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Payroll: Still A Problem

Joe Posnanski's excellent Sports Illustrated article about the Pirates' epic losing streak makes an important point that people like me are guilty of underemphasizing:

If you are a high school junior in Pittsburgh, then you have not been alive for a Pirates winning season. If you are a recent college graduate in Kansas City, you have no earthly way of knowing what it means for the local baseball team to make the playoffs. If you are young in Cincinnati and Baltimore, you will hear from older folk that you live in one of the best baseball towns in America -- but there's no reason why you should believe it. And even though they have not built up those long streaks yet, things are looking pretty hopeless for the moment in Washington, San Diego and even Oakland, where the A's are working on their third consecutive losing season.

Is this just because these teams are poorly run? Or is it harder to turn around a bad team these days? Everyone has an opinion, but it's probably a bit of both. People are so sick of the big revenue/small revenue talk that they have decided simply to ignore it. Talking about revenues and payrolls is so 1999. Moneyball came out, the Marlins won a World Series, teams like Tampa Bay, Colorado and Milwaukee have made nice runs, and it's enough to get people to say, "See, if you are smart and creative you can win with a small payroll."

Maybe so. The problem is: There just aren't that many smart and creative people out there. And many of them might like to work for the Yankees and Red Sox -- after all, they pay better.

The truth is, there just aren't as many ways for a Pittsburgh or Kansas City or Cincinnati to turn things around.

This is, unfortunately, true. In the past, I and a lot of other fans have downplayed the small-payroll problem because it didn't make sense to give the Pirates an out when they were so badly run that they would have been losers in any economic system. I still maintain that the Bucs' current streak of losing seasons was due primarily to their own incompetence and not due to the deck being stacked against them.

The fact, though, is that the system is unfair, and that no matter how loose Bob Nutting might get with his money, he's never going to have enough to compete with the Yankees or Red Sox. And now that, in contrast to fifteen years or so ago, most teams are run intelligently, it's tougher for the Pirates to find an opening, even in a weak division. 

This doesn't mean that the Pirates can't compete, or that there's no hope. In the near future, things almost certainly will get better, and I think it's pretty likely that Frank Coonelly and Neal Huntington will end up breaking the streak. But what will happen if they do?

Take the Brewers, for example. They've mostly done things the right way, building intelligently through the draft and raising payroll once they got close to contention. And where has it gotten them? In 2005 they finished .500; in 2007 they won 83 games; and last year, they finally made it to the playoffs for the first time since 1982. That's great. This year, though, they're five games under .500, they've got a bloated payroll now after making a few questionable decisions about signing veterans to complement their core, and they're about to get more expensive as their young stars inch toward free agency. They can't be more than a year or two more competitive baseball before they undergo a rebuilding process of their own. And that's a team that's mostly been well run the past several years.

If the Pirates' next six or seven years unfolded like the Brewers' last six or seven, I'd probably be thrilled. But that doesn't make it right. The fact is that it's extremely hard for a team like the Brewers, or the Pirates, or the Royals, even if they do what they should. We shouldn't use this fact to wave away any poor decisions the Pirates might make, but I don't think we should accept it either.