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Sports Then and Now




Big Bad AL East Isn’t So Tough After All

Posted on October 07, 2011 by Dean Hybl

Former Tiger Curtis Granderson will watch his former team play in the AL Championship Series.

Well, so much for the American League East being heads and shoulder above the rest of the American League in talent and baseball stature. Following the Detroit Tigers 3-2 victory in game five of the ALDS to eliminate the New York Yankees, we are now ensured that a team from one of the “lesser” divisions in the AL will represent the league in the World Series for the second straight year and fourth time in the last seven seasons.

There is no question that the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are still head and shoulders above the rest of the league in terms of spending, but they both are proving that in today’s baseball world money doesn’t buy you quite as much as it used to.

Don’t get me wrong, money has definitely helped them both become consistent contenders. The Yankees haven’t had a losing season since 1992 and have made the playoffs in all but one season since 1995 while the Red Sox last had a losing season in 1997 and have won two World Series and made the playoffs eight times since.

However, while spending lavishly on salaries to attract the top free agents and available veterans has helped both teams maintain a stranglehold on at least one playoff spot each season, it no longer seems to be enough to ensure they dominate the World Series.

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Since the two teams played back-to-back memorable AL Championship Series in 2003 and 2004, the two teams have not met in the postseason.

Though they continue to have baseball’s highest payroll, the Yankees have just one World Series title since the end of their four-in-five streak in 2000 and their 2009 title is their only trip to the Fall Classic since 2003. The Red Sox won titles in 2004 and 2007, but have missed the playoffs each of the last two seasons.

The 2011 season seems to be a great example of just how things have changed across the baseball landscape.

Following the late-season collapse of the Red Sox, which have the third highest payroll in baseball, the 2011 American League Playoffs was a matchup of the Yankees (#1 payroll) against the Detroit Tigers (#10 payroll)  and the Texas Rangers (#13 payroll) facing the Tampa Bay Rays (#29 payroll).

Late season acquisition Delmon Young played a huge role in defeating the Yankees.

Now the Rangers have a payroll of more than $92 million and the Tigers $105 million, so it isn’t like they are in the same financial category as the Rays ($41 million), but they are closer in payroll to the Rays than they are to the Yankees ($201 million).

It seems that rather than buying championships, the high payroll for the Yankees and Red Sox ($161 million) really is buying them access to the opportunity to compete for a championship. That comes with paying huge long-term  contracts to players like Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford that gives those teams enough talented players to be in contention for multiple years.

By contrast, the Rangers and Tigers have also made some long-term commitments, but at significantly lesser long-term salaries than the Yankees and Red Sox. This provides both teams with enough flexibility to focus on that particular season, rather than multiple years, when going for a title.

Last season the Rangers were able to rent Cliff Lee for their title run. This year they signed Adrian Beltre to a five-year $80 million contract that would seem like an awful lot of money if you weren’t comparing it to the contracts of Gonzalez (7-years, $154 million), Crawford (7-years, $142 million) and many others on the Red Sox and Yankees.

The Tigers spent $50 million over four years for Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera is midway through an eight-year, $152 million contract, but the Tigers have made other decisions that have allowed them to stay flexible and become a contender.

The trade of Curtis Granderson following the 2009 season is a good example of how the Tigers have operated. He was paid $3.5 million in his final year with the Tigers, but will earn $13 million from the Yankees in 2012. In return for trading Granderson, the Tigers received Austin Jackson, a solid replacement in centerfield, 15-game winner Max Scherzer and a pair of solid relievers in Daniel Schlereth and Phil Coke.  Perhaps the best part is that the Tigers are paying the four players combined less than the $3.5 million they paid Granderson in 2009.

Being able to make that kind of four-for one trade allowed the Tigers to sign Martinez, give ace Justin Verlander an extension through 2014 and make  late season trades for Doug Fister, who went 8-1 down the stretch for the Tigers and then shut down the Yankees in the final game of the ALDS, and Delmon Young, who hit eight home runs down the stretch and then hit huge home runs in the ALDS.

In contrast, when the Red Sox and Yankees make trades, they are typically the team getting the higher priced veteran and giving up the prospects. And because they have major amounts of their payroll tied up for long periods and use their prospects for bigger trades, it is often harder for them to make the same kind of late-season acquisitions as the Tigers did when they sent four minor leaguers to Seattle for Fister and two to Minnesota for Young.

What this dynamic seems to have done is make teams like Detroit and Texas more flexible to make shorter runs at a title. Both teams will have to make some significant payroll decisions over the next couple years that will probably result in some of their key stars from this year being shipped to other places (probably New York and Boston), but for now they have the talent on their roster capable of winning a World Series.


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