Monday, September 17, 2012

Elite club list changes through season, but how much?


At the start of the season, it was commonly said that six of the best major league baseball clubs are in the American League. Since then, Boston has come off that elite list, and the one NL team on it, Philadelphia, has struggled through injuries to a losing record at this point. Are sudden AL contenders in Chicago, Oakland and Baltimore really good enough to move up to such a list?

By BILL PETERSON
Big Leagues in Los Angeles


Entering the season, the perceived dominance of the American League was illustrated by a common observation that the AL included six of the best seven clubs across the major leagues.

We thought it had to be a little crazy. But we went along with it, anyway, because the National League was so badly off. Its mega market franchises in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago all were mediocre or worse on the field, and all were financially constrained from making improvements. Two other NL franchises might have belonged on some such top seven list, but the St. Louis Cardinals lost free agent Albert Pujols to the Angels and the Milwaukee Brewers lost free agent Prince Fielder to the Detroit Tigers. Those two deals, alone, are probably why the Angels and Tigers were in the mythical top seven, and the Cardinals and Brewers weren't.

The point of such a list, of course, was never to say, "Here's a list of the best seven teams across baseball. Oh, look! Six of them are in the American League!" The point was to say more like, "The American League is so much stronger than the National League that the AL has six teams as good as or better than the best team in the NL."

So, maybe your list of the best seven teams across baseball starting this season was like everyone else's, and it included six from the American League. It included, of course, the three teams causing all the fuss in the AL East -- the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays. Then, it would have to include the Texas Rangers, winners of two straight American League pennants. And the other two would be, as mentioned, the Angels and Tigers after making those big upgrades. The only National League club on that list would have been the Philadelphia Phillies, winners of five straight divisions leading to six postseason series victories, along with two pennants and a world championship.

And what are we to say of the AL's position now that the one premium NL franchise, Philadelphia, is struggling after injuries to break even on the baseball field? It would appear that the NL, with its wide open competitive terrain and lack of a big-market winner, is at a disadvantage for producing a competitive power on the scale of the leading AL franchises.

A week after Labor Day, we see a couple discrepancies between the list and the standings, and the final playoff alignment could make the list look silly. But the list is mostly right. Boston has decided it didn't like its chemistry and now is off the list for sure. Philadelphia, destroyed by injuries for three months, has rallied since Ryan Howard and Chase Utley are back in the lineup. The Phillies are waging a playoff campaign. The Phillies probably are worth an injury reprieve and should stay on the list, anyway, but we might also be seeing why they surely belong.

The other five AL teams on the list are still kicking hard. The Yankees are winning the American League East. The Rangers are winning the American League West. The Rays, Tigers and Angels all are within three games of winning a division or some kind of playoff spot.

So, no, the commonly cited list of the best teams across baseball isn't being precisely validated by the standings right now. Yes, there are surprises, and we might end up with only two of our magic seven making the playoffs. But, no, the surprise winners won't, just like that, become entries on next year's list of seven elite contenders.

We’ll talk here and for now only about the AL teams that might be maintained or considered for such a list. It’s evident that NL franchises in Washington, Los Angeles and Cincinnati are making moves to merit such a discussion, and NL franchises in St. Louis and San Francisco should already be on the table. On them, more another time.

As we’re taking down Boston, we’re also reliably confident that events will favor the Yankees and Rangers for sustained inclusion on the short list. Nor would we take down the Tigers, Angels or Rays, who are, after all, contending. They're not playoff clubs today, but that could change a week from now. And it is wild watching the Angels, with all their firepower, digging and clawing for one little lifeline to a one-game wild card playoff, because if their pitching rotation stays together, they can take that line a long way.

The Angels, Rays and Tigers might be on shaky grounds, but why should they be? They are contending in the world's toughest baseball league deep into the season, and that's what is minimally required. If actually making the playoffs were required, our list couldn't include six AL clubs in the first place. Some sense of the club's aspirations must come into play.

Hence, we might still include the Angels, even if they completely miss the playoffs, because you know the ownership is gunning for it. By contrast, we might not include the Chicago White Sox just because they are winning the American League Central. The White Sox are built to be good enough so they'll come in around .500 if the ball doesn't bounce their way, but they'll score runs in bunches and be really hard to beat when it does. The White Sox get their bounces every other year, and this year is one of those years. But that doesn't mean they're a contender next year.

That's the Kenny Williams White Sox, and you can knock it, but why bother? Every other year, he produces a representative team that cards 86 to 90 wins. Only once in 11 years as the White Sox GM has Williams produced a truly bad team. He's had a payroll or two get away from him, but he likes to keep it tucked in around $100 million. It might be enough to go to the playoffs, but it might also just be deep contention into September. The White Sox did put it all together in 2005. Either way, the White Sox are in the mix half of the time at $100 million.

This points to an advantage the Chicago clubs have over their large-market brethren in New York and Los Angeles. The Chicago clubs could very sensibly settle in at the $97 million the White Sox are paying now, which isn't even in the top ten. Paying just about that, and adding for inflation, the White Sox or Cubs can guarantee that they will be in the mix at least every other year because none of their divisional foes has the market resources to make them pay for not spending.

It is almost always disastrous for Chicago’s division competitors to spend $100 million. The Twins topped $100 million last year, and they regretted it. The Tigers might regret their $132 million expenditure this year. Milwaukee is on $98 million without paying Prince Fielder, and the Brewers are regretting it. The Reds won't go there. Neither will Cleveland, Pittsburgh or Kansas City. The Cardinals are spending $110 million, but they know what they're doing.

So large is Chicago relative to its competing markets that the Cubs or White Sox could name the price of a division title, provided they know what they're doing, which the Cubs didn't, which is why they're still digging out of all those contracts. But Theo Epstein trimmed the Cubs from $125 million to $88 million, and one supposes his marching orders sound quite a lot like what we see from Williams.

Set a payroll amount at the lowest level that is easily obtainable in Chicago, but which is perilous for the other markets in the division. Nowadays, $100 million is pretty good. Feel blessed. That's $180 million in Los Angeles or New York. Now, put together a solid team for $100 million and follow the bouncing ball. Other teams will outspend you at their peril. You will have a contender half the time, raking in Chicago revenues after paying closer to Cleveland prices for players. That's a sensible way to run a baseball business in Chicago. We're seeing it at work in the White Sox today. But they won't go the extra mile for premium players, because they don't have to.

The White Sox don't have to aspire to greatness, so they don't. They aspire to run a sound baseball business, squeezing out every last possible dollar, in the spirit of Charles Comiskey himself. Nothing wrong with that. But it's also why the White Sox never seem quite up to elite status. That and, of course, they’re the White Sox.

Likewise, surprise AL contenders this year from Baltimore and Oakland are very unlikely to show up on anyone's list of seven elite contenders before the start of next season, no matter how well they do this season. Both teams are so surprising this year that they would be equally surprising next year.

The Orioles are 82-64, 11 games better than their Pythagorean W-L, which is 71-75. They are 27-8 in one-run games. This is what it has taken for the Orioles to achieve their first winning season in 15 years. One figures that their luck has to run out, except that it's running out of time for their luck to run out. So, right now, they are in a playoff position. But the analysts will look at all those one-run victories and be very afraid of what to expect for this club next year.

Across major league baseball today, the Oakland Athletics are, absolutely and without qualification, what is happening. Since June 13, the A's are 56-27, the best record in baseball. This club has been a treat to watch all year, and it really bears watching now that it has surged to the top wild card spot, even breathing on the Texas Rangers in the AL West. The Oakland pitchers don’t walk people and they keep the ball in the yard. The offense is next to nothing, but you can be sure Coco Crisp is involved when it is something. The A's win games in the margins, which is thrilling to see. It's also why one expects a comedown for their young players next year.

So, even if we wanted to remove the Angels and Rays from the elite seven, no one in the American League has emerged who would compel us to do so. Indeed, we wonder sometimes, as we survey the game’s cellar dwellers, if the AL might not also have six of the seven worst teams. Minnesota and Cleveland would surely be on that list, Kansas City is making no progress just because the Twins and Indians suddenly are worse than they are, Boston is starting all over and looks terrible these days, and Toronto lacks luster even when it peaks as a .500 team. A tournament of AL losers for the second half would be won by Seattle, which is 21-3 against these other five lightweights since the All-Star break. With all that said, it’s hard to remove NL franchises in Chicago and Houston from any list of the game’s worst teams right now.

But might candidates emerge from the NL to break the AL stranglehold on elite franchises? To that, we shall soon turn.


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