Why We Have Already Seen the Last Dynasty of Major League Baseball
Don't bother sitting around waiting for the next Major League Baseball dynasty to come around. That's a long wait for a train that won't come.
A bold proclamation, to be sure. The New York Yankees dynasty of the late 1990s and early 2000s isn't that far in the past, and the San Francisco Giants are on the verge of achieving dynasty status after winning two of the last three World Series.
On the verge, but not quite there yet. Not so long as we're defining a dynasty to include three or more championships in a very short amount of time, anyway. The Yankees were last the team to do that, winning four out of five between 1996 and 2000. To find the last true dynasty before them, you have to go all the way back to the Oakland A's of the early 1970s.
In the future, I'd bet good money that we're going to see teams win two World Series in a short amount of time, as the Giants, St. Louis Cardinals and Boston Red Sox have all done within the last decade. We're also going to see certain clubs make the playoffs year after year, as the Atlanta Braves did between 1991 and 2005.
But a dynasty? A real dynasty?
Nah. Those days are over. Here's why.
Expansion, Then the Wild Card, Then Another Wild Card
It used to be easy for dynasty teams to pop up on the baseball landscape. The league was small, and the playoffs were short.
Between 1903 (the year the first World Series was played) and 1960, there were only 16 teams in MLB and just one playoff series: the World Series.
There were a fair number of dynasties in these days. Most of them belonged to the Yankees, but the Red Sox had a dynasty in the early days and the Cardinals got in on the fun as well. And it makes sense that there would have been dynasties. A team only had to top seven other teams to get to the postseason, and then its odds of winning it all were basically 50/50.
But the league started rapidly expanding in the 1960s. In no time at all, MLB went from having 16 teams in 1960 to having 24 teams by 1969. That was when playoff expansion became necessary, and the league made it so by adding a league championship round. The odds went from being basically 50/50 to being one in four.
Things only got crazier in the 1990s. The league expanded to 28 teams in 1993 and to 30 teams in 1998. On top of that, MLB increased the number of divisions in each league from two to three in 1994 and implemented the wild card in 1995.
Just like that, the number of playoff teams increased twofold from four to eight. Making the postseason got easier, sure, but winning the World Series meant starting with one in eight odds and then having to win three series and a total of 11 games.
Granted, the Yankees established their dynasty in this time period. In response to that, all you can really do is tip your cap and say well done. There's a correlation between how they had a dynasty shortly after the league rapidly expanded and how the A's had a dynasty shortly after the league rapidly expanded, but not necessarily any causation.
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What's a lot clearer is that the amount of parity in baseball has increased since the Yankees won the 2000 World Series. The last 13 years have brought 10 different World Series winners. Four of those 10 were wild-card teams, and four other wild-card teams have made it as far as the World Series.
Having more competitive balance was the whole idea when the wild card was added in 1995. Though it took a couple years to come around, competitive balance is exactly what the league got.
But in the eyes of MLB commissioner Bud Selig, it wasn't quite enough. He told Tracy Ringolsby of MLB.com that the desire for more competitive balance is what led to the addition of two more wild cards in 2012, and the idea couldn't have panned out more perfectly.
Nine teams won at least 90 games and 17 teams finished with at least .500 records. The extra wild card helped the Baltimore Orioles earn their first playoff berth in 15 years. It was all too fitting that they took advantage of it by knocking off the defending American League champion Texas Rangers in the play-in game, thus ending Texas' run of consecutive World Series trips at two.
The Rangers probably never had a chance to win that game because—if we're being honest—they had looked like a doomed team for weeks at that point. They had started out the 2012 season on fire, but had cooled to go just 41-35 in the second half. Ultimately, they lost what had once seemed like an easy division title when they got swept in Oakland at the end of the year.
The Rangers' demise towards the end of 2012 looked like a result of too much baseball over the previous two seasons. The longer postseason has been known to have that effect, and World Series winners are not exempt from it.
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Red Sox fans will remember how tough the 2005 and 2008 seasons were after championship seasons in 2004 and 2007. The Cardinals didn't make the postseason in 2007 after they won it all in 2006. Same goes for the 2011 Giants, who endured a brutal season plagued by injuries and bad hitting.
These clubs got back on top because they weren't afraid to make changes. The 2007 Red Sox looked drastically different from the 2004 Red Sox, the 2011 Cardinals bore little resemblance to the 2006 Cardinals, and the 2012 Giants bore little resemblance to the 2010 Giants. These three organizations repeated as champions in short time spans thanks just as much to turnover as to continuity.
Therein lies one of the key concerns about the 2013 Giants. They didn't embrace turnover this past winter, choosing instead to make sure their championship roster stayed together. Knowing recent history, it's a risky play.
This is not to say that the Giants should have been more aggressive in free agency. Free agency can be a blessing, but it can also be a curse.
The Complex and Ever-Shifting Landscape of Free Agency
Things were much simpler back when the A's were enjoying their dynasty in the early 1970s. Free agency hadn't yet come to baseball, so the A's were able to maintain a consistent core.
Among the regulars in that A's dynasty were: Bert Campaneris, Sal Bando, Joe Rudi, Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue and Rollie Fingers. All of them were brought up by the A's, and they helped the A's win three straight championships from 1972 to 1974.
Continuity was less of an issue then because the postseason was still short by today's standards, and continuity was also easy to achieve because of the reserve clause. It allowed teams to keep their players as long as they wanted them.
The reserve clause vanished a year after the A's won their third straight World Series in 1974, and baseball hasn't been the same since.
Free agency has made continuity in baseball a relic, as there are dozens and dozens of free agents each and every winter and relatively few of them re-sign with their incumbent teams.
That's mostly thanks to the turnover that comes with the territory, but it's also thanks to the fact that some teams can just plain spend more than others. For a while there it was the Red Sox and the Yankees. Now it's the Dodgers and the Angels. Different teams, same old story.
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It's possible to buy a championship by spending money in free agency. The Yankees proved that when they won the World Series in 2009 after signing CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett. That team also featured former free-agent acquisitions like Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui, and Alex Rodriguez was technically a free-agent acquisition as well.
But buying a dynasty with free agency? That's another matter entirely.
It hasn't worked out so well for the Yankees. They fell short of the World Series in 2010, 2011 and 2012, and now they're falling apart at the seams. A-Rod's contract has become a huge albratross. Sabathia's contract looks a little iffy after he missed time with injuries in 2012. Teixeira's contract looks very iffy after he missed time with injuries last year and is already hurt this year.
The Yankees' current predicament is a reminder of perhaps the danger of free agency: The goods on the market aren't made to last.
Most players are going to hit free agency in their late 20s. According to studies carried out by people like Mitchel Lichtman of Hardball Times and J.C. Bradbury for Baseball Prospectus, that just so happens to be the period in which players hit their peak. The other side of 30 is the danger zone, and that's also the area that tends to be covered in long-term free-agent contracts.
As such, collecting a bunch of high-priced free agents with the idea in mind to win several championships is a fool's errand. One is very much possible. Two is not out of the question. Anything beyond that is asking for a lot. Players found on the free-agent market don't have that long of a shelf life to begin with, and it's only going to get shorter if you run them through the gauntlet of baseball's long postseason one or more times.
The inefficient nature of big free-agent contracts isn't the only complication in free agency these days. As we saw this past offseason, the league's new CBA gave free agency a drastic shakeup.
The new CBA eliminated "Type A" and "Type B" free agents in favor of a qualifying offer system. Teams could only receive draft-pick compensation when their free agents signed elsewhere if they first offered their free agents one-year contracts equal to the average salary of the league's 125 highest-paid players. If a free agent rejected the offer and then signed with a new team, his new team had to surrender a first-round draft pick.
Unless, of course, the new team had a protected pick.
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The Cleveland Indians demonstrated that this new system is capable of leveling the playing field in free agency. They were able to sign Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn because their ties to draft-pick compensation didn't help expand their markets, and because the Indians didn't have to worry about losing a top draft pick, as other teams did.
The latter reality was particularly helpful in Cleveland's pursuit of Bourn. The New York Mets also wanted him, but they were unable to match wits with the Indians because they were hung up on potentially losing their No. 11 overall pick.
It's possible that the new compensation rules will get some tweaks in the future, as not every team in baseball is going to agree that the rules are fair for everyone. However, the league could see the success of a team like the Indians in free agency as a sign of increased competitive balance, in which case the tweaks could be minimal. Or just not made at all, for that matter.
A small-market team spending money on star players, after all, is not an everyday thing in MLB. If more and more star players flock to small-market teams in the future, the parity the league already has will grow, thus making it even harder for the same teams to win every year.
It's also not crazy to think that more and more small-market teams could be more willing to spend money in free agency like the Indians did this winter. Big local TV contracts for baseball teams are all the rage thanks to the appeal of live sports in a DVR age and the length of baseball's season, and all 30 teams in MLB are going to benefit from the league's new national TV deals.
Teams can either use this money on free agents, or just use it to lock up their own homegrown stars and set more money aside for the next wave of homegrown stars.
The thing about that, though...
Harder to Maintain a Strong Prospect Pipeline
If you're going to build a dynasty, homegrown players is the way to go.
It worked for the A's in the '70s, and we also shouldn't forget that the Yankees dynasty was built around homegrown talent. They couldn't have done it without Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera. They used their cash to augment their core, not to build one.
But not everyone can spend cash like the Yankees (or, nowadays, the Dodgers). Sustained success for most other clubs is going to be attained with strong prospect pipelines. Solid farm systems keep the big league roster stocked with fresh talent, as well as providing GMs with trade chips.
Going forward, however, maintaining a strong prospect pipeline is going to be easier said than done.
The new CBA didn't just change free agency. It also made significant changes to the draft and the international signing arena, with the idea being to bring about more—you guessed it—competitive balance.
For the draft, teams now have designated bonus pools that restrict the amount of money they can spend on their draft picks taken in the first 10 rounds. The amount of money teams get to spend depends on how many picks they have and where they're picking.
Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com summarized it like so: "The more picks a team has...the earlier a team picks, the larger the pool."
Since the draft order is the reverse of the previous year's standings, the translation is something along the lines of: the worse you are, the earlier your pick and the more money you get to spend.
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Case in point, the Houston Astros held the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft and were allotted a little over $11 million to spend on 11 picks, according to Baseball America. By comparison, the Yankees had the No. 30 pick and were allotted just over $4 million to spend on their 11 picks. They could exceed that allotment if they wanted to, but doing so would result in a penalty.
In the past, superior players would fall in the draft due to signability concerns, making it possible for richer clubs picking lower in the order to end up with draft-day steals. In theory, the new system will eliminate that and make sure the best players get drafted by the teams that really need them.
Now think about how this is going to impact teams that use the draft to build contenders at the major league level.
For a couple years, they'll be picking at the top of the draft and spending big bucks on superior young players. But once success comes, they'll find themselves at the bottom of the draft spending smaller bucks on inferior young players. Said team will thus have a harder time acquiring quality talent for its farm system, which will make it difficult to sustain a strong prospect pipeline and, by extension, a sustained run of success.
Consider the Washington Nationals. Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper were both No. 1 picks, and Ryan Zimmerman was a No. 4 pick. These three players are going to help the Nats win, but there won't be more players like them coming through the pipeline so long as the success holds.
Grabbing a couple suitcases full of cash and heading out on the international market to shop for young talent would have been an option for the Nationals in the past, but not so much anymore.
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The new CBA has also put bonus pools in place for international signings. According to Mayo, the pools will be arranged by winning percentage starting this year, meaning lesser clubs will enjoy the same advantage they enjoy in the draft: more money to spend on superior talent. The better clubs will have less money to spend and, naturally, will be penalized if they exceed their allotment.
What's more, there's a rule that requires any player looking to be signed to be registered with the Major League Scouting Bureau. This could lead to something pretty big: an international draft.
If so, that draft would presumably work the same way as the regular MLB draft now works: put the bad teams on top and give them the most money. Having this arrangement in both drafts would give lesser teams a golden chance to add talent to their farm systems that they can later use to contend.
But not for long, of course. You can only be on top for so long before you have to move to the bottom. The constant repetition of this cycle is going to make it extremely difficult for teams to maintain strong prospect pipelines, which is going to make it difficult for contenders to become dynasties.
Why will there never again be another dynasty?
Because that's just how the cookie has crumbled. Starting with the expansion in the 1960s and moving to the death of the reserve clause to more expansion to free agency madness and the competitive balance efforts of the new CBA, dynasties have been moved onto thinner and thinner ice.
The recent developments brought forth by the new CBA strike me as the breaking point for dynasties. The league has made efforts to make things more fair for everyone, and making things more fair for everyone means a more balanced league.
And if you're a true baseball fan, a more balanced league is what you should want. Baseball is like any other sport in that it's more interesting when you have no idea who the big winners are going to be from one year to the next. Parity makes for many super-happy-fun times.
That's the thing about dynasties. They're fun for the locals and the bandwagoners, but not for everyone else.
They shan't be missed.
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