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Your annual (erroneous) "baseball needs a salary cap" column

Apr 7, 2010, 3:15 PM EST

The venerable Frank Deford writes the same column that has been written
every year since time immemorial
: baseball needs a salary cap if it
wants to stay competitive:

Because baseball begins as life afield is renewed, tra-la, you can
always count on two things this time of year. One: In trees, the sap is
rising. Two: in baseball, the sappiness is rising. Yes: As sure as the
flowers are a-bloomin’ again, every team has a chance. Well, that’s true
in the NFL, the NBA and the NHL, but baseball is more like Dancing With
The Stars. It’s understood from the start that some competitors just
don’t have a prayer.

I’ll grant that mid-market teams are at a disadvantage in signing their
own would-be free agents and I’ll grant that life kind of sucks if
you’re an Orioles or Blue Jays fan, but beyond that Deford’s column is unmitigated hogwash. What baseball teams “don’t have a prayer?”  I’d say Washington, Pittsburgh, Houston, San Diego, Baltimore, Toronto, Cleveland, and Kansas City are it. Every other team could, with a bit of luck, make the playoffs this year.  Now tell me how many NBA teams have a real shot at the title. If you say more than five you’re dreaming.

Baseball may not be optimally-competitive, but the notion that a salary
cap will make it so — or that the leagues with salary caps are more
competitive — is plain wrong.  The NBA has had two teams dominate the
Western Conference for a dozen years despite a salary cap. The Red Wings
don’t seem to be on a level playing field with my Columbus Blue
Jackets. The New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts have more AFC championships in the
past decade than the Yankees have AL titles.

The notion that there is
greater parity in football, basketball or hockey than there is in
baseball is a
totally unsupported assertion, and even if there were support for it, the evidence that such parity is due to a salary cap as opposed to, say, the greater significance of injures (i.e. the NFL) or playoff systems in which everyone who doesn’t utterly suck gets invited (NHL and NBA) is a topic that has been wholly unexplored and remains utterly unsubstantiated.  What has been substantiated, however, is the notion that the three other major sports leagues are suffering either serious labor trouble right now, serious economic trouble or both.

There’s an old saying that one should not make the perfect the enemy of the good. Baseball is not perfect, competitively speaking. But it is good. Much better than most people make it out to be and much better, I would argue, than exists in any league with a salary cap. Which, now that I think about it, means that there isn’t any “perfect” out their to begin with, no matter what Frank Deford says.

  1. adam - Apr 7, 2010 at 3:25 PM

    I wonder if there’s a correlation between length of regular season and overall degree of competitiveness. The longer the season the more likely the better teams are to pull away from the pack. I mean, what if baseball was like football and games were only played once a week. I’d like to think the Royals would have a much better chance if Greinke were able to pitch every game (even with the awful bullpen and defense). Not to mention the NFL playoffs are even more of a crapshoot then the MLB playoffs due to the one game nature of it. Sure baseball has its issues regarding revenue, but I think there are probably better ways to fix it then a salary cap.
    recaptcha: furious townsman

  2. Perry - Apr 7, 2010 at 3:31 PM

    Excellent column. Baseball may not be perfect but it’s pretty darn good the way it is. As far as a salary cap I couldn’t agree more with you, baseball doesn’t need it. As you said basketball has a cap, and anywhere from 12 to 15 of the teams won’t even play 500 ball this year. If teams are run well and have good management they will be successful. A perfect example of the opposite is true in basketball. You need look no further then the New York franchises. Both NY basketball teams have stunk and continue to stink and money has nothing to do with it.

  3. Tim Kelly - Apr 7, 2010 at 3:49 PM

    And this is your annual column too Craig, the one that uses comparisons to competitive balance in the other sports to refute the baseball-needs-a-salary-cap column.
    The NBA is a level playing field. The reason teams can stay at the top for so long in basketball is because of the nature of the sport: the best players can have the ball in their hands on every play. You don’t have that in baseball. In baseball, all nine guys get (relatively) equal cracks at deciding the game. You could just as easily have Nick Punto at the plate in a critical situation as you could have Joe Mauer and that would never happen in basketball.
    This is why competitive balance in baseball IS a problem. The Yankees & Red Sox aren’t so good because of their stars, every team has stars. The reason they are so good is that they are just so relentless, they can afford the stars AND also put solid bats in the other spots in the lineup too. If the Red Sox don’t have Youkilis up in that key moment, they’ll still have Adrian Beltre or Mike Cameron or JD Drew or Marco Scutaro or Victor Martinez or Dustin Pedroia or Jacoby Ellsbury or David Ortiz. Same goes for the Yankees, of course.
    One of the beauties of baseball is that while it’s an individual game, it’s also a team game in the truest sense because you can’t just give Pujols the key at bats, sometimes it’s Skip Schumaker. The Brewers problem is not signing Prince Fielder, it’s signing him and then finding the $$ to build a relentless lineup of their own and they can’t do that at the same level of the financially-advantaged teams.
    Comparing baseball to basketball in this sense is intellectually deceitful.

  4. BCTF - Apr 7, 2010 at 3:49 PM

    NCAA Womens Basketball needs a salary cap.

  5. Sam - Apr 7, 2010 at 3:50 PM

    @Perry – Are you saying that about half of basketball teams will finish below .500 this year? WOW! That’s a system that needs fixing!

  6. MN Mike - Apr 7, 2010 at 3:51 PM

    A salary cap would not fix the problem, but it is a step in the right direction. The competitive balance is off in the NBA due to guaranteed contracts with the salary cap. So one bad GM can screw up a franchise for almost a decade with a couple of bad long term contracts. The salary cap does not work when contracts are fully guranteed. Really, nothing good comes from guaranteed contracts. You do not see players leave teams in the NBA becasue the team cannot afford them. They may let a player go because they don’t want to pay them, but they can pay if they want to. NBA is still more of a level field becasue each team has the same chance to build a team to succeed, but the pressure is on the GM.
    A salary cap is not a magic pill, but I think it would help MLB. Revenuw sharing is a decent alternative, but not quite as good. The real problem is the overal money though. Players having more than $20 mil guaranteed per year for multiple years, public financing for a stadium, and paying $30 for a decent seat to attend one of 81 home games with a $9 beer are all examples of the problems facing baseball. I just wisd everything was reduced by 1/2, and they still make more money than they need.

  7. ditmars1929 - Apr 7, 2010 at 3:56 PM

    Very very well said, Craig. Great points by Adam and Perry too.
    On another topic, what’s all this captch crap that’s been showing up in the comments lately???

  8. MN Mike - Apr 7, 2010 at 3:58 PM

    Perry — money has everything to do with the Knicks problems. Take a look at their payroll. Their payroll is over $80 mil (cap is about $65 mil) with players that are not good at all. They are paying Cuttino Mobley 9.5 mil this year. Yes, that Mobley with a heart defect that hassn’t played in like 5 years. The problem in the NBA is guaranteed contracts. Baseball would be doomed if they add a salary cap with guaranteed contracts. Those two do not mix.

  9. ThatGuy - Apr 7, 2010 at 4:03 PM

    I think comparing the actual competition in the leagues by comparing number of champions is flawed because in the other sports it actually is good managment or an elite player(often the elite player). In baseball by the Yankees spending double almost everyone else they are practically gurenteed a shot in the post season. Could things go wrong and they miss like happened a two years ago? sure, but they can just go out and spend another 100 million dollars and be right back in it. No other league can do that.
    Also unlike any other sport, baseball is mostly an individual game, with an individual player having little impact on how his teammates perform. Any other sport a elite player can make those around him better. Have the Colts and Pats been dominate for a decade? Sure but that is due to their Quarterbacks who are far more important to their team than any one player on a baseball team, When Brady went down 2 years ago, the Pats missed the playoffs and the Colts would have no shot with Sorgi or any other chump they rolled out there. Same goes for basketball that with the Lakers and Cleveland having Kobe and Lebron (espiecially because they only play 5 players) you know they will make the playoffs. Hockey to a lesser extent is the same, at the start of the year you basically know the Devils will be good because they are a top notch run organization and they have Brodeaur, Crosby and Ovechkin play almost half a game and have the ability to control the game. That doesn’t happen in baseball, sure a team can be bad for a couple years, build up some talent and make a run at it a championship(see Marlins and Rays), but it will always be fleeting as when that talent gets to FA they will leave to a team that can pay them far more(see Yankees and Red Sox). The ability to be able to spend your way into a post-season the vast majority of the years seems simply wrong to me, is a salary cap the answer? I don’t know but something should be done to even the score a bit.

  10. RobRob - Apr 7, 2010 at 4:03 PM

    The claim that “every team has a chance” is so clearly bogus that it’s almost not refuting. However, it’s really code for “small market teams like Indianapolis and Pittsburgh are good.” Which, given the method by which those teams have been successful, has less to do with the salary cap than it does with the draft.

    Football and basketball have a systemic advantage over baseball because players drafted in either of those two sports often end up making a contribution to the team right away. Baseball prospects take years to reach the majors.

    Indianapolis and Pittsburgh were lucky to have had high draft picks when their franchise quarterbacks were available.

    There are plenty of other reasons, but let me also point out that the NFL gerry-rigs its schedule each season to give weaker teams an advantage, and the same teams *still* win every year.

  11. Chris W - Apr 7, 2010 at 4:20 PM

    Your point about the Red Sox and Yankees makes sense on a theoretical level, but where are the actual results of that imbalance that have actually caused this competitive imbalance in baseball? What have the Red Sox and Yankees (just to name two of the many teams that spend excess amounts of money) reaped in the past 10 years besides three championships and constant playoff appearances? I’m having a hard time thinking of a professional sport where you couldn’t pick two franchises and point to three championships and constant appearances in the top 8 records over the past 10 years…

  12. kgs51 - Apr 7, 2010 at 4:22 PM

    Since 1998, I believe the Yankees only missed the playoffs once. What team in any other major sport has done that. Yes, there needs to be a salary cap.

  13. Matt - Apr 7, 2010 at 4:28 PM

    An interesting topic was brought up on Mike and Mike on ESPN this morning discussing how the money is used in the current revenue sharing system. There is some suspicion of some teams pocketing their shares, but one major problem is that teams are using the money to pay off debts instead of using it on payroll. They used an example of how Pittsburg uses a lot of their funds recieved to pay off the stadium instead of using it to sign free agents or in the draft. A good point was made that a lot the stadium is paid for by the surrounding community via taxes or tax breaks given to the owners. What should be done is that revenue shares should either be prohibited or limited in their use to pay off debts and be focused more on putting a competing team on the field. It would help bridge the gap between the small and large market teams in free agency and would be a step in the right direction to provide more competitive balance.

  14. Perry - Apr 7, 2010 at 4:35 PM

    Mike you misunderstood what I meant when I said money had nothing to do with the problems of the Knicks and Nets. What I meant was money had nothing to do with their problems because money isn’t the issue for them they have it and they spent it (just not wisely). Which is why I said teams that are run well and managed good are successful (the Knicks and Nets are neither run well or managed very good).

  15. ThatGuy - Apr 7, 2010 at 4:40 PM

    It’s true that you can look at any league and find a team or two that have dominated for a 10 year span. In those other leagues, for the most part it is not the insane amount of money that the team can spend that causes it. The Colts were awfuly before they lucked into a Franchise QB. In Football that position alone can give you a playoff berth. The Patriots have had a combination a Great QB, and a great managment system to lead to their success(notice how they missed the playoffs when brady got hurt). Same goes for Basketball, Cleveland was in the cellar prior to winning the LeBron lottery, Minnesota was awful prior to KG and after they traded him. In baseball simply by their vast resources they can spend, the Sox and Yankees can make sure they really don’t have a weak spot.

  16. Tim Kelly - Apr 7, 2010 at 4:50 PM

    And you have hit on the problem with this line of argument: there isn’t enough data available yet. The arms race in baseball did not really occur until the turn of the century, so all I have is 10 years or so of records and I obviously can’t prove anything with just a 10-year sample for the reasons you point out. I cannot flatly support my argument with data yet, but I am predicting a problem with baseball is in progress.
    I’d bet you that in 2020, with 20 seasons of competitive imbalance, the issue will be plain to see. Even to Craig…

  17. Uly - Apr 7, 2010 at 4:54 PM

    kgs51, assuming the site I looked at is correct, the Detroit Red Wings haven’t missed the playoffs since 1990 (not counting the year there was no hockey). The LA Lakers have only missed the playoffs twice since 1977 (yes, 1977).

  18. adam - Apr 7, 2010 at 5:07 PM

    i hate hearing this, “they missed the playoffs when brady got hurt” line. THEY WON 11 GAMES THAT YEAR.
    it was a complete fluke they didn’t make it that year.

  19. Jimmy P - Apr 7, 2010 at 5:58 PM

    @kgs51 – did you feel the same way when the Braves made the playoffs every year between 1991 and 2005 except for one year? I don’t remember anyone saying the system was unfair in those years. I think a lot of people just don’t like the Yankees.

  20. MikeZ - Apr 7, 2010 at 7:35 PM

    With the amount players make in MLB the ceiling of the cap would probably only effect the Yanks. The cap would have to be over $100 million, probably closer to $120 million.
    The question is where would they set the floor of the cap? This could prevent greedy owners from pocketing cash. It could was force a team or 2 out of the league, which might not be such a bad thing.
    There will not be a cap in baseball anytime soon though. Even if there was the room from floor to ceiling would be so big that it would not change very much.

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