NEW YORK (AP) — It’s not just the usual suspects in the playoffs this year.
Texas, ranked 23rd according to Major League Baseball’s latest payroll figures, won the AL West. Tampa Bay, just 20th, beat out the high-spending New York Yankees and Boston to win the AL East.
Cincinnati won the NL Central and is going to the postseason for the first time since 1995 despite ranking 19th. No. 16 Atlanta won the NL wild card.
It’s the first time since the playoffs expanded in 1995 that as many as four postseason teams came from the bottom half by payroll.
What in the name of the almighty dollar is going on?
At least thus far this season, youth and tight budgets have prevailed.
“Just the way the economics of the game are,” Reds general manager Walt Jocketty said. “There’s such a wide discrepancy in revenues at different clubs. You have to survive and compete, and you have to find new ways to do it.”
Tampa Bay with an average age of about 28½ by season’s end, is the youngest playoff team and 19th in the majors by age, according to STATS LLC. Texas is 17th and Minnesota 15th, both at 28-plus, while Cincinnati is 12th at 29.
Whether relative inexperience will hurt these teams in the crucible of October baseball remains to be seen, but young legs and arms got them this far.
More and more, teams are willing to take a chance on youth — especially those prized players not-yet-eligible for salary arbitration or free agency.
“You don’t see people giving up as many of their (former) draft choices as they use to,” Twins President Jerry Bell said. “George Steinbrenner, he didn’t care. Everything was about win now. But teams are pulling back a little more and being a little more apt to hold on to their minor league players. And obviously we believe that’s the way to go.”
The golf courses of the U.S., Caribbean and Asia will be filled this month with players from teams that failed. The second-, third- and fifth-through-ninth biggest spenders as of opening day were all flops: Boston, the Cubs, the Mets, Detroit, the White Sox, the Angels and Seattle.
Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig is absolutely glowing when talking about the success of the small markets. It’s not just because he used to own the Milwaukee Brewers. Boosting the little guys has been a primary goal since he became commissioner in 1992. Revenue sharing has improved the fortunes of the clubs with less to spend, with $433 million transferred to the poorer teams in 2009 and an estimated $401 million this year, according to MLB.
“When you’ve got Cincinnati winning and San Diego up there, and even San Francisco and Colorado and Tampa, it’s a great sign,” he said. “There’s no doubt, as I study things, that we have more competitive balance than we’ve ever had in our history.”
Fans empty their wallets to see a winner, and teams unload their treasury to produce one. When they fall short, owners look to assess blame — witness the firing of Mets general manager Omar Minaya this week, partly because $36 million pitcher Ollie Perez had as many wins this year as Kukla, Fran and Ollie — 0.
Successful teams, with the exception most notably of the star-filled Yankees and Phillies, largely added experienced players to their prospects.
“You do need a core group,” Bell said. “I think you need a sprinkle of veterans here and there. I don’t think you need too many, but a couple are of them are awful nice to have around. People look up to them. You know, we’ve got (Carl) Pavano now who’s kind of had a rebirth here. He’s kind of a leader. And (Jim) Thome obviously. Yeah, you need some of that.”
Too many veterans, and the payroll balloons to a Yankee-like $200 million-plus or even Philadelphia’s $140 milliion-plus.
Texas began the season at $55 million, while Cincinnati and Tampa Bay were in the $70s, Atlanta in the $80s, and San Francisco and Minnesota (in its first season at Target Field) in the $90s.
Just as it is in a department store bargain basement, combing the January and February free-agent discount sales is key.
“We got lucky. The whole industry got lucky,” Giants general manager Brian Sabean said. “The whole free-agency market has crashed. The days of the mega multiyear deals are gone. There are more guys, because of the way the game’s being turned over in a lot of organizations to younger players, to having to take shorter-term contracts for less money. That helps everybody. It helps them stay in the game without being pushed out by younger players. It also helps management to balance the budget or spread the money through the roster.”
But, as the teams that have gone home know from firsthand experience, you have to make the right selections.
“We have little margin for error here,” Jocketty said. “Any market this size is the same way. You can’t afford to made mistakes, at least not too many.”
AP Baseball Writer Janie McCauley in San Francisco contributed to this report.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.