CINCINNATI -- Major League Baseball has done a lot to help with parity by making rules that aid small-market teams like the Reds. The luxury tax, limiting the international bonus pool and restricting bonuses for players in the draft are good examples.
But MLB is still in denial about how tilted the playing field is. When Commissioner Rob Manfred was in town last week, he was asked about the issue.
“I don’t buy the idea that we have competitive imbalance,” Manfred said. “In case you missed last year, the Cleveland Indians, a small-market team from Ohio, were in the World Series. And the Kansas City Royals, another small-market team, won the World Series in 2015.”
The fact that small-market teams get in and occasionally win the World Series does not mean you have parity. And even by that measure, it hasn’t been great. Since the Reds and the Minnesota Twins won in 1990 and ’91, respectively, only three Series winners have come from small markets (KC in ’15, St. Louis in ’06 and ’11).
The Reds, in fact, are seeing the disparity in action this week. They are in Chicago for a four-game series with the Cubs. The Cubs spent several years rebuilding like the Reds are now.
Once the Cubs got close to being competitive, they had the financial resources to buy enough players to get them over the top, especially when it came to starting pitching.
The Cubs lost 89 games in ’14. They’ve increased their payroll from $92 million that year to $120 million in ’15 to $171 million last year. That put them over the top.
Three-fifths of the World Championship rotation was made up of free agents -- Jon Lester (six years, $155 million), John Lackey (two years, $32 milling), Jason Hammel (two years, $20 million). One-fourth of the everyday World Championship lineup was made up of free agents -- Jason Heyward (eight years, $184 million) and Ben Zobrist (four years, $55 million).
The Cubs can do that and still make a tidy profit with Wrigley Field filling up every night and a TV contract for the Chicago market.
The Reds can’t.
I could see the Reds adding someone in Lackey’s price range. But in Lester’s? Never, ever going to happen.
As bad as it’s been for the Reds this year, they could be competitive next year if they could get an ace like Lester and a lesser free agent. But I don’t see that in the offing.
The Reds' payroll is $95 million. With attendance flat, I don’t see it going a lot higher next year.
The only way to avoid next year being a lot like this year is to have much better starting pitching.
Reds owner Bob Castellini, speaking after the event Manfred was in town for, acknowledged that when asked if this year’s failures had changed the long-term plan.
“We expect these young pitchers to come along, and the pitchers that have been hurt,” Castellini said. “It hasn’t happened since the (All-Star) break, when we wanted it to happen. I can’t say that for everybody. We’ve had some great success stories.
“But we thought we would have more. Our concentration between now and the end of the year, over the winter and certainly into spring training is to bring along this rotation. It’s the biggest challenge that we have.”
I read that to mean the Reds may look to trade for a starter and/or shop for one in free agency.
But the problem the Reds and other small-market teams have is the big-market teams set the price for free agents. The top free agents also demand long-term deals.
So let’s say Castellini and Co. say: “Let’s bump the payroll for 2018 and try to make a run.” It would not do much good because guys like Lester aren’t going to sign for one or two years.
The Reds aren’t alone in this. Other small-market teams like Pittsburgh and, yes, Kansas City can only hope for cycles where they have a chance to win.
Before their current nice run, the Royals had a losing season every year from 1994 to 2012. But at least they won it when they had the chance. The Reds missed that chance in the last good cycle. Looks like the Pirates did, too.
When will the next good cycle come for the Reds? When the pitching is good again. That will be when those young guys come through. Because no matter how much Manfred talks about competitive balance, the reality is big markets have a huge advantage.
John Fay is a freelance sports columnist; this column represents his opinion. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org