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Does Baseball Need a Salary Cap?

I am one of the younger generations of baseball fans.  Normally, I would be expected to lean towards the more progressive ideas in the sport. In a way, this has remained true, as I have always embraced the idea of sabermetrics and lineup optimization.  However, in my heart I have remained a traditionalist in regards to baseball.  The history and tradition were what truly made me fall in love with the game.  It may be glorifying the past, but the days of Jackie Robinson, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Al Kaline, Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby and all the other old time greats always appealed to me.  The idea of the fans who came to the ballpark in suits and dresses, kids who couldn't afford a ticket climbing a tree outside the left field fence to get a glimpse of their home team, and the stories that always seemed to pop up in and around clubhouses pluck at nostalgic heartstrings most 20-year-olds do not have.  More than that, it seemed like the fans had a much greater connection to the players than in today’s era; is there any player in the league today who would illicit as emotional a response as Lou Gehrig did when he announced he had the disease that would go on to bare his name?    

The "good ol' days" are why I have always been opposed to any large changes in the game for the most part.  I am against the current possibility of adding a second wild card team in each league and, if I were cognizant of the issue at the time, I would have been opposed to adding a wild card team when Commissioner Bud Selig first implemented the concept in 1995.  I am opposed to using computers to judge balls/strikes, fair/foul, safe/out and have been against instituting a salary cap in baseball because I have fallen in love with the human aspect of the sport.

No greater euphoric feeling exists than when the home team makes the playoffs in baseball.  In basketball over half the teams make the postseason, so why should a fan be too thrilled when the Bucks make the playoffs?  They might not even be in the top half of the league, yet still end up in the postseason.  However, baseball currently allows only four teams from each league in the playoffs, rewarding just over a quarter of the teams a taste of the postseason.  Current salaries have also made it more difficult for teams to compete in the sport.  In basketball and football, a salary cap keeps teams on an even level by limiting the amount of money a team can spend on their players, regardless of market size.  However, with baseball there is over a $170 million gap between the highest and lowest salaried teams.  I have always appreciated this David and Goliath aspect of baseball. It is why the most exciting sporting event I have personally seen was when the Brewers clinched a playoff spot in 2008.  The atmosphere in Miller Park that day was phenomenal as those fans had waited twenty years for the moment the Milwaukee Brewers would reach the playoffs once more.  The unfairness of the salary difference is why it was so incredible when the Marlins, with a team salary of $50 million, beat the Yankees, with a team salary of $150 million, in the 2003 World Series and why you hear about eighty year old men breaking into tears because they have followed their favorite team passionately for decades to finally see them win the World Series for the first time in their life.

However, now I might be changing my stance in regards to a baseball salary cap.  I am considering it because of how outlandish this offseason has been.  We have already seen Troy Tulowitzki locked up for ten years and $157 million, Carl Crawford for seven years and $142 million, Jayson Werth for seven years and $126 million. Cliff Lee and potentially Adrian Beltre are on the verge of attaining $100 million contracts this offseason, and Carlos Gonzalez and Adrian Gonzalez are working out over $100 million contract extensions. The record for most $100 million contracts given out in an offseason is five.  If all of the mentioned players get that much, seven contracts of that magnitude will be given this offseason. Also factor in the players who did not crack the one hundred million mark but are still receiving large contracts that are much more than the player’s worth: Jorge De La Rosa, Adam Dunn, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Aubrey Huff, Juan Uribe, John Buck, Joaquin Benoit and Carl Pavano.

Free agent spending has reached new heights of craziness and something will need to be done to limit the spending before the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets and, to a lesser extent, Angels and Dodgers are the only teams that can afford to sign any premier free agents. These days, I may be even more excited when the Brewers make the playoffs because of how their salary compares to other teams. Regular season wins are now being overshadowed by just how unfair baseball has finally become. 

Interestingly, it was not any of those five bigger market teams I mentioned that forced me to change my stance on the salary cap issue.  No, it was the awful contract that the Washington Nationals gave to Jayson Werth in the 2010-2011 off-season for seven years and $126 million.  That contract may single-handedly have caused a greater increase in future free agents’ salaries than any signing in the past. Now, precedent exists for players like Werth, who are regarded as more complementary players, to also sign massive contracts. 

I am unsure how Major League Baseball (MLB) could institute a salary cap—certainly the logistics behind it would be difficult and complex.  The MLB obviously cannot just tell the Yankees to limit their payroll to only $120 million next year.  In addition, the players’ union would likely have problems with it, as many of their clients would essentially be forced into taking a pay cut.  A salary cap in baseball may never happen, but perhaps it is time to start trying anyway.