How Small-Market Baseball Triumphed in 2012

Michael Cancella


(In the interest of full disclosure, the author of this article is a life-long Red Sox fan and bears the scars to prove it.)


In late August 2011, the Boston Red Sox had a two game divisional lead over the Yankees and a nine game lead in the wild card race over the Tampa Bay Rays.  They were poised to make the playoffs once again and were well positioned to make a run for their third World Series title in eight seasons.  Six weeks later, those heady days of wide-eyed optimism, and yes arrogance too, were a rapidly fading memory as the Red Sox collapsed in historic fashion, finishing third in their division and missing the playoffs entirely.  The team’s stunning failure led to the dismissal of longtime manager Terry Francona, the skipper who had led the Red Sox to their only two World Series titles since 1918, and the resignation of similarly long tenured general manager Theo Epstein, who departed to become the president of baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs.


On the other side of the continent, and the other side of baseball’s often yawning divide that separates the revenue-generating capacity of big market teams like the Red Sox and the struggle to make ends meet that is the reality of most small-market teams, the Oakland Athletics had another poor season, failing to achieve a winning record for the fifth consecutive year. Given their annual place among the teams with the lowest payrolls, however, this, unlike the startling demise of the Red Sox, was expected.  After all, how could a team with a payroll of $50 million a year compete with the behemoths of baseball, like the Red Sox and Yankees, whose payrolls were three or four times greater? Baseball pundits and assorted experts were at a consensus as past was projected into future: The  Red Sox collapse was an anomaly, and with their highly paid talent, they were  projected by many to return to the ranks of the best teams in baseball.  Oakland, on the other hand, had few partisans who expected the team to emerge from its half-a-decade long funk.  A low payroll, a young team filled with unproven talent, declining attendance and a struggle to generate sufficient revenue to compete were all factors cited by those who predicted a continuance of their mediocrity.  Even their fan community site, the aptly titled Athletics Nation, was gloomy as to their prospects, with a poll of contributors generating a prognostication of a 72-90 record and a next-to-last place finish in 2012. 


As often is the case in baseball, the only major sport without a salary cap, expectations of success often correlated with the size of the team’s associated payroll.  Going into the 2012 season, the Red Sox payroll was a nearly incomprehensible $173 million.  Its three highest-paid players –Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett - made a combined $59 million, a huge number in itself, especially when compared with the lowly Oakland Athletics projected payroll which totaled $55 million, 29th out of 30 teams in baseball and dead last in the American League.  The Athletics’ highest-paid player, Cuban import Yoenis Cespedes, topped out at $9 million, a figure that would have ranked him 8th in earnings if he played for Boston.  Yet experts and expectations aside, when the dust settled on the 2012 season, the Red Sox, for all their money and talent, had imploded, finishing 69-93, easily the worst record they had booked since 1965, while Oakland, disparaged by those few experts who even acknowledged their continued existence, roared into 1st place in the American League West on the final day of the season, completing a three game sweep of another large market, high payroll team, the Texas Rangers, in the process.  This capped a stunning 94-68 season and completed a historic 13 game comeback, with Oakland becoming only the fifth baseball team in history to recover from that many games down to win either a pennant or a division title.  Oakland was headed to the playoffs, while Boston was headed to another offseason of turmoil and acrimony, firing their manager for the second consecutive year.



Ironically, the same revenue attributes that were cited in the pre-season predictions of Boston triumph and Oakland inadequacy, were now employed as factors that illustrated why the season’s outcome was entirely a reversal of what had been expected.  Boston’s players were overpaid, lazy and entitled it was claimed, not entirely without merit, nor for the first time, while Oakland’s battlers were overachieving underdogs who succeeded because they were young and hungry, eager to prove themselves worthy of greater respect and indeed higher pay.  Clearly there was some truth in this, truth that even Boston management came to recognize.  In a shocking move given the Red Sox record of achievement over the past decade, Boston clearly communicated that not only was the season over, but that the need to shift into rebuilding mode was simply too obvious to ignore. 


On August 25th, the franchise that had in recent years declared that a season without a World Series championship was nothing short of a failure, if not an unmitigated disaster, crafted a trade that dealt three of its best players (and not coincidentally its three highest paid players), to the Los Angeles Dodgers, dumping approximately $260 million worth of payroll that would have been owed over the next five seasons and receiving in return a number of young, unproven players of projected great talent, but limited track record --  players not unlike those that populated the Oakland Athletics roster which was in the midst of such a tremendous and unexpected winning run. The Los Angeles Dodgers, with a new ownership group eager to prove its commitment to winning to its fan base, made the same error that Boston’s management had made over the previous few years.  They assumed that high payrolls correlated unwaveringly with high win totals.  This assumption was quickly illustrated to be erroneous as the Dodgers promptly went 16-18 to close out the season, failing, like Boston, to make the playoffs.



So does the outcome of the regular season mean that high payrolls are to be avoided while committing minimal funds to unproven players is the preferable alternative?  No, not really.  The Yankees, with the highest payroll in baseball, finished with the best record in the American League, winning their division, making the playoffs and once again emerging as the favorites to win the World Series.  The Houston Astros, the 28th ranked team in terms of payroll, set a franchise record for losses in a season for the second year in a row, with a staggering 107.  Money does indeed correlate with success more often than not.  That said, what this season does prove is that even teams with abundant funds need to be creative.  Throwing money at the problem and nothing else is a recipe for futility.  It is ironic that the Boston Red Sox of all teams, a franchise  which watched its arch rivals, the Yankees, fail miserably year after year in the 1980s and '90s to win a title, despite having the highest payroll in baseball more often than not,  made the exact same mistake only a few seasons later.  Belatedly, they realized what the Oakland Athletics had long known, as given the rendering of their exploits in the Michael Lewis tome, Moneyball: that thinking outside the box, building the organization from within, avoiding, unless absolutely necessary, long -term contracts that were difficult to disengage from if the expected results were not achieved, could result in success. 


By finding a dupe in the Los Angeles Dodgers, one willing to take on the responsibility of such onerous long-term deals gone bad, the Red Sox operated in a fashion that can only be described as Oaklandesque. Irony abounds.  As one who has rooted for the Red Sox throughout his life, this author sincerely hopes that such creativity, such willingness to go against convention by recognizing and correcting mistakes when made, even if such corrections involve the public admission of past mistakes, continues as the Boston franchise moves forward into what is sure to be a long and interesting off-season.  A manager needs to be chosen and new players found.  By placing the bad habits of the past in the dustbin of history, especially the willingness to overspend on big-name free agents, I hope to see a marriage of Boston’s immense revenue-generating abilities, still a great strength, if one that needs to be more properly employed, with the creativity of Oakland,  which has no such reservoir of funds at its disposal.  This would be, indeed, the best of both worlds, one that holds the potential to place several more World Championships on Boston’s mantle.



Author Bio:

Michael Cancella is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


Photos: Official websites of the Boston Red Sox, Oakland A's, New York Yankees; John H. White (Wikipedia Commons).

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