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"Why has the free-agent draft gone the way it has?" Herzog asks in exasperation. "Why are people who haven't played or pitched an inning of professional baseball getting the kind of money they do? That's something that hasn't even been addressed. Let's take Drew. Drew got $7 million. Next year somebody's going to get $9 or $10 million. Before they ever play. You've got very few guys that can come from college and play. They've still gotta play in the minor leagues, and some of them never make it."
"A draft is a crapshoot in any sport," says Costas. "We know it's more of a crapshoot in baseball. If you look at the first 10 players selected in a baseball draft over the last 10 years as against the first 10 players in a football or basketball draft, I think a smaller percentage of the baseball players pan out as real starters because it's just less reliable. You're going to think twice about laying out millions of dollars for a first-round draft choice. Some teams that don't have financial means are going to back away, like Whitey is saying, and take the most prudent and economical route."
The system is similarly weighted in favor of the high-revenue clubs on the international level, where players are not subject to the draft. "Forty percent of the players in professional baseball are from outside the country," notes Sandy Alderson, vice president of baseball operations for Major League Baseball (MLB). "That means 40 percent of the players are not subject to the draft, which means that if you have money and are prepared to take a risk, you have access to players that other clubs do not. If you're spending a million dollars and that represents 1 percent of your revenues, you're willing to take a slightly different risk than if it represents 5 percent of your revenues.
"There are only a few ways that you can acquire players," summarizes Alderson: the amateur draft, international signings, trades, major-league free agency and six-year minor-league free agency. "The big-revenue clubs have an advantage at every one of those entry points. The good players fall to the big clubs in the draft because players are demanding higher and higher signing bonuses. The big clubs dominate the international amateur-talent market. The big clubs are able to make trades for players who are approaching free agency or making so much money in salary arbitration that a smaller club can't afford to hold onto that player. And they also have an advantage, of course, in the free-agent market: They have the money to spend. The only place where a smaller club has an advantage is in this six-year minor-league free-agent market. Why? Because the currency there is not money; the currency is opportunity, playing time. And that's something that the smaller clubs are able to offer because their better players are constantly migrating to the bigger-market clubs."
Access to money -- not good scouting, not baseball smarts -- is increasingly the sole determinant in building a quality club. "The ways in which the teams that couldn't overspend for free agents in the past used to be able to remain competitive, even those means are drying up," says Costas.
"Part of the difficult-to-explain-but-we-all-understood-it-as-kids appeal of baseball was the idea that a combination of guile, resourcefulness and luck could lead any team to win. There's a big difference between making a shrewd trade and just piling the biggest pile of cash in front of (LA Dodgers pitcher) Kevin Brown. Some combination of farm system, key free-agent acquisition, good trades -- that feels like real team building instead of just like acquiring more toys."
So what results if the big kids -- the Yankees' George Steinbrenner and the Braves' Ted Turner and the Dodgers' Rupert Murdoch -- won't share those toys? Most obviously, it reduces the drama of pennant races and diminishes or out-and-out eliminates interest in the cities whose clubs cannot contend. "We're going to have opening day this year," says Herzog, "and we already got 18 teams with no chance of winning out of 30. Maybe two or three more could get lucky, with the divisions set up the way they are -- they could get in the playoffs or be a wild card, but I doubt that. You got 18 teams that can't win."
And some teams, in Costas' estimation, have explicitly foregone the notion that they're in the business of winning pennants. "It has occurred to several teams over the last two to three years," says Costas, "that if you have to spend a minimum of $45 million-$50 million to even have a chance to compete, and if our payroll is at $32 million but that's about as far as we can push it, why not spend $20 million? Why not roll back to $25 million or $20 million, and give away Beanie Babies, and make sure that the grass looks nice at the ballpark, and make sure the ushers are polite, and hope to get people in for that reason? Just sell the baseball experience and don't try to kid anybody about trying to be competitive."
Herzog offers an example: "Say you lived in Minnesota and they announced, 'We're going to have a $10 million payroll, and if we draw a million people, we can break even.' Is that the way you're supposed to run a professional sports team? Weren't you supposed to say, 'We're going to try to win'?"