ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.
There was a time not long ago when the list of legitimate World Series contenders could be counted on one hand. The Yankees. The Braves. The Cardinals. The Red Sox.
Those big-market franchises dominated the October landscape for a decade, leaving all other wannabes eating dust.
The Yankees made six World Series appearances in an eight-year span from 1996 to 2003. The Braves appeared in five of the eight Fall Classics held between 1991 and 1999. The Cardinals made the playoffs six times in seven years and the Red Sox seven times in 11 years.
Such was the state of a sport that seemed to demand high payrolls and splashy free agent signings in order to realize success.
Boy, has that changed.
When the 104th World Series commences Wednesday night, a couple of unfamiliar faces will crash the party. The Philadelphia Phillies haven’t been here in 15 years. The Tampa Bay Rays have never come close to being here.
And they’re only the latest new teams on the block. Did you know that the last four World Series have featured eight different clubs? There haven’t been any repeat participants during that time.
Ten different National League teams have won the pennant in the last 11 years. Six different American League teams have done it in the last seven years. A staggering 22 different franchises have reached the postseason in the last six years.
It’s Bud Selig’s dream come true.
The commissioner has rightfully taken plenty of heat during his tenure for the way he ignored steroids, for his handling of the All-Star Game and for his allowing postseason games to be played into the wee hours of the morning on the East Coast.
But Selig’s primary goal when he took office in 1992 was to fix the skewered economic state of baseball, one that allowed big-market franchises to beat everyone else simply by outspending the competition. And on that front, he has been incredibly successful.
Baseball isn’t quite on par with the NFL when it comes to revenue sharing and parity, but it has come a long way. Small-market clubs like the Rays, the Colorado Rockies, the Milwaukee Brewers and the Minnesota Twins have reached the postseason in the last three years not by outspending the other guys but by outsmarting them.
Free agency is no longer the best path to the World Series. It’s all about scouting, drafting and player development, about building from within.
It’s how the Rockies got here a year ago with the sixth-lowest payroll in the majors and how the Rays got here now with the second lowest. And even though the Phillies ranked in the upper half with a $98 million payroll this season, their roster still is loaded with homegrown talent that includes Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Pat Burrell and Cole Hamels.
This is the path to success nowadays. Not throwing hundreds of millions of dollars to free agents but stocking up on top-tier prospects and developing them into stars.
Because of that, the Rays were able to win the AL East this season, leapfrogging to the top of the toughest division in baseball that includes the Red Sox, Yankees and Blue Jays.
“Our revenues are far less than the teams we compete against in this division, and we have to recognize that,” Tampa Bay general manager Andrew Friedman said Monday. “Fortunately, payroll doesn’t decide the standings.”
No, it doesn’t. And the results of the last few seasons confirm that.
Which is not to say that baseball has completely leveled the playing field. While teams like the Rays, Twins and Athletics have managed to build winners with small payrolls, they’re still at a great disadvantage when trying to retain their own free agents and often find themselves in rebuilding mode every three or four years.
“It does become an issue when trying to sustain [success],” Friedman said. “And that’s something that we’re going to have to work extremely hard to do, especially in this division.”
But at least the Rays find themselves in a position where they have a chance to sustain success. The franchise would have had no chance of reaching the World Series during its first five years of existence, not unless it mortgaged its future by buying a roster full of free agents.
It’s now possible to do it the old-fashioned way, and what few uncompetitive franchises remain out there - hello, Washington Nationals - would be wise to look at the recent rise of formerly struggling clubs for inspiration.
Anyone can reach the World Series now. And if you don’t believe that, just look at where the Fall Classic will open Wednesday night.