The Rise of Smart Big Market Baseball; Downfall of Small Market Cinderellas?

Forgive me, but I’m going to spend a few minutes crying about how unfair the game can be.

Since big market clubs started signing the best talent to contracts small market clubs could never dream of affording, the only hope for the little guys was the fact that often times, teams like the Yankees and Cubs stupidly threw their money at the wrong players and neglected their farm systems. The results showed in the World Series for most of this decade.

Yes, the Yankees started the 2000′s off with the Subway Series win over the Mets, the last time the club had won the title before last night. And the Diamondbacks — typically a small-to-mid market club — put themselves in ridiculous amounts of debt to get Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling to lead them to the 2001 crown. But the 2002 Angels were led by Troy Glaus and a slew of other home-grown talent (remember that Vlad Guerrero didn’t come to town until 2004). In 2003, we saw the small market highlight of the decade, when tiny Florida knocked off the 101-win Yankees, even clinching the series at Yankee Stadium. We even got to see a Series between the Cardinals and Tigers that wasn’t particularly well-played, but was fun to see if you’re from the Midwest.

Even the big-market teams that have won World Series this decade — namely the Boston Red Sox, but you could throw the Phillies into the discussion, too — did so the “right way.” They didn’t simply buy the best players on the free agent market the previous winter and watch the team go from there. They built up a solid farm system that allowed them to make fair trades while also providing them their next generation of stars. The lineup of the 2004 Red Sox featured guys like Kevin Millar, Bill Mueller, and Mark Bellhorn — not exactly the murderer’s row the Yankees put together in 2009. Home-grown talent Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia played a large role in the 2007 world championship team. As I wrote about a week ago, the Phillies of the past two years are also mostly home-grown.

That’s where small market clubs are starting to run into trouble. Large market teams now know they can’t just throw money at any player in the free agent market, trade away their best prospects for a #3 starter, and generally expect to make the World Series every year by just showing up. General Managers like Theo Epstein and Brian Cashman are acting responsibly, and it’s a horrible thing if you’re a fan of the Brewers.

You can’t get too mad at the Yankees, though. I actually feel good for CC Sabathia (who we all got to know last year) and Alex Rodriguez (who will hopefully see the New York media ease up on him after his historic postseason run). They’re just taking advantage of the system that’s built in their favor. For most of the past decade, they’ve been shooting themselves in the foot. Now that they’re smartly — that’s the key word here — using their resources, no one can stop them. What happens next year when the Yankees could possibly add Matt Holliday to bolster their lineup and add a little more youth? Or if they sign John Lackey to replace Andy Pettitte if he decides to retire?

What do small market clubs like the Brewers do in that scenario? Do they just wait until players like Sabathia, Teixeira, and Burnett age to the point where their production doesn’t match their salary (not very likely in the case of the first two, already happening with the third)? It’s a conundrum that needs to be solved in the near future, before we head for another decade like the ’90s, dominated by big market clubs while everyone else toils at .500 or below.

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