Smaller markets start to score big

By Richard Goldberger

The 2012 Major League Baseball season was certainly one for the books, full of remarkable winning streaks and astonishing statistical achievements. In retrospect, it’s difficult to discern the most impressive achievements: the league saw three different pitchers throw a perfect game, every division series went to a decisive Game five, the league had Miguel Cabrera, its first Triple-Crown winner since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967, and future hall-of-famer Chipper Jones got a hit in his final career at bat during a home playoff game in Atlanta. 

On top of this, the San Francisco Giants surpassed the ’07 Boston Red Sox’s improbable World Series championship, winning seven-straight playoff games to win it all with an emphatic sweep of the Tigers last week. However, as remarkable as all these plotlines have been, the development of smaller market franchises into the MLB postseason livened the race for the World Series.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this season was the abundance of surprise teams that participated in the 2012 playoffs, breaking several of the longest playoff droughts in history. Some teams achieved this feat with the lowest payrolls of the MLB.

This year’s playoffs saw a handful of new teams in the mix. The Washington Nationals, the former Montreal Expos, won the NL East Division and qualified for the playoffs for the first time in 31 years, finishing first in the league with 98 wins, while having the 20th ranked payroll. Additionally, there was the remarkable surprise of the Baltimore Orioles. Predicted by many to finish last in their division, Baltimore achieved their first winning season in 15 years, eventually winning the first ever play-in playoff game. 

What is most impressive about the Orioles’s run in 2012 is the fact that they spent just over $81 million on their team last year, which is good enough for the 19th ranked payroll in the MLB. Considering the Orioles play in the same division as the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays, a season this triumphant seemed unfathomable at the end of spring training. This season may foreshadow a shift of power in the American League. 

Another one of the biggest surprises of the 2012 season was the stunning September run made by the Oakland Athletics, who trailed the Texas Rangers by five games with nine remaining, sweeping them in the final three games of the season and making the playoffs against tremendous odds. The A’s made the playoffs while only spending $55 million in payroll, second-last overall in the MLB and roughly 46 per cent of the payroll of the Texas Rangers. 

Each team’s success is a remarkable story, beating out divisional rivals that have frequented October ball over the past few years. But Oakland is a special case, making the playoffs for the first time since 2006 after a huge late September come-back in history with one of the smallest payroll in the entire MLB. 

Many people may be familiar with the Oakland A’s for being featured in the 2011 blockbuster Moneyball that depicted the 2001 team. The movie featured their front office analytically gauging player statistics, creating a team with one of the lowest salaries in all of professional baseball that took down some of the highest spending teams in baseball, and winning 20-straight games. This year was very similar — although never winning 20-straight — the Athletics managed 94 wins with an inexperienced roster and had one of the league’s lowest payrolls. Even more impressive was the highest paid player on their roster was Stephen Drew, who earned $7.75 million, compared to the Yankee’s Alex Rodriguez’s $30 million season in 2012. 

On the other hand, over the past six years, the rise of low-salary underdogs has become a trend in the majors. In 2006, it was the Detroit Tigers, the Colorado Rockies in 2007, the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008 and the Texas Rangers in 2010. All of these teams lost in the World Series while having some of the lowest payrolls in the league during their successful seasons. 

Although Oakland, Washington and Baltimore were all defeated in the first round, this season marks an interesting power shift in the MLB. The entire league is typically dominated by big-spending clubs like the Yankees, Red Sox, Rangers and Phillies. Over the past few season, smaller market clubs with lower salaries are becoming competitive thanks to a mix of patiently developing young players and finding hidden gems among free agents.

Players don’t have to make eight digits to make an impact — it comes down to good pitching, consistent hitting and team chemistry.

However, momentum is everything in the postseason. Ultimately, one could argue that the best team at the best time came out on top. The Giants were stocked full of interesting storylines this postseason, including two-time Cy Young award winner Tim Linecum being used in the bullpen, Pablo Sandoval hitting three home runs in the first game of the World Series and the return of catcher Buster Posey, who missed significant time last season with a gruesome knee injury. 

In retrospect, it was a tremendous year for the MLB, regardless of whether or not everyone’s team did as well as hoped. Fans everywhere finally had the chance to see slumbering franchises break out of their playoff droughts and compete in some meaningful games for the first time in years, even decades — something every baseball fan can appreciate in some form or another. The trend of the underdog is continuing in MLB. That’s the beauty of baseball — there’s something new every year.


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