Bustin’ the Cap: Why a Salary Cap Would Do Nothing for Baseball

November 7, 2009   ·     ·   Jump to comments
Article Source: Bleacher Report - New York Yankees

It has been brought up countless times, By owners and fans alike, “The MLB needs a salary cap.”  

Every year the argument is renewed, and with five of the eight teams that made the playoffs this year having payrolls over $100 million and of course with the much maligned New York Yankees money machine taking home the Commisioner’s Trophy the cries of foul play seem as loud as ever.

But would a salary cap actually help baseball to become more competitive?  The chances of one ever really becoming reality is remote at best but even if one was set in place what would the real consequences be?


Never Gonna Happen

Many owners claim that a salary cap is needed in baseball to get small market teams back in the hunt for October.  But when you consider the logistics of a salary cap and how it would effect salaries, it is more likely to effect owner’s wallet sizes more than anything else.  

But all of that is really moot when you look at what entity is really holding all the cards in the debate over a cap: The Players’ Union .

For years, owners squeezed players for all they could.  In fact, the Yankees of the 40’s and 50’s were probably the most underpaid team in baseball for the level of success they achieved.

Then, in the early 60s, things started to change.  Gradually the power shifted over to the players and they never looked back.

Many from the era were not thrilled over the inflated salaries but were convinced that owners had nothing to blame but their own greed.

The last thing players would want today is to give all of that power back to the league and take massive pay cuts just so owners can get richer.

It is true that the minimum salary would increase, but the players would also lose out on the chance to have the five mansions and 15 cars that they’ve always dreamed of owning.

It may only be a shoving match between the super rich to see who can sit on the higher mountain of gold, but The Players’ Union is the much bigger kid in this fight.


It’s Not The NFL

Let’s get something straight: What works for football, isn’t necessarily going to work for baseball.  To make an easy analogy; Baseball is Reagan’s U.S.A., Football is Lenin’s U.S.S.R.

In the NFL, the league has all the power.  Every team has regulated salaries and T.V. deals (Television deals are how other big sports clubs make most of their money).  In fact, teams legally are identified as one large company rather than 32 separate entities.

The players are almost completely at the mercy of the league.  If a team doesn’t want to pay someone, they can just cut them.  The union has to fight tooth and nail to get anything out of the league.  The only real leverage a player has is to not play at all.

In the MLB, it is every team for themselves.  This really gives teams the opportunity to make as much money as they can and spend it however they want.  

Of course, it also doesn’t do anything to save clubs from bad owners who run the team into the ground competitively and financially.  It also cripples teams with weak fan bases.  

If owners like the Steinbrenners want to put $200 million plus into their line up no one is going to stop them, but the same goes for the team with the owner who’d rather put that 200 million into buying his next mansion.

It is a much more competitive business model, but it also allows players to control their own destiny to a much greater extent than in the NFL.  

Neither is really good or bad but they are undeniably different.


Let’s Make Believe

Okay, so even though it is more likely that Ghandi is playing centerfield for the Reds next season than it is that we’ll see a salary cap in baseball, let’s just suppose.  What would be the result?

First, we’d need to decide which type of cap baseball will use.  There are two kinds, hard caps and soft caps .  Hard caps strictly enforce the limit and under almost no circumstances can a team breach them.

Soft caps set a spending limit but allow for teams to pass it on special circumstances. In fact, in the soft cap NBA, nearly every team comes in over the salary cap every year.

Well, right off, we probably wouldn’t be looking at the hard salary cap that we see in the NFL.  Why?  Besides the differing pay scales from the MLB to the NFL (compare the best kicker’s salary with the best quarterback’s, then compare the best right fielders salary with the best second baseman’s), while I did say we would make believe, if we are about to sit here and say that the player’s union is going to agree to a hard salary cap, I’m going to just get up right now and take my flying carpet to my date with Marilyn Monroe circa 1950…on the Moon.

So a soft cap it is, then.  Let’s put it at $120 million and cut current payrolls by about 20 percent to account for adjusted salaries.  This leaves the Yankees as the only team in breach of the cap by roughly $30 million.  It seems like the baseball giants will finally need to say goodbye to their exorbitant salaries, or will they?

One of the biggest stipulations of the soft cap is the exception for veteran players.  This policy exists in the NBA in order to allow players that have played over a certain number of years with one team to stay with that team.

Suddenly, players like A-Rod, Jeter, Posada, Rivera don’t even need to worry about the salary cap.  Yes, the Yankees may be able to spend the huge bucks on a free agent as frequently as they would in the past, but not much would be likely to change in the landscape of baseball.

Not only would the Yankees and other big spenders not be hit too hard by the cap after all, it could end up hurting teams near the bottom even more.  With no more luxury tax coming in the only pick-me-up small market teams ever got will be gone (There would still be a luxury tax but unless teams breached the new cap by a large amount they’d be unlikely to qualify).  

And just because the big teams can’t spend as much doesn’t mean the smaller ones are going to magically start spending more.

It doesn’t much matter what sport you’re playing.  You can’t spend less than $50 million a year on payroll and expect to compete.


What Would Make A Difference?

So if a salary cap isn’t the answer to the competition gap in baseball, what is?

First, what actually makes the NFL and NBA more competitive?  

The playoff system and scheduling.

Scheduling really is the great equalizer of the NFL.  In case you don’t know, the league purposefully gives weak teams one year easier schedules the next in order to increase competition.  

The salary cap didn’t get the Miami Dolphins from 1-15 in 2007 to 11-5 in 2008, the schedule did (that and Tom Brady’s knee).

The playoff systems in both the NBA and NFL help immensely in keeping things interesting.  Four more teams make the playoffs in the NFL than in baseball, and eight more in basketball.  This means a team can barely play above .500 on the season and still cruise into the playoffs.

Neither of these options are really viable for baseball.  

The scheduling would be impossible given the length of the season and that the teams play almost every day.  

The playoff system is logistically possible but an equally unlikely choice given the unpredictable nature of baseball games and how long it would take, unless of course you want to watch the World Series on Thanksgiving between the fourth and fifth best teams in the league.

So what could work?  One idea that has been floating around this year that I personally think is great is to have a second Wild Card team.  There would be a one-game-playoff after the season ends between the two teams to see who will advance to the first round against the #1 team.

This would work in not only adding another team to the playoff hunt but It would also motivate teams to try and win their divisions, keeping division races more competitive.

As recently as 1998, the Yankees weren’t the highest payroll in baseball (the Orioles were No. 1 by a small margin).  The Yankees didn’t begin to outspend other teams by a significant margin until 2003 and they only just won their first World Series since then.

The Yankees definitely have an advantage by being the richest team in baseball.  But people often get too caught up in the Yankee spending to actually notice how competitive the MLB really is.  

In the last 20 years, 14 different teams have won the World Series, compare that to only 12 different teams winning the Super Bowl and only seven different teams winning the NBA championship.

For all the cries for a salary cap, outside of the Yankees, no team in baseball has won more than two World Series since 1975!  Hardly what you could call a non-competitive landscape.

The Yankees are going to keep right on spending their money and as long as they do fans of teams with owners who won’t or can’t are going to cry foul.

But before they cry for a salary cap they should take a minute to look at other sports leagues and look at what a salary cap gets you.  

Sports are dominated by teams with big fan bases and smart owners regardless of the type of ball in play .  That is exactly what the Yankees have, and salary cap or no, none of that is going to change.

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