Don’t Grill the Hot Stove: The Effect that Bidding Wars Have on Baseball

The start of 2011 marks the approximate midway point of the Major League Baseball offseason, also known as the Hot Stove.

What’s the point of thinking about baseball acquisitions months prior to Spring Training? Unlike the National Football League, franchise caliber players are much more likely to shift from city to city in the MLB. The offseason has become, for some fanatics, more exciting than the actual six-month, 162-game season. It restores hope for franchises desperate for the playoff berth that could be 10 months away and it gives reason for bitter small market teams to whine more than the city of Cleveland after LeBron’s decision to leave town.

No team has burglarized the free agent and trade market more than the Boston Red Sox. After committing to a payroll of nearly $161 million to their players last season (the second-most in baseball), the Sox missed the playoffs behind division rival Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees.

They acquired Adrian Gonzalez for three minor leaguers and a player to be named later. The former Padres’ first baseman, who has boasted Most Valuable Player quality statistics in one of the nation’s worst hitter’s ballparks (Petco Park) for seasons, joins the Sox with the protection of Kevin Youkillis, David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia in a hitter’s paradise at Fenway Park. Boston also outbid the rest of the league for 29-year-old Carl Crawford, the career Rays outfielder whose perennial speed and high batting average will likely inflate win totals in Beantown. His 7-year, $142 million contract outbid the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, who were the expected front-runners.

With Cliff Lee joining the Philadelphia Phillies and solidifying one of the most intimidating rotations in the history of the game, smaller market teams are up in arms wondering how they’re supposed to compete. The Phils now possess Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt and Joe Blanton on the hill. As daunting of a task as it appears to be, consider this: the San Francisco Giants won the 2010 World Series with a payroll that was $44 million lower than Philadelphia’s. As a member of the Texas Rangers last season, Cliff Lee went 0-2 against the Giants in the World Series. Combining Lee’s 0-2 record with the other four Phillies’ 2-4 record against the Giants in the National League Championship Series, the Giants dominated their perceived-to-be-unstoppable rotation in the playoffs with a 6-2 advantage.

Six of the top 10 team salaries in baseball in 2010 didn’t make the playoffs. The Yankees paid their players $206,738,389, but were knocked out of the playoffs by the Texas Rangers, who ranked 26th of 30 teams in payroll last year with just over $55 million.

Although it seems unjust that the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies have an obvious advantage in acquiring proven talent over the Kansas City Royals’ of the league, it shouldn’t necessarily be seen as so.

Take collegiate athletics for instance. UCI’s basketball team can’t complain that Duke and UCLA have a much easier time recruiting blue chip prospects. The Blue Devils and Bruins have a comparative advantage over small conference teams just like the Yankees hold an edge over the Royals in the way that they pursue talent.

On Dec. 23, the Anteater men’s basketball team fell just one point shy of defeating UCLA. The Bruins, having made deep runs in March Madness in recent years with current professionals Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook, barely escaped defeating a UCI program that was coming off of a losing season. Despite the programs’ two entirely different paths, the outcome of the game came down to just one point.

While Coach Russell Turner has to work his tail off to recruit local, out-of-state and foreign talent to pry them away from the country’s top teams, his disposition is seen as usual in college basketball. The UConn women’s basketball program naturally attracts the cream of the crop talent, because of their proven dominance. However, that doesn’t automatically discount the Anteaters from playing men’s or women’s basketball, but it lowers their room for error and forces them to play fundamentally sound as a team in order to hang with the national title contenders.

The 2010 World Series proved that it takes a team — not a pocketbook — to acquire World Series rings. In a perfect world, all teams would have an equal opportunity to acquire Alex Rodriguez. But this isn’t a perfect world. The Padres may have to dump their franchise player for promising, low-paid prospects every three or four years, but they still find a way to compete for the National League West division title on a somewhat consistent basis. Although the Red Sox’s additions of Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler appears to emphasize that the rich are getting richer, they still have to play the game. Keep in mind, that same Boston franchise that dished out the second highest payroll in the major leagues last season missed the playoffs by six games in 2010.