Williams: Nothing Shows the Inequality of MLB Like the Playoffs

This time of year has always been the time of year that really highlights how the deck is stacked against small market teams in baseball. Or at least that has been my experience when writing about a small market team at this time of year — regardless of whether that team is in the playoffs or not.

Let’s look at the teams that are still remaining in the playoffs…

First, you’ve got the Brewers, who are getting a lot of praise and credit for their offseason moves which led to them winning the NL Central, and now just three wins away from the World Series. If they win, they’ll be used as the latest model for small market success, and will most likely be used as an argument to counter the premise of this article and articles like it.

If the Brewers do win it all, they would be just the third team since 1993 to win a World Series with a payroll in the bottom half of the league. The Astros were one of those teams last year, but that’s hardly a small market success story, since their local TV deal pays them $80 M a year, and they shot up this year to one of the top ten payrolls in baseball.

Then you’ve got the remaining teams — the Dodgers, Red Sox, and Astros. While the Brewers opened the season at around $90 M, the other three remaining teams opened the season in the top ten for team payrolls, with the Red Sox out-spending all teams.

The Brewers are getting praise because they’re taking advantage of their window. They added some of the best offseason additions, and managed to pull together a winning team on a budget. But make no mistake: they’ve got a window. They might have a nice run for a few years. They might even boost their payroll into the top half of the league. But the rebuilding time will eventually come.

We saw all of this happen with the Royals. They made the World Series in 2014, won it all in 2015, saw their payroll go way up in the following years, and now they’re in a rebuild and cutting salary.

On the flip side, you’ve got the Red Sox, the Dodgers, and the Astros, who enter every season with a strong chance to make the playoffs. The Dodgers have made it six years in a row now. The Red Sox have made it three years in a row, and won it all in 2013. The Astros have made it three of the last four years. And with some of the biggest TV deals and budgets in the game, there’s no reason to think that these teams will be going anywhere, unless they get hammered by injuries or really screw things up in a given year.

The Pirates obviously aren’t in the playoffs right now, which is why I’m writing about windows of contention, payroll budgets in the short-term and long-term, and possible offseason moves that generate the inevitable dream of Manny Machado from the fanbase.

At best, the Pirates could do what the Brewers did and make some shrewd moves, have the majority of things go right, and get in position to where they can win a World Series one year.

Meanwhile, the big market teams don’t view their chances of competing as such a pipe dream. They don’t have windows of contention. They only worry about payroll budgets if they’re spending too much and don’t want to pay a luxury tax. And someone like Manny Machado isn’t an offseason dream. He’s just an option, and a realistic one who would only draw serious competition from other big market teams.

The MLB playoffs have the feeling of a vacation spot for small market teams. They might get there for a short amount of time, but you know that eventually they are going home and saving up for their next trip, hoping they can make it back sooner than later. Meanwhile, the big market teams live in the vacation spot. That is their home. And when they leave, you know it’s only a short trip away, and they always have an easy way to get back home.

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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