIP over 665 career innings, almost all of them as a starter, which is scary. If he played in a big market, he’d probably be a Cy Young Winner by now. Florida has to be happy that he signed an extension, but this doesn’t necessarily mean he won’t get traded away like every other Marlins star – if the right offer comes along, he could certainly find himself on a trip up the East Coast to Boston or New York. Regardless, he’s being drafted way too late. Mock Draft Central lists him at #83, between John Danks and Torii Hunter. This has to be due to his weak decision total last year (11-6 in 28 starts). Considering that Florida won 80 games, this is a bit surprising, but there’s a pretty good chance he’ll return to 15 wins or so in 2011. He’s as much of a sure thing as there is peripheral-wise, and he’d be one of the first pitchers taken if he got more wins. You’re not taking a chance on JJ if you can get him at any time after the 5th round or so, and if your league doesn’t count pitchers’ records heavily, take him earlier.

Mike Morse, 1B/OF, Washington Nationals
– The Nationals are known for a few distinct features that they boast: Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper and $100 million dollar man Jayson Werth. While the Zimmerman(n)s are arguably the team’s most valuable pieces going into the 2011 campaign, Mike Morse figures to get a decent number of PAs after bursting onto the scene last year. Once a top prospect in Seattle, Morse found himself in the minors on numerous occasions after failing to stick it in the bigs. In 2010 he managed to club 15 homers in ony 293 PAs, good for a .379 wOBA. His HR/FB% was almost 20, though, and his BABIP was a tick high for a career journeyman like himself (.330), but there’s no reason to think he can’t be useful if he gets enough playing time. Watch where he goes on the depth chart, and keep an eye on him if your club gets riddled with injuries. He’s not going to be drafted in your league unless his mother is managing a team, so there’s no need to use a pick, but he may come in handy down the road.

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