The Cap That Isn’t And Won’t Be

In 2018, Bryce Harper will be a free agent. Yes, that Bryce Harper. The one that could become one of the best to ever step foot between the white lines. It’s said that he could surpass the $400M contract mark. That’s a hefty $75M more than the current largest contract in MLB. An utterly unfathomable number, easily within reach. And completely guaranteed.

(AP)

The sentiment that you’re worth what someone will pay you is a strong one and it rings true each baseball season. Still, rumblings of salary caps have echoed throughout baseball hallways for years. It’s the only league without one. Owners have spoken out, fans continually bewildered. When you see that in the last 15 years, the Yankees have had the highest payroll for 13 of them, it could create a sense of resentment. And look at the Dodgers. In 20o0, their payroll was $88M. In 2015 it was $272M. That’s a $184M difference. Yet how many World Series does L.A. have in that same time?

Zero. They have zero.

The salary cap question always seems black and white on the surface, but deep down, it’s much more than that. It’s simple to throw out blanket phrases such as “competitive balance” and compare each professional league to the next. It’s easy to harp on the “fairness” of it all. But that won’t get you anywhere.

Just last year, it was reported that the average baseball team is worth $1.2 billion. That’s a whopping 48% more than the year before. A record 15 teams are worth at least a billion. So many of these teams are becoming incredibly rich, fast. But being profitable does not produce competition. Just a few years ago, the Pittsburgh Pirates, one of the most pathetic teams in baseball, were actually making great profit.

(AMC)

When visions of a salary cap cross the mind, the false hope of parity rears its head. It can be seen as unfair that some teams dish out so much cash to acquire free agents. Contracts get beefier year after year. Shouldn’t there be a limit on how much an MLB team can spend per year? That would surely help balance the competition: the variation in wins between the best and worst teams in a league. Except, this thinking is essentially worthless.

In a report from the Journal for Economic Educators, no evidence was found that suggested salary caps increased competitive balance.

On the contrary: the NBA, who didn’t always have a cap, saw a significant decrease in competitive balance after they instituted one. Before the cap was put in place in 1984, NBA teams could pay players any amount they wanted.

Though, there could be an argument made regarding player contracts and whether they are getting out of control. More and more teams now have the ability to offer big number deals, and with no salary cap in place: they are. In the past few years alone, monster contracts were handed out by the Rangers, Tigers, Mariners, Angels, Reds, Red Sox, Nationals, Yankees, and Dodgers. And, the biggest contract in sports history was signed just last year, as Giancarlo Stanton was given a 13 year contract worth $325M. With who? With the Marlins.

(Sports Illustrated)

It’s hard to say how and if that skews competition, but it does show more teams are able to afford huge contracts. This never used to be the case. And this continues to help close the gap between big market teams, and smaller ones.

Perhaps parity doesn’t have as much to do with cold hard cash or contract size, but with management. Well managed organizations are more capable of building quality teams through other means, such as: minor league systems, the draft, and the international signing period. The drafting process and player development are crucial in making these smaller market teams more competitive against the bigger market ones. Last year, the Mets had around 15 homegrown players on their playoff roster. That means 15 out of 25 were drafted first year or an international free agent. The Mets made it to the World Series.

The Royals recent playoff runs are another example. They had 11 homegrown players and sported a middle-of-the-pack payroll, yet have been in the last two World Series. They won the most recent one. They have a well structured organizational plan and a team that heavily relies on contact of bat to ball. They find other ways to be successful and it works.

(USATSI)

In recent years, there’s also been a small shift in the big market team thinking as well. Teams, such as the Yankees, are working to build up their farm system and concentrate on development. They have been more cautious about spending big money on free agents, unlike in the past.

Maybe competition isn’t about every team having a chance to win the championship every year.

It’s possible most fan’s don’t care about that. The Dodgers have big name stars with huge contracts, but they can lose a game at anytime. And as long as we still see those upsets regularly, we’ll all feel as if we have a grasp on that competitive balance, which is mostly a myth anyway.

For now, baseball doesn’t need a salary cap, and there’s no reason to support one. It likely won’t help your favorite team get to the World Series and the only people who will benefit are the owners, as their back accounts become larger.

And if a team want’s to pay one player $400M, don’t hate; there’s not just a few who can afford it anymore.


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