by Joe Giglio
Baseball is a sport dominated by numbers. From records to payrolls, fans harp on the facts and figures of the 30 franchises that make up the sport. An era of cable television deals and unprecedented revenue has transformed the sport into a financial empire. Through revenue, changes in the current CBA, and the impetus to win now, the sport has taken on a drastically different outlook than just a decade ago.
Welcome to the age of parity in Major League Baseball.
Despite payroll gaps from the $200 million range -- otherwise known as the drunken sailors of Los Angeles -- to the $25 million range -- the stripped down Houston Astros, discrepancy in salary from team to team will always exist. On the other hand, competitiveness is up across the sport. Teams just aren’t winning in the public relations race; they are competing significantly on the field.
Why? Revenue sharing -- implemented during the ‘02 CBA negotiations -- changed the game for free spenders in New York and Boston. The luxury tax isn’t a big deal to fans; it is to owners who are shelling out millions of extra dollars every year. The new, revised CBA has updated the parameters, weeding out the teams willing to pocket money and forcing the “have nots” into spending enough to make the process seem fair. Throw in the extra Wild Card introduced in ‘12, randomness of postseason baseball, and a generation of “Moneyball” minds from Ivy League schools scattered around front offices and you have a sport brimming with competitiveness.
The numbers don’t lie. Only 13 teams had a losing record last season. Not one team reached the 100-win plateau. The average difference between first and third place was only 11.6 games across the six divisions. With a month to go in the regular season, half the league was within 3.5 games of a postseason spot.
Those numbers are startling compared with the ‘02 season in which five teams won at least 98 games, four lost more than 100, and the average difference between first and third place was 17 games. Baseball had a major problem between the “haves” and “have nots” on the field. While the NFL marketed itself brilliantly on parity, randomness, and all 32 teams walking into training camp with eyes on the Lombardi Trophy, baseball entered spring training knowing only 5-10 teams could realistically win the World Series.
Amazingly, the gap could be narrowing even more entering the ‘13 season. Earlier this week, Las Vegas unveiled their over/under figures for the upcoming season. 17 teams -- Arizona, Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago (AL), Cleveland, Kansas City, Milwaukee, New York (AL), Oakland, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Toronto -- are projected to finished between 76.5 and 86.5 wins. In other words, more than half the league is around average. That group includes the last seven World Series championship franchises.
Furthermore, there are few top tier or bottom feeding teams in the eyes of Vegas. Only three teams -- Tigers, Dodgers, Nationals -- have at least a 90 over/under. Only three teams -- Astros, Marlins, Twins -- have less than a 70 over/under.
The tide is shifting to compete on a year-to-year basis. “Next year” is a phrase that is slowly leaving the vernacular of front-offices and media members. While a few teams -- Astros, Cubs, Marlins -- are clearly in long-term rebuild mode, the sport has collectively realized the monetary benefits of putting a decent product on the field outweigh any other strategy. Cable television deals are booming. If you are in it, people will watch.
Of the 13 teams to post a record below .500 in ‘12, at least six improved to the point where 81+ wins is a reasonable, if not conservative, expectation this summer.
Toronto acquired Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, R.A. Dickey and Melky Cabrera to supplement a roster that led the league in runs scored through July and was considered a sleeper heading into last season. Boston purged their roster of underachieving former stars, spending money on veterans such as Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, Ryan Dempster, and Stephen Drew. Kansas City traded one of the top prospects in the sport, Wil Myers, for a top of the rotation starter in James Shields and right-hander Wade Davis. Pittsburgh added Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano to a roster than has seen their win total spike from 57 to 72 to 79 in the last three seasons. Seattle added Kendrys Morales, Mike Morse, and Joe Saunders to mix in with Felix Hernandez and a stable of young, promising players. Cleveland hired Terry Francona and turned into the winter’s busiest team. Adding Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Brett Myers, Mark Reynolds, Drew Stubbs, and Trevor Bauer didn’t just provide splash; it may have created a contender overnight.
If you believe in the way San Diego played from July on (47-36), it’s not ridiculous to project a sleeper in Petco Park. If you subscribe to the PECOTA projections, the Mets (80-82) could be much closer to relevance than many in New York would choose to accept.
To be fair, all of these best case scenarios won’t come true. Bad teams still exist. Houston and Miami could be unwatchable on a night-to-night basis. Good teams will still make their mark. Los Angeles could house the next powers. But the separation is closing by the year. Outside of a handful of teams either rebuilding, lost, or lost in rebuilding, the sport is more wide open than ever before. Enjoy spring training. There’s a good chance your team truly has something to play for.
Joe Giglio is a sports talk host at WFAN in New York, former intramural coordinator at DeSales University, husband, and baseball fanatic willing to argue Jeff Bagwell's Hall of Fame candidacy at a moment's notice. Follow him on Twitter @JoeGiglioSports and check out his blog at joegiglio.blogspot.com.