Sunday, September 2, 2012

Closing The Gap?

With the Cleveland Indians in a horrific death spiral (a 5-24 record in August), I’ve started watching other games at night (thank you, MLB cable package). In particular, I’ve been watching a lot of National League games, which I’ve haven’t done much in recent years. I’m especially struck at how bad the NL is.

National League fans can point to recent success in the All-Star Game and World Series, but that’s eight games a year, at most, and one of those is an exhibition. If you want a true indicator of the relative strength of the two leagues, look at the results of interleague play, which has been a beat-down by the American League for nearly a decade.

The AL has had a winning record in interleague play every year since 2004. The AL has won 55 percent of all interleague games during that time. For some perspective, a .550 winning percentage would be an 89-win season for an individual team, which is a pretty good year. For one league to own the other at that rate for nine years is a pistol-whipping.

The American’s League’s superiority is not a fluke. This is a sample size of 2,268 games. The margin of error is pretty close to zero. The American League is just better. Why? The biggest reason is money. The economics of the sport took off in the 1990s and early 2000s, driven by huge local TV deals for the Yankees and Red Sox. The game’s mid- and small-market contenders no longer could count on stadium revenues alone to keep pace, and the Yankees and Red Sox opened a huge gap between themselves and the rest of MLB.

This didn’t affect the National League so much. Both leagues still were guaranteed a berth in the World Series, and the last two years have shown that the best team doesn’t always win in October. No, when the Yankees and Red Sox threw down the gauntlet, they did so in the face of their American League brethren. Those who wanted to keep pace had to do so with their wallets. Spend or be left behind. The AL, at least most of it, responded, resulting in a nine-year winning percentage of .550 in interleague play.

This trend could be about to change. Why? Because the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago Cubs both are under new ownership for enormous purchase prices, and both figure to spend huge money to put championship teams on the field.

The Dodgers already have begun to flex their financial muscle, adding about $300 million worth of long-term contract obligations the past six weeks in Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford. Those expressing the belief that the Dodgers will regret those contracts by 2016 and 2017 — the national baseball media seems in near-total agreement on this — simply aren’t paying attention.

First of all, these were the Frank McCourt Dodgers until a few months ago, a small-market banana republic operating in the nation’s second-largest market. The payroll had nowhere to go but up, and despite the recent flurry of high-priced acquisitions the Dodgers still have plenty of wiggle room between their current payroll and the luxury-tax threshold.

Second, and this is more to the point, the new owners in Los Angeles just don’t seem to give a shit about the money. The Dodgers’ local TV contract expires in 2013, and they’re already negotiating what no doubt will be the mother of all regional baseball TV networks. Reports in the LA media have bandied about figures in the range of $4 billion for the Dodgers’ next TV deal. What they’ve spent so far is a raindrop in the ocean.

The Dodgers also are polishing their brand name. In Gonzalez, Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw, they now have three of the most attractive, likable and marketable players in the game: a Mexican-American, an African-American and a Texan-American. ( Don’t think for a second that the ethnic diversity of that trio doesn’t matter, especially in a city like Los Angeles.) Between the new TV deal and the marketing possibilities with those three star players, the Dodgers will have no trouble drawing fans to Dodger Stadium and then sucking the money right out of their pockets.

While the Dodgers already are spending like there’s no tomorrow, the Cubs will join them soon enough. When former Red Sox GM Theo Epstein took over as team president last year, he inherited a club much farther from contention than the Dodgers. The Cubs had a bunch of aging players with bad contracts, plus a farm system lacking impact players. What they do have is a national landmark of a ballpark and a huge national fan base.

Once Epstein turns over Chicago’s major league roster and builds up the farm system, the Ricketts family will spend whatever it takes to put a perennial winner in Wrigley Field. They wouldn’t have brought in a superstar GM like Epstein if they planned on operating the Cubs the way the McCourts ran the Dodgers. The Cubs, who haven’t been a perennial winner since before World War I, are hardly a sleeping giant. Wide awake underachievers is more like it. That figures to change in a big way in the next three to five years. With Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo already in the big leagues, the Cubs are already laying the groundwork.

And so we have the seeds of a National League comeback. It’s good for baseball — essential, really ­— that the NL try to close the gap with the AL. It’s even better that it’s the Cubs and the Dodgers, arguably the NL’s two most iconic franchises, who are driving things.

On the other hand, a rising tide does not lift all boats. If, like me, you’re a fan of a struggling small-market team in an economically challenged market, seeing anyone raise the ante even higher, that’s not encouraging. That’s not likely to help. More on that at some future date.

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