Less than 24 hours after the richest team in baseball won the World Series, its biggest foe began reloading for next year by making a trade. The Boston Red Sox are among baseball's most affluent as well, so giving up a couple of prospects to the Florida Marlins for high-ceiling outfielder Jeremy Hermida(notes) amounted to a no-brainer.
Never mind that Hermida will cost around $4 million this season and, depending on Boston's other maneuvers, might play a fourth-outfielder role. The Red Sox, just like the recently crowned New York Yankees and another handful of teams with payroll flexibility, can afford such luxuries. In a market that could see an overload of young, arbitration-eligible players deemed unaffordable by small-market teams, those high-revenue teams could be in an even more dominant position than before.
In other words: Get used to seeing the Yankees and their ilk in the World Series.
How that can happen when Major League Baseball so proudly trumpets its sport as a more real testament to parity than the NFL is the collision of two combustible factors: the depression of the free-agent market and the increase in salaries for arbitration-eligible players. Free agency is supposed to be a player's nirvana. In many cases, the automatic raises given to players in their fourth, fifth and sixth seasons can make them more.
So the trade of Hermida from low-revenue Florida to big-bucks Boston, just like the rumored deal of Mark Teahen(notes) from the Kansas City Royals to the Chicago White Sox, may be the start of an offseason as packed with activity as any in recent memory. With a Dec. 12 deadline to tender a contract to players, general managers will be in overdrive during the Dec. 7-10 winter meetings, trying to get some return on players they plan to nontender – or, more simply, dump.
"Get ready," one small-market American League team official said, "for a lot more."
The first stops in the selling GMs' contact lists, of course, will be the numbers for executives with nine-figure payrolls. Nine teams cracked $100 million on opening day last year; five of them made the postseason. And if baseball's equality argument didn't die with that reality, perhaps it will when the have/have-not divide becomes even greater until the 2011 collective-bargaining talks aim for a solution.
The disparity is greatest at the top, where the Yankees bathe in money while some teams can draw a tub only half full. Yeah, yeah. Grass is green, sky is blue, etc. Everyone knows the Yankees are the last living embodiment of Wall Street in American sports, and yet the figures still stagger: New York made $100 million more in revenue than any other team, according to calculations from Forbes. And the Yankees brought in twice the revenue of 18 teams.
Granted, the majority of those teams receive money from MLB's revenue-sharing program, to which the Yankees are the greatest donor. It doesn't lessen New York's ability to spend preposterous money, whether it's the billion-plus dollars over the past half-decade or the $300 million lavished on Alex Rodriguez(notes), the $180 million given to Mark Teixeira(notes) or the $161 million bestowed upon CC Sabathia(notes). Those contracts, along with that of A.J. Burnett(notes), give the Yankees a commitment toward 2013 of $92.9 million. Which is bigger than the 2009 payrolls of all but a dozen teams.
For the next few years, at least, they also put the Yankees in proper position to keep winning. Yes, A-Rod's hip remains a concern, even after his transcendent October; Jorge Posada(notes) looks more like a DH/catcher than an everyday backstop; and Derek Jeter's(notes) contract becomes an issue for the first time in a decade after 2010. Plus, Yankees GM Brian Cashman must determine whether to re-sign Johnny Damon(notes) or World Series MVP Hideki Matsui(notes) (or both – or neither), how long to extend Mariano Rivera(notes) (who said he wants to play five more years) and which, if any, of the big-name free agents this offseason appeal to him. The Yankees, almost without fail, appeal to them.
Be it Matt Holliday(notes), Jason Bay(notes) or John Lackey(notes), the Yankees can offer more than anyone and can do so with the backing of a big, fat, knuckle-to-knuckle ring. Should they particularly fancy a nontender, they can pay him more – or give up a prospect to ensure he doesn't hit the open market, as the Red Sox did with Hermida.
Cash in baseball yields more than talent. It buys the freedom to take risks and the leeway to make mistakes. It gives players the knowledge that, come June and July, if a team needs to improve, that club can purchase reinforcements. It allows for peace of mind with the Yankees, who watched their plan to build around pitching from the farm system (Joba Chamberlain(notes), Phil Hughes(notes), Ian Kennedy(notes)) implode, only to find rescue with a quarter-billion-dollar bailout from Goldman Steinbrenner.
Now, let it be said: Money does not equal a World Series championship. It never did and it never will. It does drastically increase the chances that a team will make the postseason, at which point it isn't chalk, per se, but generally leans toward the most talented teams … which are often the most moneyed. There is some sort of equation to explain this from the perspective outside of New York, and it goes like this: $$$$$$$$Yankees$$$$$$$$ = suck.
That equation won't change anytime soon. Unlike the low- and mid-revenue teams freezing or paring payrolls, the Yankees should stay in the neighborhood of $200 million, if not in excess. The YES Network is a cash cow. Merchandise sales are going to be bonkers. Seats – even the champagne-and-caviar ones – will sell next year. A championship whets the appetite of every Yankees fan and leaves the lingering feeling that makes you hungry for more.
The rest of the baseball world, meanwhile, wretches at the prospect of continued Yankees dominance. There is no equalizer, like a salary cap, to reel in New York's spending – only the team's weighing of bottom line vs. success, a scale that tips toward the latter year in and year out.
Philadelphia was more than a sacrificial lamb, certainly, but the Phillies ran into a hotter, more talented Yankees team, and that's a bad combination. It's frightening to think the Yankees' payroll was about $85 million more than the Phillies' – the biggest disparity since the Yankees outspent the Marlins in 2003 by more than $100 million and lost – but it's a truth that isn't worth fighting because it's changing no time soon.
"The Yankees won the World Series," team president Randy Levine said, "and all is right with the world again."
Although he could've chosen words a little less, well, embarrassingly obnoxious, Levine's point rang true because it's surprising that a team so endowed (with revenue, with fans, with history and, most of all, with talent) could go nine years between World Series victories and six years between appearances. That's not happening again, not anytime soon.
The landscape is shifting, the chasm widening, baseball beginning its descent toward a place it can't afford to go long term. The consequences are playing themselves out, and right into the hands of the New York Yankees, who are poised to start the next decade just as they did this one: with a championship.