Does MLB Finally Have an Even Playing Field?
In a decade filled with teams losing 100 games each season, huge free agent contracts, and ground-breaking arbitration salary numbers, it's easy to lose faith in a low-budget, small-market team ever making it to the Fall Classic.
It appeared that the seemingly endless pockets of owners such as the Boston Red Sox's John Henry, the New York Yankees' George Steinbrenner, and the New York Mets' Fred Wilpon had forever made baseball a sport where only big-market, big-budget franchises could compete for a world series.
The annual budgets (payrolls) of these teams were far greater than those of small-market teams.
It seemed that small-market teams would be unable to keep their talented players once they hit either the free agent market or even arbitration.
However, it appears that the tides are beginning to turn in favor of small-market teams.
Teams, such as the Tampa Bay Rays, realized they could not compete with teams like the Yankees or Red Sox when it came to signing high-priced free agents.
They had to invest in the scouting and development of their players. This realization led teams like the Rays to create some of the best player development systems in baseball.
And that approach payed off for Tampa Bay in 2008.
Tampa Bay went from last place in the AL East in 2006 to first place in '08. They accomplished this without signing a single big-name free agent.
Those 2008 Rays also made it to the playoffs and the world series for the first time in the club history.
Many teams are following the Rays' blueprint to success.
Blockbuster trades are becoming much harder to come by because teams are holding on to their top prospects. Years ago, these teams would have traded their prospects without thinking twice.
However, player development isn't the only way small market teams are looking to get talent.
The U.S. is in the mists of a very weak economy, which is affecting players and their agents. The top players will still get the money they want. That is never likely to change. But what is changing is the salary of the second and third tier players. They are forced to drastically lower their asking price in order to find jobs.
This allows the lower-market teams to pay for more talented free agents that in the past would have demanded a much larger salary. Even in mid February there are still big name free agents on the market that could be signed for far less than their original asking price.
Many teams are taking advantage of the economic struggle to get free agents at a discount.
The Washington Nationals are an example. They were able to drastically improve their pitching through the free agent market. They signed Jason Marquis to be the ace of their staff.
Marquis was a work-horse last year with the Colorado Rockies, pitching 216 innings while posting a 4.04 ERA.
The Nationals also bolstered their bullpen by adding closer Matt Capps and set-up man Brian Bruney.
Washington also signed veterans Adam Kennedy and Pudge Rodriguez.
With these new players coming to a team with an already above average offense, the Nationals could definitely be competitive in 2010 and beyond.
With the improved player development and cheaper free agent market, baseball will have the most even playing field its had for decades.
There will be no major league team to finish with 100 wins or 100 loses. Also, no team will win it's division by more than eight games. Baseball may finally have the balance that the small market fans have been waiting for.
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