Handle With Care: The Fragility Of The Small Market Ballclub

By: Ethan Swierczewski – Staff Writer

As Major League Baseball’s regular season comes to a close, many fans will find themselves thinking back over the past summer and spring. Some will marvel at their team’s performance, and many more will wonder what went wrong. Fans on both sides of this aisle, however, tend to have the same reactions; shock or unsurprised by their team’s fortunes or misfortunes. Cubs’ and Red Sox’ fans anticipate winning seasons, Giants’ and Angels’ fans are in dismay, and Pirates’ fans have come to expect this sort of thing. What causes this disparity among fans of different teams?

You can probably name a few fan bases that expect their teams to be perennial winners; the Dodgers, Yankees, and Red Sox come to my mind. You can just as easily name several ball clubs frequently associated with the term “losing”; the Athletics, Pirates, and the Reds are good examples. But there is one thing that these six teams all have in common; each has made it to the postseason at least once in the past five years. Why then do Yankees’ fans have higher expectations for their team than Reds’ fans?

Expectations of a team’s fan base are tied to their market size. I define a “small market” team as any club in the bottom third of payroll spending in the league. A small market team faces much tougher odds of making the playoffs consistently than a larger market team, thereby forcing their fans to have lower expectations. You may not see the exact same teams in the playoffs every year (contrary to what your Yankee-hating Uncle Al might say), but you do see the same types of ball clubs. The big market teams like New York, Los Angeles, and Boston make up the majority of the playoff landscape in baseball. The small market teams, such as Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, vie for the remaining spots, where a postseason bid is more comparable to a revolving door.

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It takes a complex combination of financial savvy, smart drafting, and chance for a small market team to have consistent success. Their business models are fragile, where slight miscalculations or unfortunate circumstances can jeopardize an entire season. These teams cannot afford to make mistakes in the most literal sense of the word. Larger market teams with expensive payrolls can correct financial mistakes without batting an eye. This gives them huge advantages over small market teams; they can sign expensive free agents, gamble at the trade deadline, and devote less time and resources to their farm system.

Kansas City Royals celebrate after Alcides Escobar scored on a sacrifice fly by Eric Hosmer in Game 1 of the MLB World Series against the New York Mets, October 2015 (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

A small market team’s long-term success depends on several factors; television revenue, ticket sales, player performance, and a strong farm system. A favorable contract with a television provider supplies much-needed revenue for player payroll, while a bad deal may force teams to “play thin.” Ticket sales boost a team’s bottom line in the same fashion, which is why you see many struggling teams promote “free giveaways” at games to boost the incentive to attend.

“Building through the draft” is an important component to building a cheap, perennial winner. A small market team’s inability to sign expensive free agents or trade for valuable players without “selling the farm” forces them into constructing strong farm systems. Young stars with potential create a window of opportunity for these teams, but these windows are largely dependent on a final factor; player performance. Because small market teams cannot replace struggling players with financial ease, they must invest carefully in their payroll. Expensive players who underperform create a black hole of financial burden. If several players do not perform up to their expectations, a ball club loses games and money.

One example of a small market team’s fragility comes in the Oakland Athletics 2014 season. The A’s were on their way to making their third straight postseason appearance, and decided to risk it all at the trade deadline and “win now”; they traded All-Star Yoenis Cespedes to the Red Sox for Jon Lester and Jonny Gomes. Favorites to win the World Series in July, the Athletics’ season ended with an early exit Wild Card loss to the Royals. They traded away a young piece of talent in Cespedes and damaged their payroll for nothing. They haven’t had a winning season since.

The small market team navigates much more dangerous waters than the average big market club. While their business models are fragile and depend on a number of wavering variables, the underdog is not a rare victor. The Royals won their first World Series since 1985 in 2015, and the 20-year losing streak of the Pirates ended with three straight postseason appearances. But don’t expect to see these same teams year after year; while the small market team is able to compete, they will never reflect the stability of a large market ball club.
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