MLB Spending Discrepancy: Smaller Fish Need Reason to Bite

Paul LadewskiCorrespondent IIApril 6, 2012

El cheapos? The Pirates went above and beyond to sign Gerrit Cole, the first pick of the 2011 draft.
El cheapos? The Pirates went above and beyond to sign Gerrit Cole, the first pick of the 2011 draft.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

A lot has been made over the years about the ability of the big-market major league baseball teams to spend to their hearts' content, but what about the flip side? What can be done to ensure that the smaller markets make a legitimate effort to put their best product on the field as well?

Only some form of a salary cap with a minimum requirement would force the less wealthy teams to spend their fair share, and given the fact that no major league franchise loses money these days, that isn't likely to happen for awhile.

Actually, it wasn't long ago that the small-market clubs had a reason to spend lots of money to improve their lots. Then a new labor agreement was signed after last season.

Now teams that spend more than the recommended slot price in the first 10 rounds are subject to a tax and possibly the loss of a draft pick. A team can offer upward of $100,000 more than the slot price for picks after the 10th round, but that's not where the future stars are found usually.

Now the mid-markets team have a good excuse to spend less than before.

Then again, what choice do they have?

Suppose you're the Baltimore Orioles, for instance. (Sorry, but somebody has to be, right?) You're a minnow in a shark tank that includes the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, whose payrolls will dwarf yours for as long as the current economic system is in place.

You can afford to pursue one quality free agent each year. Will he be enough to turn you into even a wild-card contender? Almost certainly not. And that assumes that one will consider you in the first place.

So a mid-market team is better off to spend less on a few young prospects that will be under contract for several years and may amount to something better and cheaper down the road.

It's a no-brainer, really.

That's why teams such as the Pittsburgh Pirates had started to follow the lead of the Tampa Bay Rays recently. Last year they spent $17 million in the draft, which shattered the previous record that the Washington Nationals ($11.9 million) set one year earlier. The Kansas City Royals and Arizona Diamondbacks also surpassed the former mark.

What the Pirates did was considered to be a no-no, though, because they ignored the suggested slot price in several instances. They shelled out a record $8-million bonus to pitcher Gerrit Cole, the first overall pick. Outfielder Josh Bell signed for $5 million, a most ever for a draft pick after Round 1.

Rather than be praised for their aggressive attempts to get better, the Pirates and Nationals were singled out for their excessive ways behind closed doors, according to a published report. Yet there was no such backlash after the Yankees offered a seven-year, $161-million deal to pitcher CC Sabathia three years ago.

If the small fires had an advantage, then it was in the draft. Now much of that has been taken away from them. Worse yet, they're not allowed to trade picks, unlike teams in the other major professional sports. Meanwhile, the big boys have even more money to spend on free agents if necessary.

If Major League Baseball wants the have-nots to spend more, then they have to give them a reason to do it.