Baseball is the only one of the four major sports that does not utilize any type of salary cap, and the effects have shown from year to year.
At the beginning of any given season, division-winner and World Series champion predictions correlate strongly with the top-to-bottom ranking of annual payroll. The New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Phillies and Los Angeles Angels are consistently the offseason “winners” and are expected to compete heavily for a playoff spot.
This unchecked spending culture creates a league seemingly devoid of parity, where talent, interest and media focus tend to be directed heavily toward only a few baseball markets.
For that reason, anytime a low-payroll team enjoys season-long success, there is reason to feel happy for the sport.
In 2012, the little guys are really making a statement.
Using this database from USA Today, we can see that (as of this writing) three of the six division leaders, Washington, Cincinnati and the Chicago White Sox, have payrolls under $100 million. Washington and Cincinnati both sit in the bottom half of the league in terms of payroll, ranking 20th and 17th respectively.
The NL East-leading Nationals have approximately $81 million in total payroll this season, more than $116 million less than the AL East-leading New York Yankees. In the standings, the Nationals would sit six games ahead of the Yankees if the two teams played in the same division.
Of course, the Nationals and Yankees do not play in the same division, but looking at these divisional races offers its own remarkable story about low-payroll teams competing with the handful of “Evil Empires” in baseball (and no, Red Sox, Mets and Phillies fans, that term doesn’t just refer to the Yanks these days).
The Reds sit comfortably ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central despite the Cards outspending Cincinnati by $28 million.
In the AL Central, the White Sox sit a game ahead of the Detroit Tigers, who are spending about $35 million more in salary than the Sox are.
The Nats are running away with the NL East despite sharing the space with the Phillies and Marlins, the teams ranked second and seventh respectively on the list of total payroll for 2012. In fact, the division's three teams that spend over $90 million (Philadelphia, Miami and the New York Mets) find themselves looking up in the standings at the Nationals and Atlanta Braves, neither of whom is spending more than $83.4 million on salaries this season.
The AL East and AL West tell similar stories. Though big spenders New York and Texas currently lead their respective divisions, the lowly (in terms of spending) Baltimore Orioles are a game out of first place with a four-game home series against the Yankees looming on the horizon. Likewise, the Oakland Athletics, who rank 29th in the league in total payroll, are within striking distance of the Rangers as we enter the final month.
Of course, that month could play out many different ways. But if the season ended today, a shocking five of the 10 playoff teams would rank in the bottom half of the league’s total salary list. Even taking the new one-game playoff out of the picture, the half of the eight teams that would have traditionally qualified fall under that “bottom half” description.
Only four of the league’s nine $100 million organizations would play into October.
Certainly, management for Philadelphia, Boston, Miami, Los Angeles and other high-spending franchises have no enthusiasm for the success of the little guys, but the avid baseball fan should be jumping for joy about the illusion of parity in the league, even for a year.
Consider all the offseasons in which your team was out of the running for a major free agent simply because the Yankees, Red Sox or Phillies were interested and driving up the price. Consider the countless years of trying to justify your season tickets at Camden Yards, knowing that the Yanks and Sox were a given one-two in the division.
Hell, consider the fact that if somehow, someday, the sport curbed out-of-control spending with a salary cap or better revenue sharing, it would give teams a chance to hang on to key players or court important free agents.
Picture a league of parity, where all 30 teams have legitimate championship aspirations when the first pitch of the season is thrown. Amazingly, that mental image probably bears a striking resemblance to 2012.
Baseball has returned to great franchises like Baltimore and Cincinnati and has finally taken off in the nation’s capital, while the once-dominant Red Sox and Phillies have had the rebuilding process forced upon them for the first time in years. Pittsburgh looks to finish above .500 for the first time in two decades and may even make the playoffs.
Fans outside of the high-payroll cities have a reason to be interested in the sport again, a fact that should excite all baseball fans.
More divisional and wild-card races means more people watching the sport. More people watching means more fans in the stands. More fans in the stands means bigger revenue totals for teams and the sport as a whole.
Discussions about salary caps and new revenue-sharing methods are likely a long way off, but 2012 has the potential to be the year to reference when those discussions do happen. The Empires may return to prominence in 2013, or this temporary parity might hang around for an extra season or two.
Either way, 2012 has been a surprisingly refreshing season for a sport whose predictability and lack of balance have been a reason to alienate small but important groups of fans for many years.