Over and over again, this week, we’ve heard how the Yankees are going to benefit from a bad economy. The team is flush with money. They have some high-priced contracts coming off the books; attendance remains at record-setting highs; and with a new stadium set to open, the Yanks’ coffers will be full for years to come.
For Yankee fans hoping for a return to dominance, that is, of course, good news. Few teams can afford CC Sabathia, and as the Yanks illustrated on Friday, they’re willing to outbid themselves to show just how willing they are to use their position of economic strength.
Similarly, not many teams are in a position to make offers to Mark Teixeira or A.J. Burnett that will be in line with what these players want. It’s almost as if they’re the Yanks’ — or Angels’ or Dodgers’ — for the taking. The rich will emerge from this Hot Stove League richer.
On the flip side of this economic argument are posts such as this one from Buster Olney. Somewhat spuriously, Olney, playing off of a column by Richard Griffin, claims that this off-season will prove the popularity of the hidden gem or the free-agent bargain. “All of the baseball world is looking for a bargain, so Penny, Johnson and Pettitte could have a wide range of choices,” he writes.
For his part, Griffin parlays the story of Randy Johnson’s inability to come to terms with the Diamondbacks as a sign that third- or fourth-tier free agents may have a tough time finding homes. For once, I’m inclined to believe that it’s not the economy, stupid.
What Olney fails to recognize is that Major League teams are always looking for bargains. That, in fact, is the real message of Moneyball. How do you put together a cost-efficient team with a lot of flexibility and the chance to win? By signing the Brad Penny’s of the world to one- or two-year contracts. Similarly, in Griffin’s case, Randy Johnson isn’t getting a deal that he wants because of his age. How many teams would be willing to give a 45-year-old with a recent history of back problems an $8 million deal, even for one season?
The real story of this baseball economy isn’t personnel based. It’s market based. As the Yankees, Mets, Phillies, Dodgers, Cubs, White Sox, Red Sox, Angels and a few other teams can weather this financial storm with ease, baseball’s middle- and small-market teams are in trouble. In Detroit, for example, the U.S. auto industry is in danger of collapsing. In other markets that don’t enjoy the benefit of a large population, attendance will suffer, and teams’ financial bottom lines may not emerge from 2009 unscathed.
Every year, the free agent bargains get the phone calls, but not every year do the stock markets collapse. How Major League Baseball handles the disparities in wealth that are sure to be magnified this year will be a real testament to Bud Selig’s legacy. Brad Penny? He’ll be fine no matter what.