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How to play small (market) ball


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By Eric Neel



Alex in pinstripes. Yikes. Georgey flexes his muscle, whips out his checkbook, and sends small-market teams running for cover. The message has never been clearer: If you have the dough, you run the show. If you're living on a budget, you're dead in the competitive waters. Game over.



Not so fast.




The Marlins became the poster boys for baseball long shots.



First, and it's been said already this week, but it bears repeating: The Yanks, deep and talented as they are, are no locks. A-Rod is a fantastic player, but he's only about a two or three-game upgrade over the course of the season compared to the guy he's replacing, Alfonso Soriano. The pitching staff is full of question marks. Can Kevin Brown stay healthy? Can Jose Contreras give them 30 starts? Can Javier Vazquez do what he did in Montreal? The team is old. Their superstar just got trumped by his chief rival, which is going to fester and eventually explode in an ugly, toxic mess. And if all that weren't enough, their calm, cool manager begins the year on the hot seat.



Second, as we know from the Marlins' run last fall, small-market squads can go toe-to-toe with the fat cats and come out on top.



The question is, can they stay in the fight over the long haul?



Sure they can.



There's no magic correlation between dollars and wins. Look at the Mets, whose payroll ran $116.2 million last year and $94 million the year before. Look at the A's, who have been bottom-five spenders and title contenders every year since 2000.



No doubt your life is easier if you're the Yankees and you can pick and choose your talent with little regard for the bottom line, but even if you fall on the have-not side of the Major League dividing line you can hang tough IF




You watch what the rich kids are doing: Tony Robbins will tell you to watch the wealthy and mimic their actions. Forget that. Go the other way. Look for the gaps in their thinking, the blind spots in their analysis. Are they, as Michael Lewis' Moneyball suggests, overvaluing guys who look like ballplayers and undervaluing guys who don't? If so, go trolling for the less obvious, and therefore less expensive, productive players in the draft, on the free agent market, and in trades. If they ignore inning-munching middle relievers in favor of high-priced closers then you spend your money on the affordable and effective workhorses. Make this habit a philosophy. Be the team that goes against the grain. Be the team completely uninterested in beating the big boys at their own game, except on the field.




You get yourself a bright GM willing to experiment: He has to be smart enough to see and exploit the market inefficiencies. He has to be tough enough to suffer the slings and arrows of skepticism, and sometimes downright vitriol from the public and press. And he has to be savvy enough to sell the players, the organization, and the fans on his off-the-beaten-path plans.




Twins GM Terry Ryan has found consistent success.




You market your small-market: Sell the underdog story. It's the oldest, truest, most inspiring tale in the big book of sports stories. You're the rag-tag band of rebels, and A-Rod, Jason, and Jeter are manning the Death Star. Saddle up. Make every seat sold a slap at the overfed overlords in Gotham. Hand out Steinbrenner voodoo dolls with every paid admission. Let the people inflict some pain and defy some odds. Let them in on the revolution. Then buy some ad time and have your players read underdog speeches on TV: The "St. Crispin's Day" speech from Shakespeare's Henry V -- "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother!"; Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you" speech; Rockne's "Gipper" speech; and so on. Rouse the masses. Make loving your outgunned-but-plucky crew the hip thing to do. It'll be good for revenue, and good for creating enough good will and latitude to try some unorthodox drafts, signs, and trades.




You luck into one of them there crazy-rich maverick owners who won't suffer fools and can't stomach losing: Arte Moreno's taken, but he can't be the only one out there.




You convince Tom Hicks to deal Hank Blalock or Mark Teixeira your way by telling him it will provide him with even more financial flexibility: You probably won't be able to talk him into paying part of their salaries, too, but it can't hurt to try.




You ignore the so-called competitive imbalance: This is old-school. It's Norman Vincent Peale and the power of positive thinking. Whining about what the Yanks can do and what the little guys can't do is just that: whining. It poisons the well. Kills fan interest and short-term revenue, gives players a reason to be satisfied with less, and most important, distracts from the mission of finding combinations on the field and in the farm system that will work. The Twins have been better at this than any other small-market team. From GM Terry Ryan to manager Ron Gardenhire to the guys in the locker room, the message and mood are consistent: "This is the hand we're dealt. Now let's go play."




You emphasize pitching: Some rules are the same no matter what size market you're in.




You pay attention to the distribution of talent: Here's how Bill James puts it: "Talent is not normally distributed. It is a pyramid." Here's what it means: True superstars are rare and usually worth the money they command. Slightly-above-average, average, and slightly-below-average guys are increasingly plentiful as you make your way to the base of the pyramid. Do not overpay for them. Do not presume, as our friend Joe Sheehan over at BaseballProspectus.com puts it, "that three $5 million players are better than the combination of one $15 million dollar player and two farm products or non-roster invitees."




You draft well and your farm system produces young, inexpensive talent; especially young, inexpensive pitching talent: Duh.




You're not in Montreal: Or Puerto Rico, for that matter.




You resist the exciting, emotional acquisition: Let's say you're the Padres. You're about to debut a new stadium. You've got a nice young pitching staff and some promising offensive players. You hear Greg Maddux is available. Greg Maddux is a legend. Your heart is beating fast. Greg Maddux is a brilliant veteran with experience and wisdom to spare. You're sweating the joyful sweat of anticipation, feeling the warm glow of legitimacy. You must have Greg Maddux, you think. He must be your Opening Day pitcher in 2004. He must! But he won't be cheap, and he'll want a multi-year deal. You're breathing slows a bit. He's 37, you think. You realize he's a six-inning pitcher now, with an ERA near four last year. Your temperature falls down to normal. Your head is cooling. You're thinking clearly now. You let him go. He signs with Chicago for three years at $24 million. So you do not have Greg Maddux. But it's not all bad. After all, you do have David Wells: a seven-inning pitcher, with an ERA near four last year.



And just as important ...




You let some of your goods go: Once your homegrown talent gets too pricey, you've gotta part ways. The impulse is to make a reach to keep "your guys" happy and in the fold, or to keep a rising star right up through the end of his free agent year, hoping he can help you win now, and then watch him walk out the door. It's a reasonable impulse, but it's shortsighted. Consider today's Kansas City Royals. They got a whiff of the pennant race last year and they're thinking maybe this year, if Carlos Beltran comes up really big, they'll get in. It's a nice thought. Here's another one: Trade Beltran now, when his market value is high and he's yours to trade. Think ahead.



And last, and maybe most important of all ...




You get lucky: No major injuries, especially to your pitching staff, a handful of inexpensive acquisitions that really pay off, especially on your pitching staff, a career year or three, some stumbling and squabbling from the big boys in the race. Three or four years of this kind of thing and you're right there in it.



Listen, I never said this would be easy. I just said it could be done.



eric neel

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