The Astros are the most profitable team in baseball according to Forbes. The Astros deny it, and Forbes is the publication that undervalued the Dodgers by a half-billion the week before the team was sold, so take the guesstimates with a grain of salt.
But it wouldn't be surprising. The Astros have a new cable deal and they're paying their players $12.00/hour + tips. That's a pretty solid money-making combo. Even that's debatable, though, as the Astros are actually part-owners of the cable network that broadcasts their games, and -- you're never going to believe this -- there aren't as many people watching Astros games these days. It's bit of a shell game, but I doubt the Astros have figured out some ingenious moneymaking strategy to outwit the other 29 teams.
Now, if you're a member of the elitist Internet baseball consortium -- and you're here, so … -- you probably didn't blink at the news. What were the Astros supposed to do, sign Josh Hamilton? They're drafting high, signing international players, and figuring out what to keep and what to sell. That's not going to get better with Raul Ibañez or Michael Young. In fact, if those players did anything, the Astros would pick second, third, or fourth instead of first. No, the Astros are doing the smart thing.
But people are mad. Check the SB Nation Facebook account. Check the dark recesses of Twitter. People feel cheated, taken advantage of. The Astros are getting away with something. They're gaming the system. Grrr. Those Astros. Now they're something of a story, and the team salary will be a story until they're good again. Which could be years. Even if the Astros are on the right track, it could be years.
Let's take a trip to the other end of the spectrum. The Dodgers are winning three out of every four games these days, and they're doing it an offseason after … well, let's just roll the tape from the Winter Meetings.
The Dodgers don't shop at the outlet store. Their Opening Day outfield makes over three times the entire Astros payroll, and that's before you factor in Yasiel Puig, who isn't exactly free. And let me guess how the postseason's going to go: The Dodgers are going to be really, really successful. If they win the pennant or -- help -- the World Series, the idea that it's possible to buy a World Series will come back in vogue.
The Dodgers' successes and the Astros' failures could make for some interesting bookends for the 2013 season, though. People will notice. And it would be a shame. Finally, right as the Yankees are disintegrating, it's starting up again. Back in the days of Bob Costas's Fair Ball, the Yankees were supposedly buying every championship.
Disgusted fan: Yeah, those Yankees just buy championships.
Me: The money helps, the money helps. But they wouldn't have the titles if the Reds draft Jeter …
Disgusted fan: Just buyin' up the championships.
Me: …or if any of the other 25 teams drafted Jorge Posada or Andy Pettitte in the first 20 rounds of the 1990 draft …
Disgusted fan: Goin' to Costco and loading up the cart with championships in bulk.
Me: … and what's the deal with Mariano Rivera? He throws one pitch. ONE PITCH.
Disgusted fan: Just pricing the little teams out of championships.
Me: PLEASE GIVE CREDIT TO THE PERFECT STORM OF BASEBALL-RELATED MIRACLES THAT WAS MOSTLY RESPONSIBLE FOR THE YANKEES' TREMENDOUS SUCCESS.
The money helps. Of course it does. The Yankees were able to keep Jeter on the team for two decades; the Pirates might have traded him for Beau Mills when they needed to clear payroll. The Yankees could buy a new rotation in the winter if they needed to. Other teams couldn't.
But the bulk of what makes successful teams good doesn't come over in free agency. After the Yankees stopped winning every World Series, the complaints about payroll disparity mostly slowed down. The Marlins used young talent to beat the Yankees. The A's remained relevant. The Rays ascended. Here are the payroll ranks for the teams in line for a playoff spot right now:
4. Red Sox
Average payroll rank: 14. Which is to say, the money gives a team an above-average chance. But not as much of an advantage as you think. And the Astros spending a lot of money between 2012 and 2013 would make them look an awful lot like the White Sox (#9) or Cubs (#13). Spending money wasn't going to help them.
The Dodgers are one of the best teams in the land in part because they could pay players like Zack Greinke and Yasiel Puig. But also because they were bad enough at one point to be in a position to draft Clayton Kershaw, to pilfer Andre Ethier from the A's, and to slow-marinate A.J. Ellis into the catcher he is today.
And the money. Seriously, the Dodgers have done a lot with that money. But the story shouldn't be the money, either on the high or low end. The Pirates, Rays, and A's most certainly should get extra credit for doing what they've done on limited budgets. But they can do it because most baseball players in their prime are paid below-market rates. A player's peak is around 27 or 28. Those players are making less -- often far less -- than what they'd make on the open market.
That's the story. That's how teams like the Rays and A's can compete, albeit at a disadvantage. There's a pool of players making retail-clerk money underneath the surface of what you see, and every so often, one of them makes it big. Their reward is six years of salaries that are below-market, and that dynamic allows teams to operate on a strict budget.
I'm scared the story will be the Dodgers and Astros, though. Spend and win. Don't spend and still take home ill-gotten earnings. It's a real clean narrative. But baseball isn't that simple, dang it.