Or, "The TGP Socialists club form like Voltron, and FuquaManuel just happen to be the head."
So, after watching the end of a tough loss, I do, in spite of myself, feel a little down; what better to do in that state than think about Marxist economics? Well, truthfully, I’m not entirely interested in Marxist economics here – no worries, this isn’t a political rant – but instead, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the issue of payroll discrepancies in baseball, and what exactly they mean in terms of competitive advantage or disadvantage. A lot of this has to do with the comments some Atlanta trolls were throwing around towards the end of the season, insinuating that the Phillies had become the new Yankees, given their 140 million dollar payroll. This isn’t an argument limited to trolls, admittedly, given a recent, and intelligent article by our own David S. Cohen about the new, winning-er Phillies. Admittedly, it’s difficult to think of them as such at this point, but the Phillies have at many times been the class (joke intended) of the NL, and there are certainly those out there who would suggest that this periodic dominance has everything to do with money.
Now, I don’t want to suggest that payroll is meaningless, nor do I want to suggest that the Phillies don’t have a higher payroll to thank for some of their success; what I want to do is try to think through the actual implications of salary in baseball. Two clarifications here: one, this is mainly an intellectual exercise, so as such, I haven’t really read up on this issue; if I’ve missed out on some pertinent analysis or am redundant here, you’ll have to forgive me – I didn’t really have time to research this. The second clarification is that this isn’t especially political consideration, nor is it terribly statistically complete – the former is because this issue fundamentally cannot hinge on the political, the latter is because a full spate of research would, again, take too long. Besides, this is already going to run a bit long, so it’s worth cutting back where we can.
So with all that said, let’s ask the question: are the Phillies the new Yankees? Well, off the bat, no, since there are two teams between the Phillies’ salary ($141,927,381) and the Yankees’ ($206,333,389): the Boston Red Sox ($162,747,333) and the Chicago Cubs ($146,859,000). That’s a bit mincing though, so to answer the question in a different way, let’s ask another question: are even the Yankees the Yankees? To make this a bit clearer, I mean to ask if even the Yankees are the kind of monolithic, capitalist nightmare team that comes to mind whenever they come up in a conversation about fairness and salaries and buying a championship. In other words – is there even an Evil Empire?
To start answering this question, let’s first consider if this denigration of the Yankees and Phillies has any sort of moral or ethical backing. That is to say, we ought to ask whether it’s reasonable to call big budget teams "evil," as seems to be implied in the rhetoric surrounding salaries and salary caps. The simple truth is that baseball teams aren’t good or evil, for two basic reasons. One, you can simply hate a big budget team, but it proves no real ethical point if you just think they’re loathsome. I hate all kinds of sports teams for various reasons – none of which prove much about good or evil. No matter how much I dislike hearing about Derek Jeter’s aura or how the Red Sox have a "nation" of fans, it really doesn’t speak to any moral or ethical set of ideas – we root for teams and against teams for, essentially, irrational reasons. To bring money into the equation is simply a false rationalization. Secondly, the political argument that rooting for the Yankees, and their payroll, over, say, the Pirates is ethical because of the discrepancy in salary seems misguided to me, regardless of your politics. If you take a capitalist bent, there’s no real reason to hate the Yankees or the Phillies; in a pure neoliberal critique, teams ought to make as much money as they can. Obviously, I disagree with this reading, but even coming at it from the other end, a Marxist understanding of MLB salaries has to disapprove of the highest and the lowest salaried team; if every team makes and spends millions, making rich owners richer in almost all situations, this means that there’s no moral or ethical economic high ground in MLB: we all root for corporations at core. Thus, FM’s rejoinder to the Steinbrenner hate-fest a few months back that any owner dying is effectively the same basic non-tragedy from a social perspective is definitely pertinent here. There’s no actual "poor" team to root for; that’s just a function of the popularity of sports.
So if it isn’t a moral or ethical good to root for small market teams, then why do it? What exactly makes them underdogs at all? Principally, they have to rely on luck a lot more than big market teams. Certainly, randomness makes a lot of people uncomfortable in terms of baseball analysis, but in this case, it seems to make complete sense – small market teams have to rely on draft prospects panning out and players that outplay their contracts (see: Longoria, Evan). This also of course means that small market teams need savvy GM’s – this is the basic point of Moneyball, despite what Joe Morgan might say. This does make small market teams more enjoyable from a baseball nerd perspective, insofar as hidden gems, intriguing prospects, and lopsided trades are definitely blog porn. That said, even though the smaller market teams have little room for error, and thus make it rather interesting for their fans, it can’t logically follow that the larger market teams can simply and blithely "buy championships." The margin of error absolutely still remains, it’s simply that it’s larger.
So this brings us to the upshot, if "the Yankees" as a mythology means a team that, due to its unlimited salary, can just buy championships at will, then no, no team is the Yankees. I will admit that the Yankees do occupy a pretty rarefied air, if only because of their international appeal and marketing capabilities; conceivably, they could increase payroll to obscene levels beyond what they already have. That said, that lives in the realm of speculation, and in the realm of reality, even the Yankees are hurt by payroll mistakes. AJ Burnett is making 16.5 million dollars this year, and every year until 2013, and if he replicates his 1.3 WAR from this year, this will be a bit of a rock around the Yankees’ neck. Furthermore, the Cubs are paying Alfonso Soriano 18 million dollars, through 2014, and while 2.9 WAR for this year isn’t bad, it’s not 18 million dollars good (and his 0 WAR from last year is problematic too). Add on Carlos Zambrano at almost 18 million for this and the next two years at least (2013 has an option), with a WAR of 2.4, and that’s a lot of lost capital. I need not really add much about the Ryan Howard contract, which, in 2017, is going to look like a terrible 23 million (or 10 million dollar buyout), barring a miracle.
So with that said, the Phillies are only the Yankees insofar as they are a baseball team with a reasonably high salary – they can afford to make some mistakes, but they are always at risk of making too many and becoming the 2010 Cubs. And yes, it does seem unfair that they can make more mistakes than, say, an Atlanta Braves team or a KC Royals team, but the money discrepancies don’t determine the standings. Good teams can’t rely on all bought players – careful drafting and development and intelligent use of the free agent market, both of which, yes, include some luck (Jayson Werth and Domonic Brown say hi) are required as well. As much as you or I (and trust me, I do) hate the Yankees, we can’t simply deride them because of their salary. High budgets don’t mean that a team is any better morally, ethically, or even athletically: it simply means that a team can make more expensive mistakes. As a warning to the 2010 Phillies though, mistakes can’t simply be made over and over again – add up a lot of Danys Baez, Juan Castro, and Ryan Howard (new contract edition) sized mistakes, and 140 million dollars will soon not seem like much of an advantage at all.
((PS: All salaries come from the MLB salary list on CBS Sports (http://www.cbssports.com/mlb/salaries/teams), WAR from Fangraphs, and salaries from Cot's Contracts.))