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First Pitch: As a Small Market Fan, A Little Piece of My Baseball Fandom Just Died

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I remember the day the Baltimore Orioles signed Miguel Tejada. Growing up an Orioles fan, and watching them finish fourth place in the AL East the previous six years, I was growing used to them not having good players. I grew up watching them have a Hall of Fame shortstop in Cal Ripken, along with many other notable players. But Ripken retired and they hit a stretch where they were a pretty horrible team.

Then they signed Tejada. The moment I heard the news, I jumped on my couch in my dorm room, called my roommate (part of this was out of excitement, and part was that my cell phone didn’t work unless I stood on the couch next to the window), and screamed into the phone “WE GOT TEJADA!”

In the following weeks, the Orioles made other big splashes, signing Javy Lopez and Rafael Palmeiro, while also bringing back Sidney Ponson, who was a desired pitcher during this time. They didn’t bring in much pitching help, which was their downfall, and continued with the fourth place finishes in the future, occasionally jumping up to third. But I had stopped being an Orioles fan shortly after these signings.

I don’t exactly remember when it was, but the thought hit me that if the Orioles won by spending a lot of money on free agents, it would just feel cheap and unearned. I spent my entire life hating the Yankees for doing the same thing, so it was hypocritical to cheer for it when the Orioles were attempting the exact same thing. There were other factors involved (Ripken was retired, I didn’t like how Peter Angelos meddled, and they weren’t embracing new metrics or doing a good job with their farm system), but that marked the end of my time as an Orioles fan.

Since then I’ve liked the Athletics, Pirates, Rays, and any other team that could fit under the “small market” label. I often explain that I’m not a Pirates fan, and while I always watched them growing up (my dad’s side of the family is from Pittsburgh, and the Steelers and Penguins were definitely my teams growing up), there were about 3-4 years where I was exclusively a “fan” of the Pirates and no other team. But mostly, I just wanted them to do well, the same as any other small market team.

That’s why I was pulling for the Cleveland Indians to win the World Series over the Cubs this year. Part of that is because I hate the Cubs. I don’t think I need to explain why to Pirates fans. I’ll just say the names Aroldis Chapman, Chris Coghlan, and Joe Maddon. I also hate the “lovable losers” crap, and the one consolation to the Cubs winning the World Series is that this will now end and they will become just another big spending team with no further identity.

One reason I hated talk about the “curse” was because it felt inevitable that the Cubs would eventually win. MLB is designed so that they can win. They’ve got the funds to spend whatever they want in free agency, and once they added a smart General Manager in Theo Epstein, they started making smart moves, while also spending big on free agents to complement their trades and draft picks. That’s the worst nightmare for small market teams, when big market teams combine your tactics with their own ability to spend big money. Also, as a side note, I think I’d be more impressed with Theo Epstein if he turned around a franchise that could only top out at around $100 M in payroll. Not that he’s a bad General Manager (or whatever his official title is). But it’s not like the Red Sox and Cubs had zero resources to work with.

You knew that the Cubs would eventually win, especially after getting Epstein. And they’re probably going to win multiple titles. They worked the system to their advantage, and also benefited from some good timing. They were one of the worst teams in baseball at the best time, right after the new CBA when they could get the top draft talent in the top five picks, while also trading on an extreme seller’s market (Hello, Addison Russell for Jeff Samardzija). They drafted well, and they made smart trades, acting the same way a small market team should act in a rebuild. And then they loaded up on free agents to the tune of $470 M in guaranteed contracts over the last two off-seasons.

Meanwhile, small market teams have to heavily analyze every single move, knowing that very little can go wrong in order for them to have a shot to win it all. The Royals last year were only the second team to win the World Series with a payroll in the bottom half of the league since 1994. Small market teams will have shots at the playoffs, and on the rare occasion a small market team will win it all. But the chances a team like the Cubs have is way better than the chances for a team like the Pirates.

The best way to illustrate this is to look at two similar contracts and situations for those two teams. The Cubs had Miguel Montero making $14 M this year, while also being due $14 M next year. Montero struggled, putting up a -0.1 fWAR on the season, and by the second half, he was losing playing time to Wellington Castillo and David Ross.

And as we all know, the Pirates had Francisco Liriano making $13 M, and due $13 M next year, while putting up a negative fWAR value. They traded him and prospects to shed his salary and get Drew Hutchison.

You could argue that they didn’t have to trade Liriano for salary relief. You could argue that they could afford to spend a bit more than they’re spending right now, even though none of us know exactly how much they can spend. But I don’t think you can argue that the Pirates have some financial limitations, which at the very least puts them in a position to make the Liriano trade. That doesn’t excuse a bad trade, but just look at the difference between the Pirates and the Cubs.

The Pirates were panned for making their trade, and you can easily argue that they’re better off competitively from a financial standpoint without Liriano, as this removes a lot of potential dead weight and allows them to spend on someone who could be better (whether they spend the money is a separate issue, as is the cost to free up this money). Meanwhile, the Cubs didn’t even bat an eye when they cut Montero’s playing time, despite a similar financial situation and lack of production.

It’s not even that one situation. Jason Heyward had a 1.6 fWAR immediately after signing an eight year, $184 M contract. To give this some perspective, Josh Harrison had a 1.5 fWAR this year, and is owed $18.5 M over the next two years. And Pirates fans think that is a lot of dead weight. Can you imagine how screwed the Pirates would be if they had Heyward’s production at his price? Assuming you can imagine them being able to commit $184 M to a player.

That’s the key difference between big and small market teams. It’s the benefit of spending. It’s not that you can sign X amount of extra players and give your team a boost. It’s that you don’t even have to worry about a guy like Liriano struggling, or the lack of value from Harrison’s deal, and you can just go sign replacements and make Liriano an expensive lefty reliever and Harrison an expensive super utility player, while still contending.

Money fixes mistakes. A smart GM on a big market team is always going to have a significant advantage over a smart GM on a small market team. No matter how good the GM is, he will make mistakes, and those will hurt the small market team relatively more. A not-so-smart GM on a big market team can also match the smart small market GM, as the money the big market GM has can make up for his mistakes. And a not-so-smart GM on a small market team just has no chance.

Baseball doesn’t appear to be changing from this, and as a fan of small market teams, that kills me a bit inside each year. When the Cubs win, I don’t see it as a good thing that their fans finally get to enjoy a championship. I see it as further proof that small market teams are screwed, and they’re the ones who are really “cursed” in this system. That’s especially true as more big spending teams catch on to the trend that you can’t just throw money around carelessly, and need to be smart about building your team.

As a fan of small market teams, watching the Cubs win the World Series kills part of my baseball fandom. And if MLB doesn’t fix their broken system, I’m worried that eventually that baseball fandom will be completely dead, killed off by countless Cubs, Red Sox, Yankees, Dodgers, and other big spenders. I also don’t think I’m the only one in this boat.

**AFL Live: Connor Joe Crushes a Home Run on a Busy Day For the Pirates Prospects. A lot of pictures and video from today’s action in the AFL, including video of Joe’s home run.

**Pirates Send Three Players Outright to Indianapolis. They will need to clear two more spots on the 40-man roster soon. I’ll have my off-season primer tomorrow morning.

**Pirates Sign Lefty Pitcher Dan Runzler to Minor League Deal. The minor moves have already started, and this is just another one to add depth.

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Tim Williams
Tim Williams
Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.

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