Back in the winter of 2010-11, the baseball landscape was still as simple as global politics was in the 1980s: There were two clear superpowers, and a bunch of smaller but still-dangerous wannabes whose resources couldn’t quite keep up with their ambitions.
That winter, one of the superpowers, the Boston Red Sox, signed Carl Crawford and traded for Adrian Gonzalez — at a total cost of $296 million in contracts — in hopes of maintaining a mini-dynasty that had produced six playoff appearances and two World Series titles in the previous eight seasons.
The other superpower, the New York Yankees, signed a set-up reliever, Rafael Soriano, for $35 million, giving them eight players who would make eight-figure salaries in 2011 — a season that produced the Yankees’ 11th division title in 14 years.
That same winter, Arte Moreno, owner of the Los Angeles Angels, spoke on behalf of all the wannabes. Contemplating Crawford’s seven-year Red Sox contract, he lamented: “It’s crazy. . . . We’re talking $142 million for one player? Seven years on a player is a huge risk financially.”
A little more than a year later, as the 2012 baseball season gets underway, it is clear the sport’s landscape has been altered significantly, and perhaps permanently. The balance of power has not so much shifted as splintered in all directions, and the notion of two giant “superpowers” lording over baseball is as outdated as a Cold War-era Hollywood thriller.
There were still hundreds of millions of dollars being spent this past winter, but it wasn’t coming out of New York or Boston, as both the Yankees and Red Sox mostly sat out the free agent market while preaching austerity.
Instead, it came out of Miami, where the new-look Marlins, no longer penny-pinchers, shelled out nearly $200 million for Jose Reyes, Heath Bell and Mark Buehrle. It came out of Detroit, where the Tigers emerged out of nowhere to snatch up slugger Prince Fielder for $214 million. It came out of Texas, where the Rangers spent a record $111.7 million to acquire Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish.
And look who tops the list of baseball’s wildest spenders in the winter of 2011-12: That’s right — Moreno and the Angels. If $142 million and seven years was “crazy,” what does that make $240 million and 10 years? That’s what the Angels spent on Albert Pujols, who turned 32 one month after his deal was done. And as if that wasn’t enough, the Angels spent another $77.5 million for five years of left-hander C.J. Wilson, who will open the 2012 season as their fourth starter.
“Baseball,” noted sports economist Andrew Zimbalist told the Associated Press in the aftermath, “needs to have steroids-testing for owners.”
Wilson, who had helped the Rangers to back-to-back American League pennants in 2010 and 2011 before reaching free agency, is an example of how baseball’s new world order has affected the talent market. He had long assumed the Red Sox and Yankees would drive the free-agent market this past winter, as they traditionally had done — but in fact, neither team, despite their needs for starting pitching, made a serious run at him.
“Everybody was used to the Yankees and Red Sox being the big players,” he said. “This year was an anomaly in that those teams didn’t drive the market.”
But was it really an anomaly, or a sign of a permanently altered economic landscape?
It’s true that both the Yankees and Red Sox found themselves more or less tapped out this winter due largely to big expenditures in previous winters — the Red Sox by the Gonzalez and Crawford deals of the year before, the Yankees by the Mark Teixeira-CC Sabathia-A.J. Burnett haul (total cost: $423.5 million) of the winter of 2008-09. The Yankees also spent $122 million this winter to retain Sabathia.
“Timing is everything,” Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman said. “This winter, with where we were with our financial commitments, it forced us to not be as aggressive in the free agent market. That won’t be the case every winter.”
But there were other factors, besides the natural boom-and-bust cycle of high-end roster-building, that fueled this winter’s global shift.
For one thing, baseball’s new collective bargaining agreement, with its increased penalties for exceeding luxury-tax thresholds, has gotten the attention of the Yankees and Red Sox — who paid $13.9 million and $3.4 million, respectively, in luxury taxes in 2011, figures that will rise significantly in future years if they remain over the thresholds.
For the Yankees, the publicly stated target is getting their payroll, currently around $210 million, under $189 million by 2014, which would allow them a one-time “reset” of their tax rate, from its current 42.5 percent to 17.5 percent.
“Yes, that [$189 million] is a real number, and we’re going to be shooting for it,” Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner told reporters this spring. “. . . I’m just not convinced we need to be as high [in payroll] as we’ve been in the past to field a championship-caliber team.”
At the same time, both the Rangers and Angels have been bolstered by new 20-year television deals — both with Fox Sports — worth a reported $3 billion each, developments that have pushed those franchises into the second tier of large-market teams, in terms of revenues, just behind the Yankees. Similarly, a move this season into a new, taxpayer-funded stadium, with an expected sharp increase in revenues, has emboldened the Marlins.
“Some of the new TV contracts are game-changers, in terms of revenues,” Seattle Mariners General Manager Jack Zduriencik said. “There are always going to be haves and have-nots, but things have gotten very competitive now.”
In fact, while it may not be accurate to say the Angels and Rangers have replaced the Yankees and Red Sox as baseball’s true superpowers, it is not a stretch to say their AL West rivalry, in terms of sheer starpower and gamesmanship, may have eclipsed that of the AL East rivals as the most essential and entertaining in the game.
In the past two years alone, they have poached each other’s players (Wilson going from the Rangers to Angels, Vladimir Guerrero the other direction), outbid each other (the Rangers’ signing of Adrian Beltre) and gotten into protracted Twitter wars (Wilson and Mike Napoli).
“I’d say we’re at least on the same level,” said Vernon Wells, the Angels’ veteran outfielder, on the respective rivalries. “There’s more history to Yankees-Red Sox, obviously, but if you’re talking about great teams who are targeting each other, the Angels and Rangers are right there.”
The Angels’ signing of Pujols, to be sure, was spurred in no small measure by the Rangers’ ascendancy in the AL West, a division the Angels had dominated with five titles between 2004 and 2009.
On the day the Angels introduced Pujols to their fans, at a full bells-and-whistles news conference/public unveiling, Moreno, addressing the thousands of fans who turned out, reportedly concluded his remarks by saying, “Thank you, Fox, and merry Christmas!”
And that, perhaps better than anything else, sums up where baseball is in 2012. Thanks to new revenue streams and competitive balance, anyone can be a superpower, and no one has the slightest idea anymore what constitutes “crazy.”