The Tampa Bay Rays traveled to Texas and, behind a complete game from staff ace David Price, knocked off the Rangers 5-2 in the tiebreaker game for the final AL Wild Card berth to become the last of 10 teams to punch their playoff ticket.
A look at this year’s field of postseason participants highlights the competitive balance that in my opinion makes baseball the finest professional sport in this country.
Baseball is often criticized for its lack of a salary cap. Of the four major pro sports, it is the only one that allows each individual organization to spend as much on player salaries as they wish (though the incentive to spend is somewhat tempered by revenue sharing and the luxury tax system, which are too complicated to get into for the purposes of this post).
Yet the major market teams with the deepest pockets and highest payrolls don’t consistently bring home the title. They don’t do it any more regularly than the little guys.
Consider where each of this year’s playoff teams ranked in terms of Opening Day payroll this season.
Los Angeles Dodgers – $216,302,999 – 2nd
Boston Red Sox – $158,967,286 – 4th
Detroit Tigers – $149,046,844 – 5th
St. Louis Cardinals – $116,702,085 – 11th
Cincinnati Reds – $110,565,728 – 13th
Atlanta Braves – $89,288,193 – 18th
Cleveland Indians – $82,517,300 – 21st
Oakland Athletics – $68,577,000 – 26th
Pittsburgh Pirates – $66,289,524 – 27th
Tampa Bay Rays – $57,030,272 – 28th
If you’re looking at these numbers and thinking to yourself there is no rhyme or reason, no correlation between having a high payroll and making the playoffs, I’d say you’re thinking right.
Only three of the teams who began the season with one of the 10 highest payrolls will be playing in October. Four teams who opened the year ranked in the bottom 10 of payrolls will be competing for a championship this postseason. The other three playoff clubs fall in the middle third of team spending.
The numbers underscore the unrivaled parity that exists in Major League Baseball. It proves that the feeling we as fans get during Spring Training is not irrational. The hope that builds; the excitement that stirs at the prospect that our own favorite team might have a chance at winning this year’s World Series, despite anything that has happened in the past, has a legitimate foundation in recent baseball history.
Some of the stories surrounding this year’s playoff teams have completed are primary examples.
With a disastrous 69-93 season, the Red Sox finished dead last in the American League East division one year ago. This year they own the best record in all of baseball, and home field advantage.
The Indians were a game worse, 68-94, and never flirted with being competitive after early summer. They closed this season on a 10-game winning streak to finish the year 21 games above .500.
The Pirates finished 2012 with a 79-83 record, their 20th consecutive losing season, which continued a playoff drought that had lasted since 1992.
The Rays and Dodgers had winning records, but missed the playoffs by a pretty disheartening margin.
Each club turned things around just one season later, and did so in different ways. Some relied on blockbuster trades and extreme free agency spending (Dodgers and Red Sox). Others have taken the time to slowly build and develop a foundation of homegrown talent through the draft and minor league systems, and spent just enough money in just the right places to field a real contender (Rays and Pirates). Another did a little bit of both (Indians).
There is no singular way, no exactly formula that equates to success in Major League Baseball. And that’s one of the characteristics that makes it so unique.
Nine different franchises have won the World Series during the last 12 seasons (the Giants, Cardinals and Red Sox have won it twice), and each has taken a different path in doing so.
No other sport can boast the parity that baseball can. And no other sport can boast the versatility that baseball can.
Teams can win by trading and spending; stockpiling free agents and big name talent in an attempt to form a super team.
Teams can win by developing; making intelligent draft picks and staffing up minor league organizations with coaches who know how to turn raw players into professionals.
And teams can win through any of a variety of combinations of both.
This year’s playoff field is a microcosm of that kaleidoscope.
Below is a playoff bracket that will help determine just how things shake out.
Who takes the title? Will it be one of the big spenders? Will it be one of the thrifty low-budget clubs? Or will it be one of the mid-market, mid-level smart spenders? We begin finding out tonight.