Everyone knows that baseball is unbalanced. Richer teams can hold onto their homegrown players, sign the biggest stars as free agents, and stay afloat when their big investments go belly-up. Eating or taking on salary leads to better returns in trades, and most fans in big markets probably have no idea what the word “rebuilding” means. There’s a reason the most influential baseball book of this generation was subtitled The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.
This year’s Phillies and numerous recent incarnations of the Mets have shown us that no payroll is indeed “too big to fail,” while the Athletics of the Moneyball era and the Rays of the last five years are proof that you can win on a shoestring budget. But these are the exceptions, not the rules. Consider the fact that this year’s Red Sox are seen as a failure despite carrying a respectable .481 winning percentage in the best division in baseball—they’re rich, so anything less than greatness is a catastrophe. Unless and until the league implements real salary caps (and floors) or someone comes up with a better idea—and don’t hold your breath for either possibility—it will continue to plague the game indefinitely.
This is all old hat, and at this juncture merely pointing out that this inequity exists is neither original nor helpful. But the issue is more relevant now than it’s been in some time for one simple reason: Things have taken a drastic turn for the worse, and fans of teams like the Indians should start to get nervous.
This weekend, the Red Sox and Dodgers agreed to what had to be one of the biggest trades in baseball history as Boston sent Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett, and Nick Punto to Los Angeles to a package of prospects. The move made perfect sense for the Red Sox, who were able to rid themselves of at least two bad contracts while bringing in a pair of well-regarded young pitchers. The deal was generally seen as a coup for Ben Cherington, and it’s probably safe to say that this is the best move of his first year as Boston’s GM.
The trade can also be construed as a boon for Los Angeles. The Dodgers added at least two very talented players, plus the versatile Punto and rebound candidate Beckett. The Bums are clearly in it to win it this year—Hanley Ramirez and Shane Victorino are the highlights of the list of LA’s 2012 midseason acquisitions—and they certainly improved their current roster with this move. It’s certainly generated excitement in Los Angeles, and some have speculated that this could help the team negotiate a better TV deal.
But despite all these benefits, there is only one condition under which this trade can be seen as a smart move for the Dodgers: if money is no object.
Los Angeles took on $260 million of salary in this deal. If we assume that the cost of a win on the baseball player market will average out to $5 million dollars over the course of the contracts involved in this deal (according to FanGraphs, it’s been about $4.5 million the last two years), the Dodgers will need to get 52 wins above replacement out of their new employees to break even. How likely is that considering that Gonzalez will be 38 at the end of his contract, Crawford has really struggled for the last two years and just underwent Tommy John surgery, and Beckett has a 5.23 ERA?
That 52 WAR figure doesn’t factor in the other aforementioned positive benefits, but it also ignores the fact that the Dodgers gave up a pretty good prospect haul in the deal. And besides, you can say that a marginal win is worth more to Los Angeles right now than it is to the average team, but by that much? If you think about it pure monetary terms, that’s like saying you don’t care about paying a dollar to get 50 cents.
Put it another way: The Dodgers wanted Adrian Gonzalez so badly that not only did they not care that his contract will probably start to look pretty bad in a few years, they were also willing to take on not one, but two albatross contracts in order to get him. Either Ned Colletti thinks Gonzalez is the second coming of Babe Ruth, or Magic Johnson and the rest of the team’s ownership do not care about how much money they spend. In the former case, Colletti should not be a Major League GM. But in the much more likely latter scenario, payroll simply is not a concern for Los Angeles.
This is where things get scary for teams like the Indians. Many fans feel that the front office isn’t aggressive enough in trying to win and that the Dolans’ refusal to increase the team’s payroll is largely to blame for the Tribe’s recent years of mediocrity. But you can’t blame Cleveland for not having the resources to completely ignore salary. It’s one thing to say that the Indians should be able to compete with teams like the Tigers or the White Sox or the Cubs in terms of payroll. But there’s no way they could keep up with the Dodgers. They’re not even in the same league. (And I don’t just mean AL and NL.)
The Red Sox have limits. The Yankees sort of have limits. The Dodgers, under their new ownership group? If this trade is any indication, they’re playing a completely different game. And if this spending frenzy escalates and catches on with the rest of the league, small-market teams like the Tribe will be perennially left in the dust.