No excuse for small-market failures

The Oakland A’s, who entered the year with baseball’s second-smallest payroll, are on pace to make the playoffs. The Baltimore Orioles, outspent more than two-to-one by the New York Yankees, are tied with them for first place in the American League East. The Pittsburgh Pirates are in wild-card contention and should, at the very least, finish with their first winning record since 1992.

The Tampa Bay Rays, whose entire roster costs less than the Yankees’ infield, have built the majors’ best pitching staff. The Rays, as usual, are in the midst of a second-half surge.

“We were there, too, up until a month and a half ago,” said Chris Perez, closer of the small-market Cleveland Indians. “Then the bottom fell out.”

The 2012 season has been called the Year of the Underdog, the Year of the Small-Market Team, and other banal descriptors for the triumph of competitive balance.

I would submit a slightly different moniker: the Year of Expiring Rationalizations.

If your team is more than several years removed from a postseason berth and showing no concrete signs of progress, then yours is a listless ship indeed. It’s not that Major League Baseball has devolved into an NFL-style parity party. But in the revenue-sharing era, sustained losing is traceable to miserly ownership, ineffective moves or both. Today, fans know better than to accept lame excuses about injuries, bad luck, or ballpark dimensions.

To be sure, small- and mid-market teams face real economic obstacles. Among teams with the 10 smallest payrolls in the sport, according to USA Today, only three have winning records. Billion-dollar television rights contracts — such as those signed by the Rangers and Angels — act as multipliers for wealthier clubs, allowing them to maximize their financial advantages. The priciest free agents remain unattainable. The cap on amateur spending in the new collective bargaining agreement will slow the rate at which franchises can rebuild.

The Rays are viewed as a singular example of sustainable low-budget success, with three postseason appearances in the last four years despite high-dollar competition in the American League East. More broadly, though, the Rays are among six franchises not based in the 10 largest US television markets with multiple playoff berths since 2007. The others are the Twins, Cardinals, Brewers, Diamondbacks and Rockies.

And now the A’s, with the majors’ bleakest ballpark and an uncertain future, are showing there is a way to compete with limited resources — even in a grueling division like the American League West.

Oakland finished 74-88 last year, the fifth straight season the A’s failed to finish over .500. During the offseason, general manager Billy Beane traded three of the team’s best players — starting pitchers Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill and closer Andrew Bailey. Their most productive outfielders, Josh Willingham and David DeJesus, signed elsewhere as free agents.

But the A’s already have surpassed last year’s win total, largely because the players Beane obtained in those deals have made an immediate impact. The Gonzalez trade brought left-hander Tommy Milone (11-10, 3.94 ERA, 162 1/3 innings) and part-time catcher Derek Norris. All-Star reliever Ryan Cook (2.35 ERA, 56 appearances), stud rookie starter Jarrod Parker (9-8, 3.67) and reserve outfielder Collin Cowgill arrived in the Cahill deal. Power-hitting outfielder Josh Reddick was the return for Bailey. Seth Smith, who joined in a low-profile January trade with the Rockies, has been a productive left fielder.

Add in a couple astute free-agent signings — five-tool outfielder Yoenis Cespedes and Bartolo Colon, pre-PED suspension — and you have the framework of a postseason team.

“Very impressed — especially with their pitching staff,” said Indians manager Manny Acta, whose team was swept by Oakland in a four-game series last week. “Pitching is everything. People know that, but a lot of times they lose perspective on how really important pitching is. Those guys made some really good decisions on those trades they made.

“They stocked up a lot of good arms. I know they gave up some huge talent during the offseason, (and) people were wondering how they could do that. But they got some good value out of those trades. They got guys who were ready to contribute at the big-league level right away, and it worked for them.”

To which fans in other playoff-starved markets are asking: Why not us?

The Padres and Mariners — who are without playoff berths since 2006 and 2001, respectively — are well over .500 since the All-Star break, which has built hope in those fan bases that a breakthrough could be near. Even the long-irrelevant Kansas City Royals are 19-14 since the beginning of August. The opposite has happened in Cleveland, where the Indians are an AL-worst 14-37 in the second half; the Houston Astros, in the early stages of a complete overhaul, are the only team in the majors with a worse record during that span.

One big difficulty for Indians general manager Chris Antonetti: His payroll this year is roughly $50 million lower than that of the division rival Tigers.

“Different owners,” Perez said frankly, in reference to Detroit’s Mike Ilitch and Cleveland’s Lawrence J. Dolan. “It comes down to that. They (the Tigers) are spending money. He (Ilitch) wants to win. Even when the economy was down (in Detroit), he spent money. He’s got a team to show for it. You get what you pay for in baseball. Sometimes you don’t. But most of the time you do.”

But in this case, money can’t explain everything. The payroll gap between the Tigers and Indians is smaller than that between the Angels and A’s or Yankees and Rays. The Indians have been hurt by their inability to acquire All-Star talent when they traded CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez, not to mention a poor 2011-2012 offseason in which they invested in Grady Sizemore, Derek Lowe, Casey Kotchman and Kevin Slowey.

The Indians are decidedly less brilliant now that the Seattle Mariners have stopped gifting them everyday players like Shin-Soo Choo and Asdrubal Cabrera. In their defense, the Indians have traded for Carlos Santana and Michael Brantley — who have become above-average hitters — and Perez himself since their most recent postseason appearance in 2007. Justin Masterson, the key piece in the Martinez trade, had a 3.21 ERA last season. Still, the Indians haven’t finished over .500 in five years. Ubaldo Jimenez has flopped, with a 5.46 ERA in more than 200 innings since arriving in the much-hyped deal with Colorado.

Small-market GMs have a smaller margin for error than their bigger-spending brethren. By trading Gonzalez, Cahill and Bailey early in their careers, Beane maximized the impact of his return in a way the Indians didn’t with Sabathia, Lee and Martinez several years ago.

“You can’t miss,” Perez said. “You have to be right. That’s why I say it’s not just ownership. They don’t make the trades. It’s the GMs. It goes hand in hand. The GMs can only spend the money the owners give them, but they pick who they spend it on or who they don’t. They pick. The owners don’t pick.

“Josh Willingham would look great in this lineup. They didn’t want to (pony) up for that last year. … That’s the decision they make, and this is the bed we’re laying in.”

The A’s seemed similarly lost at this time last year, before Beane’s offseason masterstroke. Beane is proving that a rapid transformation is possible — as long as teams trade the right players at the right time. A decade after "Moneyball," Beane has scrambled the expectations for small-market owners and GMs. And their fans shouldn’t accept old, tired excuses.