Wednesday, the Cardinals lucked into a "competitive balance" draft pick, and a pretty good one. The last-place Cubs weren’t even in the lottery, and someone was smart enough to ask Theo Epstein about that …
A curated snippet of his measured response:
I could talk all day about the Cardinals and how much we hold them in high regard. That’s a fantastic franchise. They have been for the better part of a century. They do extremely well from a baseball standpoint, and from a revenue standpoint. That’s probably the last organization in baseball that needs that kind of annual gift.
… They do a fantastic job. It just doesn’t seem like something they need at this point.
That sounds like sour grapes, just a little. Granted, I cut out a bit where he complimented the Cardinals again. So maybe sour grape, singular.
The Cardinals obviously don’t need an extra draft pick. And yes, Major League Baseball probably shouldn’t call this a "competitive balance" pick, because the picks are not directly tied to competition. They should be called "market balance" picks or something. Because they’re directly tied to market size, and revenues.
Yes, the Cardinals have a significantly larger payroll than the Cubs this season. But that’s because of choices the Cardinals and Cubs have made. The Cardinals have made good choices which have led to many wins, which have led to outstanding attendance and (I’m guessing) excellent television ratings, whilst playing in a fairly small market. The Cubs have made bad choices, including (but not limited to) the current ownership taking on A HUGE AMOUNT OF DEBT whilst purchasing a franchise that plays in a huge market in a revenue-rich ballpark … but, it should be said, without the huge local television revenues you might expect.
Those revenues are coming, to be sure (although they might have to wait until 2020 for the big Dodger-style dollars). But in the short term, the Cubs simply don’t have the cash flow to seriously outspend their competition, not even their poor sisters in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. Strange, but true.
Now, about that draft pick … It’s funny, people used to complain about losing teams getting extra cash via the luxury tax and revenue-sharing. This was "rewarding losing" and it was considered a travesty of two mockeries of a sham. Well, now a winning team is getting a reward, however small.
Yes, the Cardinals will have something like the 35th pick in the draft next June. That’s got some real value, even if they’re unlikely to find a future star with that pick. Of the last 10 35th picks, three have reached the majors; the best of them (so far) has been Julio Borbon. In nearly 50 years, the only stars drafted 35th were Mark Langston, Johnny Damon, and Aaron Rowand. So it can happen, but probably won’t.
More to the point? There will never be a perfect system, ever. If we assume that something should be done to help the clubs without the Yankees’ and Dodgers’ (and Cubs of the Futures’) financial advantages, there are only so many options. I’m not sure who came up with these extra draft picks; seems like everything worthwhile might be accomplished via revenue-sharing. But my guess is Commissioner Bud couldn’t get more revenue-sharing, so instead he and his people turned to the draft. And reasonably enough, they looked not just at revenues, but at market size. You’ll get a better result if you include multiple factors.
The other clubs that received picks in the same neighborhood as the Cardinals? Marlins, Rockies, Brewers, Padres, Indians.
A few dozen picks later — that is, where you’re even less likely to find a future star — the Reds, A’s, Mariners, Twins, Orioles, and Diamondbacks also got extra picks.
Seems about right, no? Yes, the Reds and A’s are generally successful. Doesn’t mean they can’t use a little help. I guess what surprises me is that the Rays didn’t get a free draft pick. But it’s a lottery and a few teams in the lottery just don’t get any pick at all. I think if you want to take serious issue with this process, you might reasonably ask why there’s a lottery at all? Why not just determine which teams are most deserving or needful, and give them the picks in order of deserts and needfulness? I mean, it’s not like the results of the lottery determine home field in the World Series or something.
Most things Major League Baseball does either a) make sense if you think about it long enough, or b) generates at least some loot for the clubs.
I think the lottery, though, is c) none of the above. I think somebody just thought it would be sorta cool. Like making everybody think they forgot all about Tony Gwynn.