MLB races show success of small market teams (not named the Twins)

The Boston Red Sox celebrate after clinching the AL East with a 6-3 win over the Toronto Blue Jays in a baseball game at Fenway Park, Friday, Sept. 20, 2013, in Boston. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

It’s almost playoff season in Major League Baseball, so the annual debate over the role of money in baseball is underway. Do big-spending teams have an unfair advantage over smaller market teams?

This year, a friend on Twitter pointed out to me today, if the playoffs were to begin today, four of the bottom 10 teams in spending would make the playoffs.

What does this prove?

That Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig was right to water down the playoffs by adding another team in each league to play a one-game playoff for the right to get into the “traditional” playoff round.

At present, the #26 and the #21 spending teams — Cleveland and Pittsburgh — benefit from Selig’s move, which raised the ire of purists. But they’re not objecting in Pittsburgh, where the team had its first winning season since George H.W. Bush was president (1992).

Cleveland could still be left watching. Texas (#8) is only one game away, has a superior team, but doesn’t get to play the the Twins in the final series of the year as the Indians do.

It’s true the top spending team — the Yankees — missed the playoffs, mostly because of injuries. But #2 didn’t. The Los Angeles Dodgers are West Division champions in the National League.

And in the American League, Boston (#4) and Detroit (#5) captured their divisions. So did Oakland, the 27th cheapest team in baseball.

They’re the Moneyball team, a team of legend which has put together decent teams without spending much. That, Allen Barra of The Atlantic notes today, was mostly fiction. Until this year.

But as I wrote in 2011, the legend doesn’t really hold up under scrutiny. Even after losing Jason Giambi to free agency (and to the New York Yankees after 2001), the A’s had several players who were in the superstar category; shortstop Miguel Tejada was in fact the league’s MVP for the 2002 season.

All-Star third baseman Eric Chavez had 34 home runs and drove in 109 runs, and their powerhouse trio of starting pitchers — Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, and Mark Mulder— won 57 games. For some never-explained reason, these five players were scarcely mentioned in Michael Lewis’s book and not at all in the movie.

Some of the Athletics’ key players, like Scott Hatteberg, were not acquired at bargain prices; in 2001 Hatteberg was paid a little over $1 million by the Red Sox and over the next three seasons with Oakland he made almost $5 million. Moreover, the 2002 A’s didn’t have an exceptional OBP  (on base percentage) finishing the in the AL. They won because of their pitching, which delivered the lowest ERA in the American League.

And they didn’t lose in the playoffs to a bigger-market team; they lost to a smaller one, the Minnesota Twins. According to Forbes, for the 2002 season Oakland’s operating budget was No. 24 at $172 million with an operating income of $6.6 million while the Twins were ranked 27th at $148 million with an operating income of $400,000.

This year, however, is different. There really are no superstars on the team, and no team has done more with less, Barra says.

Now the team will get to challenge another reality: Moneyball doesn’t win championships.

This is all important for team #23 — the Minnesota Twins — who are about to turn in their third straight 90-loss season.

With the departure of Justin Morneau recently, the Twins could have up to $53 million to spend in free agency over the winter, The Twinkietown blog notes, although there’s little chance general manager Terry Ryan will be allowed by the Pohlad family to spend that much.