Tip of the (Salary) Cap: The Philadelphia Phillies are Not the New York Yankees
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If you hail from the Bronx, or are an ardent supporter of the pinstripers, feel free to snicker, or insert your "uh, duh" comments if you want to, but this article is not as much about you or your team as much as it is about the Phillies.
While watching Roy Halladay's magical postseason no-hitter on Wednesday night, I followed a certain live chat. As you can imagine, the majority of the comments raved about Halladay's magician-like mastery of the Cincinnati Reds' lineup.
Of course, there were some haters. It came to my surprise, even though it shouldn't have in retrospect, that a large number of fans of small-market teams (such as the Reds, the Royals, or the Rays) have come to resent the Phillies for their seemingly free-spending ways. After all, in the past two seasons, the Phillies have traded for two former Cy Young Award winners still in their prime before trading for another pitcher who will receive some also-ran votes for the distinguished award this season.
One comment in particular was telling.
"All this shows is that if you have money, you win."
This was the most prominent of a number of comments from fans who were crying for the implementation of a salary cap in Major League Baseball. While I see the validity of both a capped and uncapped salary structure, the current system is what it is so teams have to deal with the current structure that is in place.
Do you believe that MLB needs a salary cap?
Before I debunk the notion that the Phillies have somehow "bought" their run of four consecutive division titles, let's get the obvious out of the way: The statement that money automatically buys a team wins is so inaccurate, it's laughable.
The king of the payroll race in baseball is, of course, the Yankees with an opening day payroll of over $206 million. Look closely at this list and you will see that the next two teams, the Red Sox ($163 M) and the Cubs ($147 M) didn't even finish in the top two in their respective divisions. The only team worse than the Cubs in the NL Central, in fact, was the Pirates, who started the year with the league's lowest payroll at roughly $35 million.
The Phillies started the year with the league's fourth highest payroll at $140 million (over $60 million less than the Yankees, mind you) but then the Mets, Tigers, White Sox, Angels, Mariners, and Giants rounded out the top 10.
So, wait. I thought that spending loads of money guaranteed wins.
Astonishingly, only three of the league's top 10 most spendthrift-like franchises made the postseason. That's less than half of the 2010 postseason's eight-team field! The postseason team with the lowest opening day payroll, by the way, is the Texas Rangers, who spent over $55 million fielding their initial roster.
"All this shows is that if you have money, you win."
Apparently not. All this shows is that if you have money, you had better spend it wisely.
Now, back to my muse.
The Phillies did not buy their way to National League supremacy. If you don't want to hang on for the long explanation, here's the short version.
Remember when the Diamondbacks (2001) and the Marlins (twice! 1997 and 2003) dismantled their teams after winning the World Series, never to be heard from again? Those teams, except for perhaps the '03 Fish) "bought" their rings.
They signed key free agents and made trades for All-Star vets in their prime for the sole purpose of winning a championship. That doesn't bother me. Why? Because if that is how the owner of a baseball team wants to spend his or her money, then so be it. It's his or her funeral after the season.
That is not what the Phillies have done.
There will be a day, and according to Phillies' GM Ruben Amaro, that day nearly came this season, where the Phillies of this era will be shipped off, dispatched to teams and locales near and far in an effort to get younger. When that day comes, it won't be because the Phillies need to be realistic about their payroll.
While money will have something to do with it, this team will be dismantled because the skills of its nucleus will have diminished to the point where it can no longer contend for a championship. That's certainly not what happened to those Diamondback and Marlin teams.
Curt Schilling, Edgar Renteria, Gary Sheffield, Al Leiter, Robb Nen. These are all names of a few members of those teams that were dispatched while either in their prime or with some serviceable gas left in the tank.
Now for the long explanation. Sorry, the abridged version went longer than I anticipated.
Once upon a time, in a cookie-cutter, concrete wasteland of a ballpark, the Philadelphia Phillies were one of a few doormats scattered across the National League. Anchored by what many fans believed to be a future franchise cornerstone in Scott Rolen, the Phillies repeatedly ended their seasons at or near the bottom of the National League East standings.
Phillies' management told fans, "Have faith. We're building a contender."
Phillies fans weren't drinking the Kool-Aid, however. Why should they have? As talented as guys like Rolen, Mike Lieberthal, Bobby Abreu, and Doug Glanville were, they weren't championship-caliber players.
And, don't get me started about the Phils' pitching staff. When Robert Person, Randy Wolf, Wayne Gomes, Matt Beech, and Carlton Loewer are the headliners of your pitching staff, you're not going to win many ballgames.
And so, the Phillies didn't. And the fans responded in kind by not showing up. Attendance figures for the Phils were hovering around Rays-like numbers.
So, the Phillies started placing more emphasis on the draft. Jimmy Rollins, the current Phillies' longest-tenured player, made his debut during a cup of tea in 2000. In the late '90s and early '00s, the Phils' also drafted Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels, Brett Myers, Pat Burrell, and Ryan Madson. They snatched Carlos Ruiz out of Panama.
As those guys started advancing towards The Show, the Phillies believed that they were that much closer to being a contender. They made some low-profile moves, acquiring the likes of Jon Lieber, Placido Polanco, David Bell, and Antonio Alfonseca.
They made some high-profile moves, signing Jim Thome and trading for Kevin Millwood and Billy Wagner in the hopes that they might just take them to the postseason.
They didn't. Barely.
Despite the near misses, more and more fans were showing up to Veterans Stadium and Citizens Bank Park. Why? Because the Phillies started winning.
When it became apparent to Phillies' GM Pat Gillick that a nucleus that included Abreu and Thome and Cory Lidle was not going to reach the postseason, he moved those players, ostensibly handing the team over to Howard, Rollins, Utley, and Hamels.
Although the team was basically dismantled by the trade deadline of 2006, the Phillies were finally in a position to move to the top of the standings. Gillick got Jamie Moyer through a waiver trade.
Although the Phillies fell just short of the postseason, yet again, the fans showed up.
With Rollins, Utley, Howard, and Hamels in the fold, Gillick started piecing together a contender. He hardly made a high-profile move.
Does anyone remember where they were when the Phils selected Shane Victorino in the Rule 5 draft? Does anyone remember the day when the Phillies signed Jayson Werth, a reserve outfielder who was trying to overcome countless injuries to salvage a once-budding career?
I don't. My guess is, neither do you.
In 2007, the Phillies hung around until September, when they finally passed the Mets to win the division on the very last day of the season.
More fans showed up.
The Phillies didn't make any high-profile Roy Oswalt-esque trades then, either. Their biggest midseason addition that year? Kyle Lohse.
Although the Phillies got swept in the opening round of the 2007 postseason, the seal was broken. This team could contend.
In 2008, the Phillies' World Series championship year, their biggest addition was Joe Blanton.
As you'd imagine, fans came out in droves in 2008.
It was not until 2009 that the Phillies acquired the likes of a guy like Cliff Lee. Lee, as I'm sure you remember, was then traded after the season to allow the Phillies to bring in Roy Halladay.
Sure, Halladay was never in the Phillies' minor league system. And sure, he is one of the best, if not the best at his position. But remember, he wanted to be a Phillie, badly. So much so that he signed a three-year extension worth far less than he would have commanded (and deserved) on the open market a year later.
Also, surely the Phillies had their eyes on the payroll and their minor league system. Otherwise, they never would have traded Lee and would have enjoyed a rotation that included Halladay, Lee, and Hamels for the entire season. Unfortunately, the farm system needed to be replenished and the Phils' payroll, at the time, could not bear the brunt of Halladay's and Lee's contracts.
In 2010, the Phillies, as you know, contended again.
The fans showed up. They showed up to the tune of three million-plus at the gate while selling out all 81 of the team's home contests.
The Phillies acquired Oswalt. Now, they stand on the cusp of another World Series appearance.
What's the moral of this story? One, as mentioned a long time ago, several paragraphs ahead of this one, money does not guarantee you wins.
Two, the Phillies didn't "buy" their way to the top. They built through the draft and, even though the team teased the city of Philadelphia with several narrow misses at a playoff berth, the team was still winning. It was winning enough games and playing an exciting enough brand of baseball that the fans filled the blue seats of Citizens Bank Park in droves.
Who do you think is responsible for Halladay's paychecks these days? Sure, Phillies president Dave Montgomery probably signs the checks, but the money comes from the fans who fill the stadium.
What's funny and ironic is that fans of small market teams complain about the spending habits of the "big market" teams. What's funny is that the Phillies sold out the majority of those September games down the stretch in '03, '05, and '06, even though their team hadn't won a championship in over 20 years. What's funny is that given a near-identical situation in 2010, the Tampa Bay Rays had to give away tickets to fans down the stretch.
If Rays fans wanted their team to keep guys like Carl Crawford, they needed to show up to the games. Unlike those Phillies teams in the late '90s and early '00s, the Rays were winning in 2010. They were leading the American League East of all divisions! Yet their attendance figures were comparable to those of the struggling Phillies during the late '90s.
It appears to me that a salary cap wouldn't fix anything. If there was a salary cap, sure the Phillies might not be able to spend more money than the Rays but then you'd have teams like the Phillies, Yankees, and Red Sox that would have tons more revenue (because their fans actually show up) and nothing to spend it on. That, my friends, would be a waste. That, my friends, would cause those rabid fans to wonder where their hard-earned cash was going.
The lesson here is this: If you want your "small-market" team to reach elite status, they need to draft well. If they draft well and start competing (but not contending) you need to show up. If they contend, you still need to show up. The owners (and the roughly $30 million each team gets through revenue sharing) will take care of the rest.
Basically, don't blame the Phillies because their fans showed up before and during their success of the past two years. They didn't buy the nucleus of players that allowed them to reach this point. And it was only through fan support that they were able to trade for guys like Lee, Halladay, and Oswalt.
And don't tell me about the economy, either. The economy has hit St. Petersburg, Miami, Kansas City, and Pittsburgh just as badly as it has hit Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, or New York. I do believe that certain markets (such as St. Petersburg) are ill-equipped to handle a Major League Baseball franchise. In that case, you have to wonder how practical it is for such a market to even have a team.
In summary, the next time you feel like whining about your team's inability to keep up with the Phillies, Yanks, and Red Sox, get a group of friends together and buy tickets to that day's game. Heck, go out and buy season tickets if you feel so inclined. Whatever you do, be sure to ask yourself whether or not your team drafts well and whether or not you or your fan base has done enough to help your team become a contender.
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