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Thursday, October 25, 2007

What's wrong with the National League?

Don't get me wrong. I'm not ready to pronounce the Rockies dead just because they got pummeled in Game 1. It was a game they were destined to lose. That much-discussed eight day reprieve was the inevitable end of their magical streak. Not only that, they had to fight off the cobwebs in the inhospitable Fenway Park against the hottest postseason pitcher since Bob Gibson. Regardless of the magic, I don't think anybody would've picked Colorado to win Game 1. However, the drubbing the Red Sox gave their Ace, Jeff Francis, was certainly cause for concern.

Colorado's Game 2 starter, Ubaldo Jimenez, has enough talent to be competitive against anybody, so long as he is effectively wild. But, after that, the Rockies counter Dice-K and Jon Lester with the pedestrian Josh Fogg and the rehabilitating Aaron Cook, neither of whom can be expected to perform better, or even as well as, Francis. I don't believe the Rockies' bats will remain quiet, especially once the series moves back to Coors Field, but the always potent Boston lineup is truly running on all cylinders. Even disappointing free agent signees J. D. Drew and Julio Lugo have gotten involved in the last several Red Sox victories. If Jimenez loses Thursday, I fear another World Series sweep may be imminent.

If it unfolds as I'm suggesting, or even if Colorado extends it to five games, we will start the offseason with more discussion of the growing divide between the quality of teams (and players) in the American and National leagues. While the NL's disadvantage in the Fall Classic hasn't been that remarkable (they've been represented by five of the twelve champions between 1995 and 2006), they have lost eleven consecutive All-Star games and have been trounced in interleague play each of the last three seasons. In 2007, all four playoff franchises from the AL won more games than the best team in the NL.

Not long ago any discussion of the most valuable players in baseball was focused in the National League, where Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Gary Sheffield, and Vladimir Guerrero all resided as of 2000. Now Sheffield, Sosa, and Guerrero have defected, with Bonds and Griffey likely soon to follow, and the same discussion revolves around A-Rod and a couple of players from the Red Sox. Five of the six highest-paid players in 2007 were American Leaguers.

Although we have been taught by Billy Beane (or, maybe more accurately, Terry Ryan) that building a team is about more than money, it is telling that the NL has only three of the top ten payrolls in Major League Baseball, and six of the bottom seven. It seems strange then that ten teams in the senior circuit had attendance figures over $2.7 Million, compared to only four in the AL. Notoriously, the Chicago Cubs have sold out Wrigley Field regardless of the quality of team on the field or the amount of the Tribune Company's commitment. In recent years, while the Cubs have spent more, other NL franchises have learned to milk their traditions.

The Atlanta Braves spent nearly $20 Million less in 2007 than they did in 2002, even though the average major league player's salary has gone up half a million dollars during that time. The Braves '07 payroll was their lowest since 2000. To put that in perspective: in 2000, the Yankees only spent $93 Million, less than half what they did in '07. The Braves have not exactly been keeping up with the Joneses.

Similarly, the Giants, Cardinals, and Pirates, all among the oldest and most storied franchises in the National League, have authorized only fractional increases (or even decreases) in their payrolls over the last fives seasons. Conversely, the elder statesmen of the AL - the Yankees, Red Sox, White Sox, Orioles, Athletics, and Tigers - have all raised their payrolls by $20 Million or more over the same span. All told, the American League pays more than 52% of all player salaries in baseball, despite the fact that they have two fewer franchises!

If the explanation for the difference between the leagues isn't money, what is the explanation? Is it that the DH rule allows the American League to retain great players longer? It is true that guys like Frank Thomas and Jim Thome continue to contribute to contenders into their forties. It is also true that David Ortiz, Sheffield, and Guerrero got many more at-bats this season, despite nagging injuries, than they would've if they were required to play the field everyday. In the '70s and '80s, when the Designated Hitter first came into play, teams usually filled the role with the equivalent of a top pinch-hitter, a guy who was at best the sixth or seventh best hitter on the team, or, occasionally, a veteran with considerably diminished skills. In 2007, more than half American League teams regularly batted their DH in the middle-of-the-order, third or fourth, employing him explicitly for the purpose of anchoring their lineup. One must wonder whether Ortiz or Travis Hafner would've had careers in the era before the DH was invented. Or, whether Thomas and Thome could've built convincing cases for the Hall of Fame. Nonetheless, this is hardly an acceptable explanation for the difference between the leagues. After all, the National League faired just fine during the '90s, when teams were beginning to understand the DH and excellent hitters like Edgar Martinez, Paul Moliter, Albert Belle, Harold Baines, and Jose Canseco were exploiting it to improve their contracts and prolong their careers.

Do quality free agent pitchers prefer the AL because they don't have to bat? Their may be some truth to the theory that power pitchers like Clemens and Beckett can pitch inside more comfortably in the AL because they don't have to fear retribution when they step into the batter's box. Additionally, some veteran pitchers - say a Curt Schilling or a David Wells - may feel that staying off of the basepaths and away from the lumber keeps them from humiliating themselves, hurting their teams, or spending time on the DL. But, then again, just as many pitchers prefer the NL, either because the like to hit (Livan Hernandez, Carlos Zambrano, etc.), they are comfortable with the NL style (Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, etc.), or they hope to revitalize their careers by facing weaker lineups (Barry Zito, Ted Lilly, etc.).

I am the first to agree that teams should be focusing on drafting and developing their own players, and showing prudence on the free-agent market. However, the lesson to be learned from teams like Oakland, Minnesota, and Cleveland is not that you have to spend like those teams to play like those teams. National League teams seem prone to using the success of small-market franchises as an excuse for excessive frugality.

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