Sheehan: A Tale OF Two Small Markets

The Cubs have run the National League Central for a few years now, averaging 97 wins a season since 2015 and taking back-to-back division titles. Their young, talented, inexpensive core sets them up to be the division favorite for the next couple of seasons as well.

That didn’t stop the Cardinals from pulling the trigger on a trade to bring in Marcell Ozuna in the hopes of closing last year’s nine-game gap. We expect this from the Cardinals, who have gone 60 years without ever falling into a long stretch of losing seasons, and they have been one of the game’s signature franchises this century.

What’s interesting is the contrast between how the next two teams in the NL Central pecking order behaved this winter. The Brewers had a surprising 86-win year and just missed a wild card berth. A series of trades made over the previous three seasons produced big payoffs in Domingo Santana (.371 on-base percentage, 30 home runs), Chase Anderson (2.74 ERA, 25 starts), Zach Davies (3.90 ERA, 33 starts) and Corey Knebel (1.78 ERA, 39 saves).

The Pirates, meanwhile, watched everything go wrong: Jung-Ho Kang lost a season, and likely his career, to DUI issues. Starling Marte lost half of 2017 to a PED suspension. Jameson Taillon got, and then beat, testicular cancer. Gregory Polanco, a popular breakout candidate, hit 11 homers. The Pirates won 75 games, their fewest since 2011, and were never a factor in the playoff picture.

Now, based only on that, you might see the two teams as disparate, but the 2017 records belied the talent difference between the two on Nov. 1. The Brewers squeezed a lot of value out of peak-age and post-peak players like Eric Thames, Eric Sogard, Manny Pina and Ryan Braun. They already knew they would be missing staff ace Jimmy Nelson for half of 2018 following his shoulder injury suffered running the bases, leaving Milwaukee with a thin rotation. Even with development by Orlando Arcia and Lewis Brinson, some regression seemed likely.

Meanwhile, the Pirates had Gerrit Cole, the best pitcher on either of the two teams. They had a core of young pitchers behind him in Taillon, Tyler Glasnow and Trevor Williams—and they had Mitch Keller on the way. They had Josh Bell off a season in which he garnered Rookie of the Year votes. They had an outfield of Marte, Polanco and the resurgent Andrew McCutchen, the last a city icon with a year of control left.

Just from a talent standpoint, there wasn’t much to distinguish between the Brewers and Pirates as the offseason began. Both projected to be around .500 in 2018 before making any additions, and given the softness of the middle of the NL, both teams could certainly see themselves as wild card contenders, if perhaps not threats to the Cubs.

Consider the other similarities as well. Both are true small-market teams, Pittsburgh 24th by TV market, Milwaukee 30th. Both play in taxpayer-funded ballparks built at the turn of the century, still well-regarded, with PNC Park one the most gorgeous venues in the game. Both cities support winning teams: The Pirates averaged 2.4 million tickets sold a year from 2013-16, covering their recent playoff seasons and the one after it. The Brewers averaged 2.7 million per year in that span, with lesser teams. Both figures placed the teams in the middle of the pack in NL attendance, despite their small markets. The incentives are clear for teams in this group: Put a good product on the field, and you’ll make more money.

So it’s fascinating to see the split in how the two went about their business. The Pirates traded both the face of their franchise, McCutchen, and their top starter, Cole, in deals that didn’t bring back a single Top 100 Prospect. Meanwhile, the Brewers dealt two Top 100 Prospects, including No. 18 Lewis Brinson, for Christian Yelich, then signed Lorenzo Cain to a five-year, $80-million deal.

Remember, both these teams benefit from all the revenue streams small-market teams have access to. The national-TV contracts generate $1.5 billion a year, split equally. MLB Advanced Media and licensing revenues have grown sharply. The most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement moves money from large-market teams to small-market ones out of concerns for the latter group’s competitiveness. All of this is before these teams sell a ticket or a beer or air an in-game commercial. Both the Pirates and Brewers have been subsidized by the public in the form of those beautiful, taxpayer-funded ballparks, and they’ll both cash checks of at least $50 million this year as part of the sale of BAMTech to Disney.

Baseball teams don’t make their books public, and owners have put a lot of effort in over the years in making their teams sound like the struggling corner grocery. Forbes publishes their estimates of revenue and profits each year, though. For 2016, they projected the Pirates with a profit of $51 million, and the Brewers with a profit of $58.2 million. Give the trends in non-local revenue, there’s no reason to believe the two teams weren’t in the black last year as well.

In 2018, all teams, regardless of location, have the resources they need to acquire and retain championship-caliber talent. The growth of the game at the national level, the changes in how the league distributes revenue, and the various restrictions on how teams can spend on amateur and professional talent have removed money as an excuse.

Contending is a choice. Wanting to win is a choice. In the winter of 2018, Brewers owner Mark Attanasio chose to try to win by acquiring good players who would have to be paid money. Pirates counterpart Bob Nutting chose to jettison good players in order to save his money.

Let’s stop blaming the system, stop blaming the high-revenue teams, stop blaming the players. Contending is a choice, and it’s the owners who are the ones who make it.

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