Waste pitch

The Baltimore Sun

In the case of former Mets manager Willie Randolph, who was dispatched in a middle-of-the-night purge that included two of his lieutenants, he had been handed a roster with the second-highest payroll in baseball -- reportedly nearly $138 million. In generosity, the Mets trail only the Yankees, who run about a $209 million tab, according to published tallies. Yet, the Mets have had a tough time playing .500 ball and trailed the first-place Philadelphia Phillies by 6 1/2 games when Randolph was fired along with pitching coach Rick Peterson and first base coach Tom Nieto.

In the Pacific Northwest, the Mariners had given former general manager Bill Bavasi the leeway to spend more than $117 million in assembling this season's roster, which is hitting under .250 and allowing the opposition to bat more than 25 points higher. The result is that the baseball season is already over in Seattle, where the Mariners are more than 20 games under break-even and Bavasi is out.

And while there hasn't been any bloodletting in Detroit, the Tigers -- with baseball's No. 3 payroll and a sub.-500 season -- are another club where the players' bank account balances are much more impressive than their playing stats.

Hence, there is the temptation to smugly conclude that even though baseball's business model allows for uneven spending in a way that, say, the NFL with its salary cap does not, checkbook baseball is not effective.

But such a conclusion -- as comforting as it might be in its righteousness -- would not be exactly correct.

Despite the calamity befalling Seattle and to a lesser degree the Mets and Yankees (who trail the Boston Red Sox by several furlongs in the American League East), five of six division leaders going into yesterday's games were also among the top dozen in payroll.

The Red Sox, White Sox, Angels, Cubs and Phillies all spend more than or nearly $100 million on players. (In comparison, the rebuilding Orioles' payroll is reportedly about $67 million for 2008).

Certainly, a couple of budget operations are surprisingly competitive this season. The frugal but productive Arizona Diamondbacks again lead the mediocre National League West with a salary schedule slightly lower than the O's. Tampa Bay has been hanging near the top of the AL East, and Florida is in the NL wild-card hunt with entire payrolls that couldn't match the left side of the Yankees infield.

But while some observers might claim that those examples show that a major league organization can compete without writing lottery-sized paychecks, the Floridas and Tampa Bays -- even if they don't falter through the rest of this summer -- are the rare exceptions to the rule.

For instance, last year, four of eight playoff teams were among the top eight spenders. The season before, four were among the top 11 in payroll. The year before, seven postseason teams were among the top 13 in spending.

So while some smart personnel moves, deft managerial handling and a lot of luck can enable a modestly paid roster to give its fans a thrilling season now and then, the economics of baseball are an inescapable reality.

Usually, you get what you pay for.


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