From a hardcore Red Sox lifer and armchair Orioles fan (gotta love that Camden Yards), I am a Buck Showalter admirer. Heck, I think he's the best thing to happen for that team since Albert Belle retired.
The results for the Birds after he took the helm last year speak for themselves. Not only did he turn around what would have been an abysmal season, Buck actually got his young crew playing like October meant something other than golf and Xbox 360.
He makes any team better by his sheer presence. The thousand yard stare and instant authority will get more out of any given club than almost any manager. But as baseball gears up for the Showalter-Orioles era, Buck has stepped on Superman's cape for his opening act.
For those who hadn't read the minor war of words this past week, Buck Showalter called into question (among other things) the ability of GM Theo Epstein to put a winning team together without the Wayne Manor-like trappings that come with a big-market franchise in Boston.
Fundamentally, I agree with the principle behind his complaints. I have been a firm salary cap believer for many years, going back to the early-2000s when New York's payroll trumped the competition by a cool $80-90 million annually. The NFL is Exhibit A on why firmer payroll limits actually improve the sport by balancing talent across the League.
Would this negatively impact my team? Absolutely. The Red Sox would be forced to dilute their current talent pool down, which almost assuredly means the departure of two or three impact players over the next few seasons. But the game will be bettered by breaking up the power broker teams and seeing postseason baseball again in Kansas City, Oakland, Washington, and Pittsburgh.
But...my sympathies for the plight of small market teams stretch only so far. The current revenue-sharing model pours millions, and in some cases tens of millions, of dollars into the pockets of low income teams every year. There have been seasons when the Marlins actually spent less on their team than the total amount received from the rest of the League.
Showalter also singled out the Red Sox's free agency pick-up of Carl Crawford, needling Epstein for spending so much more than everyone else offered, a tactic which requires no special intelligence.
While the Red Sox definitely priced Crawford out of reach of nearly every other team in the hunt, their deal came on heels of the shocking contract struck by Jayson Werth and the Nationals. Washington may get a pass for setting a skewed free agency standard this offseason, given their franchise's desperate need for an attendance boost after Stephen Strasburg's injury.
The irony is that it's often been the mediocre also-rans whose forays into free agency have established bloated high-water marks for baseball elites. Baltimore (Albert Belle in 1998), Colorado (Mike Hampton in 2000), Texas (A-Rod in 2001), Toronto (Vernon Wells in 2006), and San Fran (Barry Zito in 2007) are all guilty of establishing ridiculous precedents in order to get talent in small-mid markets.
Getting back to the issue of Showalter's criticism of Theo Epstein...Buck may have lamented the big contract, which is a highly visible symbol of franchise wealth. But large free agent signings are not synonymous with the big teams, and frankly are not Showalter's problem. No, the Orioles' biggest hurdle is the Red Sox's ability to pay market rates to everyone on top of their deals with the A-listers.
I also have to take exception with the idea that Buck suggests Boston's money can take the place of strategy. Let's not forget that Theo cut his teeth in San Diego, one of the stingiest clubs in modern baseball.
Theo & Co. also deserve a tip of the cap for their work on the farm system. This is one area where the losing clubs don't get much of my patience or sympathy. The top 15 draft picks are untouchable. They can't be traded for under any circumstances, or lost due to a Type A signing. Fundamentals are fundamentals, and the inability of teams like Pittsburgh or Houston, whose drafted talent chronically under performs winning teams with lower picks (like the Sox), is frustrating and inexcusable.
I've rambled quite a bit, but I wanted to illustrate how unnecessary Buck's comments were, particularly his choice of targets. I empathize with his team's needs and the realities of playing in the AL East. Major League Baseball is an unfair game, and I'll be the first in line to sign a petition to spread the talent out. But attacking the Red Sox on their merits is like spitting in the wind. As if they needed more motivation.