Williams: The Latest Example MLB’s Massive Difference For Big and Small Markets

In one of my final years as an Orioles fan, I was sitting in my dorm room, getting ready to leave for winter break, when I saw the news: the Orioles had signed Miguel Tejada.

I quickly grabbed my phone, jumped up on my couch, and called my roommate to exclaim: We got Tejada!

I was part jumping for joy, and part jumping because our phones would only work if you held them up high in the corner of the room.

The Orioles were trying to go big that offseason. They were trying to mimic the Yankees and build a team through free agency. So they added Tejada, Javy Lopez, and Rafael Palmeiro. Their big pitching addition? Sidney Ponson.

The team ended up having a losing season, right in the middle of 14 losing seasons in a row. This came because they spent all of their resources on hitters, and had no pitching. The Orioles could try to build a team through free agency, but they would fall short.

I don’t want to say it’s the same situation this year. Their offense ranks last, and their pitching ranks 26th. But they did have one of the best trade chips on the market in Manny Machado, who they dealt to the Dodgers over the All-Star break. The reviews I saw were that the Orioles didn’t get a great return, and that the Dodgers got a key piece to help them make a run for the World Series. But perhaps the most apt summary came from Jon Heyman, who summed up the move as a “big move” for the Dodgers and a “necessary one” for the Orioles.

If that doesn’t sum up the state of MLB right now, I don’t know what does.

For the Dodgers, they gave up their fourth best prospect as the key to the deal, and added to become stronger contenders for the World Series. They’re not going to really need any of the prospects they gave up, and that statement would have been true if they gave up one of their higher ranked guys. They’re in a league that allows them to make a big move and go for it, without a second thought or any consideration for the future.

Then there’s the Orioles, who had no choice but to trade Machado. They knew they weren’t keeping him beyond this season, and had to get something for him. They were trading a guy who would make any top contender a favorite for the World Series, and knew they had to trade him, even if they weren’t getting the strongest return. They’re in a league that puts a limit on how long small market teams can have good players, and forces those teams to trade those players, or work around a difficult contract if they do manage to re-sign them.

The sad part is that the Dodgers and Orioles are actually in the same league — a league that treats big market and small market teams massively different. And that difference is only getting worse.

There used to be a time that a guy like Machado would easily fetch the top prospect in the system — even if he is only around for two months. But big market teams saw small market clubs getting an advantage by building around those top prospects, so they stopped trading them. The small market teams still needed to unload the expiring contracts, and had no choice but to make a deal, even if the best prospects were untouchable now.

Now you’ve got so many big market teams operating with small market strategies, building from within and hoarding their best prospects, but also spending big on free agents and trading for top rentals. The small market teams have to make the trades when they’re not contending, they can’t sign the top free agents to replace the guys they lost, and they can’t really make a trade like the Dodgers just made without having to think about the concept of going all-in, or closing windows.

The Dodgers didn’t go all-in. They didn’t close a window. Those aren’t terms that big market teams use. It’s just business as usual. MLB is designed for teams like the Dodgers to easily trade for Manny Machado, with no consequence and only benefits. MLB is also designed for teams like the Orioles to trade Manny Machado for the best return possible, even if it isn’t great, and hope that move and others will be enough to allow them to contend in a few years — at which point they will only have a few years to contend, and will shorten those years if they make a move like the Dodgers made.

MLB is not equal at all between big and small market teams, and this Machado trade is the latest example. Unfortunately, none of this will change as long as the league is easily making money, as it would take a big work stoppage to make these massive changes. The only hope is that the players decide they’re not getting enough of a cut of revenues and lead the charge for a change in the future against the owners.

Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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