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Bob Ryan

Ruling in favor of judgment

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / February 19, 2009
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FORT MYERS, Fla. - What's more important in baseball, judgment or money?

The truth is that luck may be a bigger factor in a team's short-term success than either judgment or money. If three-fifths of your projected starting rotation goes down, what can you do?

But injuries are part of all sports and a good team is supposed to insulate itself against the routine loss of a starter as best it can. Bad luck can come in other forms, of course (e.g., major illness), and sometimes a team's entire season is all about bad luck, and nothing more.

So that brings us back to money, which has been a subject of great discussion in this interesting offseason. There's bad news on every doorstep, as we all know, and yet the New York Yankees have ignored the clouds hovering over every aspect of American society by investing an approximate $423 million in long-term contracts for three players.

This particular Red Sox management has been very sensitive since Day 1 about not being confused with their divisional competitors 225 miles to the south. The Red Sox have money and they are not reluctant to spend it. But they are aware the public has gradually lumped them in with the Yankees as Evil Empire 1A, citing as Exhibit A the $102 million expenditure for Daisuke Matsuzaka. People out there in the Great Beyond seem to think the Yankees and Red Sox are playing by the same financial rules.

The truth is the difference between the Yankees' 2008 payroll and the Red Sox' 2008 payroll was $75,691,542, which in itself was larger than the total payrolls of 13 major league teams.

The Yankees are moving into a new ballpark for 2009, and it will generate substantially more revenue than the old one, which was a hybrid of two different architectural concepts, neither of which had any emphasis on luxury boxes and premium seating, which are what Yankee Stadium III (yes, III) is all about. The new ballpark is one in which Joe Average will be tolerated, but not necessarily embraced.

I would stop just short of saying that John Henry and Co. are obsessed with the Yankees and their financial might. But I would say they have a healthy concern about it. It came as no surprise, therefore, when Mr. Henry made a reference yesterday to the effect that, to ensure the hallowed "competitive balance" each league strives for, baseball has reached a point where there should be a way to "put together an enlightened salary cap" everyone could agree upon.

Wait. Is that the smell of Donald Fehr's ears burning?

Now, baseball does have revenue sharing, correct? Wasn't that the response to any idea of a salary cap? Not enough, says Mr. Henry. "I think we've gone as far as we can with revenue sharing," he declared.

Sox CEO Larry Lucchino was willing to expand a bit on the concept. "I'd call it a 'salary zone,' " he offered. "That's a better term than a salary cap. An enlightened form of a salary cap would have the Red Sox' support."

Alone among the Big Four, baseball has no salary cap. Once fairly easy to understand, they have become absolutely unfathomable in both football and basketball. Teams in those sports have the absolute need to employ capologists to do so much as send out for lunch.

Football? They'll cut a guy who makes $1.50 because next year his salary cap hit will be $11 million. OK, I exaggerate. But not by much.

Basketball? Once upon a time, I was hip to "base-year compensation." Sorry. No longer. It hurt my hair too much just thinking about it.

I don't think hockey has these problems, but hockey always operates on a simpler basis, doesn't it?

OK. The Yankees have a lot of money. But shouldn't the question be, "What good has it done them?" Last time I looked, they had not won the World Series since 2000. Their payroll has continually escalated in the past decade, finally exceeding the once unimaginable $200 million level, and last year they wound up further away from a championship than in any year since 1993, which was the last full season they did not make the playoffs.

Perhaps they needed some better judgments. Perhaps they need to start developing their own players, rather than poaching everyone else's. While the Red Sox and Rays have benefited greatly of late from home-grown talent, the Yankees have not developed a star player since their system bubbled up Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, and Jorge Posada, circa 1995. That, by the way, was the Gene Michael era.

The Yankees say things are changing. Joba the Heat? OK, fine. We'll see.

Money or judgment? We give you the Tampa Bay Rays, who won the American League and came close to going all the way despite having baseball's second-lowest payroll ($43,820,597). Their collection of high draft choices and shrewd acquisitions - Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett for Delmon Young, for example - was put in the hands of the perfect manager, and we all saw what happened.

Their idyllic circumstance won't last forever. In time, those kids will all need to be paid, and the Rays will wind up losing people. But no one will ever take the accomplishment of 2008 away from general manager Andrew Friedman, manager Joe Maddon, or owner Stuart Sternberg, for that matter.

As to John Henry's larger point, right now baseball has an eight-tier payroll structure, as follows. I'm using 2008 rounded-off numbers:

1. Yankees - $209 million

2. Mets, Tigers, Red Sox - $134m-$138m

3. White Sox, Angels, Cubs, Dodgers, Mariners - $117m-$121m

4. Braves, Cardinals, Blue Jays, Phillies - $98m-$102m

5. Astros, Brewers, Indians, Giants, Reds, Padres - $73m-$89m

6. Rockies, Rangers, Orioles, Diamondbacks, Twins, Royals, Nationals - $55m-$69m

7. Pirates, A's, Rays - $44m-$49m

8. Marlins - $22m

And Peter Gammons reports that the Marlins think they can win the National League East this year.

The Rockies were in the World Series in 2007. The Astros were there in '05. The Tigers made it in '06, before they became big spenders. Since the Yankees last won the World Series, 12 other teams have made Series appearances. And it's not like the Yankees weren't trying: Jason Giambi, Kevin Brown, Hideki Matsui, Johnny Damon, Carl Pavano, Randy Johnson, Bobby Abreu, and Roger Clemens all came to New York at great expense.

Oops, almost forgot A-Rod.

Put me down as a judgment guy. The Rays are proof that a perennial loser can become a winner if put in the hands of the right people. The reason there's absolutely never any hope in Kansas City and Pittsburgh has far more to do with the mismanagement of those franchises than it does with the lack of money, particularly in this era of revenue sharing.

Anyway, I'm not exactly sure what an "enlightened salary cap" is or what a "salary zone" means. I just know that our guys spend a lot of time worrying about the rich guys in the Bronx.

"There's an old adage that money can't buy you love, happiness, or the American League pennant," said Lucchino with a smile. "We're going to be testing that adage this year."

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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