After the surprising early offseason move of Robinson Cano to Seattle, the focus turned to Japanese phenom pitcher Masahiro Tanaka. Managers were salivating over the 24-0 record and 1.27 ERA he posted in 2013 as well as his ripe, young age of 25. And after the success of fellow native of Japan, Yu Darvish, teams were chomping at the bit to sign Tanaka.
Unfortunately, Japanese pitchers often come with quite a hefty price tag, making it impossible for smaller- to middle-market teams to bid on them.
Therefore, it was no surprise that the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers emerged as the top two contenders. When owners are willing to let the dollars flow freely, there is nothing stopping these large-market teams from buying not just one top free agent … but all of them.
Look at the Dodgers since Magic Johnson and Co. became owners. They took on the large contracts of Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford from Boston as well as Hanley Ramirez from Miami. Zack Greinke and star Korean pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu were signed to significant contracts. Matt Kemp has around $120 million still left on his contract. Andre Ethier, who is likely the team’s fourth outfielder once Kemp is healthy, is being paid $85 million. Even Yasiel Puig was signed for $42 million before anyone knew he’d become the sport’s latest sensation.
And as of a couple weeks ago Clayton Kershaw, arguably the best pitcher in baseball, signed a historic seven-year, $215 million contract, making him the most expensive pitcher in baseball.
Somehow that still didn’t knock the Dodgers out of contention for Tanaka. Even after having spent $1 billion on player salaries in just two years, the team was prepared to offer him more than $100 million.
However, the Yankees decided to come out of spending hibernation this offseason after failing to make the playoffs in 2013. Having already signed Jacoby Ellsbury to a seven-year, $153 million contract and Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran to shorter but similarly expensive contracts this offseason, the Yankees still needed to address their weakest area: pitching.
With the Dodgers and the Yankees the obvious frontrunners, it was a pleasant surprise to see the Cubs emerge as one of the finalists in the days before the signing. It was about time for them to land a big name after spending the past two seasons shredding contracts and building their farm system.
As in typical Cubs fashion, though, it was not to be. A few days later, Tanaka signed with the Yanks for seven years and $155 million. The reign of large-market teams lived on.
It’s not that buying the entire free agent market necessarily ensures a World Series championship. It doesn’t.
But it can ensure a consistent playoff spot.
And that’s what fans of smaller market teams get frustrated with. Sure, they might make the playoffs every once in a while, but there is no guarantee they will return the next season. All fans ask for is a realistic chance at making the playoffs each season. It’s what makes a team without tons of superstars watchable.
Until there is a legitimate salary cap in baseball, the field won’t ever truly even out. There will be the small market success stories, but they won’t be viewed as consistent contenders.
So Kansas City, Houston, Minnesota, Milwaukee and other small-market teams, rise up and vote for a salary cap. Make it possible for a player like Tanaka to come to your city. It’ll give you something more to cheer for than the food and the mascot.