Bob Smizik: Plight of small-market teams

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In one breath, we sing the praises of the Pirates’ future, which includes "the best outfield in baseball" and a stable of high-end pitchers. In the next, we wonder how the franchise can sustain success in the wake of the evolving economics of the game, which continue to make it harder for small-market teams to win.

Prophecies of doom for the sport have long accompanied contracts that stagger the imagination. The latest of those contracts belongs to Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw, who has agreed to a deal that could pay him as much as $215 million over seven years. Kershaw is MLB’s first $30-million-dollar man. His signing came a day before news that the Dodgers agreed to a television contract will pay the team in excess of $200 million annually.

All of which leads to this question: How can small-market teams like the Pirates successfully compete with teams that take in so much more revenue?

The sport has overcome so much over the past decades that it's easy to say, "Don’t worry." But then there’s this from Buster Olney, of ESPN.com.

''The Kershaw deal is the latest sign that the financial disparity between big-market and small-market teams is growing, and as salaries climb, the more likely it is that a small-market team holding an elite talent must consider trading the player in his first couple of years of service time."

Preposterous? Absolutely not.

For example: Say the Pirates were the team that drafted Mike Trout and he developed as he has with the Los Angeles Angels into the best player in the world. When Trout is eligible for arbitration after this season, it is estimated he will be in line to receive from $12 million to $15 million. The next year the figure would be close to $20 million and could jump to $30 million in his third year, if he is not signed to a long-term contract.

Does anyone believe the Pirates could do that? They have so much as said they can’t.

Of course, the Pirates don’t have Trout. But they have Gerrit Cole, who the team and its fans expect to become a dominant MLB starter, a true No. 1 ace. Like, say, Tampa Bay’s David Price. As a Super 2, Price is eligible for arbitration four times. These are the salaries he has been paid in his first three years of arbitration eligibility: $4.35 million; $11.25 million; $14 million.

By the time Cole begins the arbitration process, which likely won’t be until after the 2016 season, those figures for comparable pitchers will be higher. Will the Pirates be prepared to start down a path that will have them paying Cole, say, $35 million to $40 million for three seasons? Better still, will they be prepared to pay him that kind of money knowing after those three years he’ll be gone via free agency?

Considering that scenario, Olney’s notion that small-market teams might be forced to trade a high-end player in ''his first couple of years of service time’’ is not outlandish.

Pedro Alvarez is expected to receive $4 million in this his first year of arbitration eligibility. If his career path continues as it evolved in 2013 -- the National League home run leader -- that figure could easily jump to $8 million to $10 million in his second year and upward of $15 million his third. Will the Pirates be willing to pay Alvarez that kind of money with the knowledge he will be leaving via free agency after the 2016 season.

The Pirates might attempt to offer the players lifetime security with a long-term deal before they hit free agency, as they did with Andrew McCutchen. But both Cole and Alvarez are represented by Scott Boras, who invariably takes his players to free agency.

What about Gregory Polanco, the Pirates minor-league outfielder who has the look of a superstar? This is what Olney wrote about a comparable player, Oakland prospect Addison Russell:

''If Russell becomes a major star right away, he'll be earning $15 million in his fourth year in the big leagues, much more in subsequent years; Oakland may not be able to afford him if he's really good. ... With can't-miss prospects, you could make a case that it's better to trade a talent like Russell even before he reaches the big leagues. The evolution of this dynamic into a reality is not a good thing."

Since MLB.com ranks Russell as the 18th best prospect in baseball and Polanco as the 13th, the names of the players and teams easily could have been switched.

Are the Pirates going to trade Polanco before he reaches them? No. But who’s to say when Austin Meadows, the team’s top pick last year, comes of age, Olney dismal prediction might not be true.


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