Sunday, February 24, 2013

The NL is Going To Get Better

This pitchers' mound we're standing on? It's made of money.
Over the past decade and a half or so, the consensus in baseball circles has been that the American League is much, much better than the National League. Watch the All-Star Games, tally up interleague play, and fiddle with the advanced metrics on the rosters and it's clear: more of the better talent is in the AL. Yeah, occasionally a San Francisco or a St. Louis can snaffle up a World Series win, but Billy Beane can tell you all there is to know about the sort of small sample size you get in the playoffs, and how well one's crap works therein. (Hint: it doesn't.)

There are two reasons for this. One is simple: the DH. Yes, AL and NL rosters are generally constructed differently - few NL teams can afford to carry a DH-level masher on the bench. As a result, the gap between the AL team's regular DH and the bench jockey pressed into service for an NL team during games at AL parks is much bigger than the gap between an AL team's godawful hitting pitchers and an NL team's just plain awful ones. Multiply that gap by four trips through the lineup per game, and you're looking at a real disadvantage, one that can add up over time.

But the real time the DH makes a difference is in the offseason. Why? Because that's when the free agent contracts get handed out, and AL teams have an extra weapon at their disposal, which lets them go years longer on contract offers. When a big bopper slows down to the point where he can't play the field anymore, an AL team can slide him over to DH. That means they can make contract offers that run past any reasonable projection of a guy being an asset in the field because they'll still be able to reap the rewards of his offense without taking a hit for his defense.

An NL team, on the other hand, just has to hope that Ryan Howard's not eating too many Subway sandwiches, so that he can still sort of move for the duration of his contract extension.

So AL teams can bid longer and thus offer more money for top talent, and NL teams get the choice of A)overpaying and getting stuck with a $20M/year roster anchor for the back end of a long-term contract or B)letting prime talent drain away to the AL, or as we like to call it, "Albert Pujols".
So that's one reason, and it's a good one. But the other, and arguably the more powerful one, was financial.

Specifically, it was the Yankees. And the Red Sox. And the rivalry therebetween. Every year those two battled for dominance in the AL East; most years both made the playoffs. And knowing that both were going make the playoffs put a hell of a lot of pressure on every other AL team, who were on notice from day 1 of spring training that the Wild Card was already spoken for. There would be two choices: win their division, or be the Royals. And so, with only one route to the playoffs, teams spent. And teams developed. And teams got good, largely by spending but also by trading the fruits of their development systems to the NL, because hey, everyone else in the AL was after the same thing they were and you don't give the guy trying to shoot out your tires more bullets. Simply put, the Yankees and Red Sox being good forced everyone else to keep up. There was no other choice.

The NL, on the other hand, had no bullies like that. Without a couple of titans to keep the pressure on, the possibilities for a playoff spot were greater. The need to excel was less. Sure, the Phillies tried it for a couple of years in their quest to get every starting pitcher who'd ever scored a Cy Young vote, but they quickly exhausted their supply of trade chits and their budget (see again: Howard, Ryan) through bad roster construction. It's hard to play roster bully when you've got no place to put a new acquisition.
And so NL teams shot for a lower target to reach the playoffs, because there was no need to become a monster. It wouldn't matter until the World Series, and then, hey, it's a seven game crapshoot. Good enough, right? Good enough.

But all that changes now, because the NL has its deep-pocketed bully. The Dodgers, they've got money. Lots of money. Nor are they afraid to spend it, because their new ownership recognizes they're in a war for hearts and minds with Angels owner Arte Moreno, and he's no stranger to the big splash himself. So hello Zack Greinke. And hello Hyun-Jin Ryu. And hello Adrian Gonzalez, and hello Carl Crawford, and hello contract extensions, and hello massive overpayment for Brandon League, and, whew, yes, we have a bully on our hands, one that's not afraid to throw its TV contract money around like Scott Boras' client list is a pole dancer and they're Pacman Jones.

The Giants will have to counter, of course. They need to win to keep that stadium filled, because they're a bit more fiscally responsible than their brethren and actually own the damn thing. So winning means opening the checkbook and competing with the Dodgers. And the Phillies - proud owners of the largest single-team market in the NL, with a new TV deal coming soon - now have financial competition for prime talent, which means Ruben Amaro Jr is going to have to up his game and make deals for players a little more desirable than Delmon Young. And the Nationals, seeing themselves as the team to beat, are already responding, spending lavishly in lucre and draft picks to grab a second closer in hopes that'll put them over the top and past LA. And soon the Mets are going to come out of their Madoff-induced hibernation and the NL will see the power of a fully armed and operational New York franchise. Which will then have to get better, to compete with its southern neighbors in order to steal attention from the guys over in the Bronx, who started this whole mess.

So. Bemoan the fact that the Dodgers sale was for an amount of money that Caligula would pause in flagrante delicto with a horse to call "obscene". Decry the fact that said sale put so much money into the pockets of genuinely horrible human being Frank McCourt and that piece of human drywall he used to be married to. Wax cautionary about how these local cable deals fueling massive salary inflation for high-end stars are a temporary thing. But understand: if the NL is going to catch up to the AL, or even come close, it's the sale of the Dodgers that'll be the cause.

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