Friday, May 10, 2013

Los Angeles Aggrivation: A Lesson in Economics, Brought to You by the Letters W and L

Whappens when a baseball player is given an absurd amount of money to play a children's game? What are the expectations of a pitcher with a seven year, $200 million contract? What about a first basemen set to make nearly $100 million more than that over ten years? Whatever the answers to those questions are, the Dodgers and Angels are not getting it. At the time of writing this, the Los Angeles Dodgers are in last place. Yes, it is barely May, but the signs so far are less than comforting. They have given up thirty-six more runs than they have scored. Their American League counterparts, the Angels, aren’t much better. There is plenty of time for their respective teams to get back on track, but if the slow starts turn into struggling summers, heads may roll in the city of angels.

The New York Yankees have been known, for most of my life, as a team that tries to “buy” its championships. Signing big-name free agents did a lot for the Yankees. Winning four World Series titles between 1998-2000, with another American League championship in 2001, there was an expectation set. The late George Steinbrenner would chastise the team he owned for merely winning ninety games in a season. Perhaps the pressure was good for New York. While it would take the team with the highest payroll in baseball nine years to win another world championship, the disappointment of the near decade is only relative to their expected success. There are not many teams that can post $150 million payrolls each year. But as the saying goes, if you’ve got it, flaunt it. The Yankees, Mets, Cubs, Tigers, Red Sox, Angels, and Dodgers have all been known to shell out tens of millions, sometimes in vain, in attempt to win a pennant. I will never say that signing free agents is wrong. The problem lies in the expectation. Fans, media, and front office staff have a set result in mind when a $200 million contract is signed. However, the game still must be played, and all too often the value isn’t reciprocated.

This past offseason Josh Hamilton and Zack Greinke each signed mult-year mega-deals with the Angels and Dodgers, respectively. Greinke is still out following his injury in the fight with Carlos Quentin. Hamilton just had, statistically, the worst April of his playing career. The arms race in Los Angeles has brought in other big names, including Adrian Gonzales, Josh Beckett, Hanley Ramirez, Albert Pujols, and Derrick Holland. Yet in the end, the Angels and Dodgers are stuck looking up at the smaller payrolls of San Francisco and Oakland in the standings. Money does not equate talent.

I remember when the Seattle Mariners lost Ken Griffey jr., Randy Johnson, and Alex Rodriguez to trades and free agency. I genuinely thought they were going to fall into a period of 100-loss seasons. The games had yet to be played. In 2001, without any of those three on the roster, the Mariners and their $72.7 million payroll won 116 games, a modern record. 

Success stories like Seattle or Oakland are few and far between. Often enough it is the larger payrolls heading deep into October. Yet it is not always a guarantee. Will the Los Angeles clubs recover and make their respective playoffs? That chapter has yet to be written.

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