Thursday, February 16, 2012
The DH and free agency
Last month, Prince Fielder signed a contract with the Detroit Tigers in excess of $200 million. A few weeks earlier, Albert Pujols did the same with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Those two signings mean that four of the five highest paid players (by average annual value of their contracts) now reside in the American League. Sports Illustrated’s Joe Sheehan argues that that salary disparity represents a startling talent gap and is a serious problem.
The designated hitter, Sheehan claims, gives AL teams a safe haven to stash aging sluggers, making long-term contracts (like those doled out to Fielder and Pujols) a lot more palatable. He argues that the resulting power shift, along with the coming of year-round interleague play in 2013 means that it’s time for the senior circuit* to get hip, relent to the inevitable march of progress, and add the DH.
*That would be the National League.
Of course, Sheehan conveniently omits two crucial facts. First, NL teams have also found ways to keep aging sluggers in the lineup, even without the DH. Lance Berkman played a huge role in the Cardinal’s World Series run, despite being a liability in
left right field. Moreover, NL
teams have not been afraid to sign big men with big bats to long-term
contracts. The Philadelphia Phillies and Ryan Howard serve as a recent example
(whether or not that was a good move is subject to debate) and the Colorado Rockies
made a $140 million dollar / 9 year commitment to Todd Helton in 2003.* Clearly, Helton has more defensive
value than Fielder, but it is important to note that the lack of a DH did not
stop a mid-market NL team** from committing to a player beyond his 40th birthday. Fielder will only be 36 when his contract expires in 2020.
*This was a lot in 2003. At the time it was signed, Helton’s was the forth largest deal in baseball!
**The Rockies’ payroll was $82 million in 2011. The Brewers’ was $83 million.
Second, and more important, the article’s analysis ignores a variable far more important than the DH rule – money. Most NL teams simply cannot afford to shell out a $200 million contract right now. Since four of the top five payrolls also resided in the AL on opening day in 2011, it should come as no surprise that four of the top five contracts can be found there as well.
Nevertheless, that phenomenon should correct itself soon. The National League’s New York and Los Angeles teams are being massively outspent by their counterparts due to bankruptcy/Ponzi scheme and divorce/sale issues, respectively. As those problems get sorted out, payrolls should swell and lure some of that talent back to the NL. Meanwhile, other NL teams like the Cubs (who are also rebuilding under new managment), Phillies, and Marlins should be able to keep pace with the Rangers, Red Sox, and Tigers in the American League.
The talent gap Sheehan laments isn’t a product of rule differences; it is largely a product of decreased purchasing power by the large-market NL teams. And if we really want to standardize the rules across baseball as we move forward, maybe the AL should consider dropping the DH instead.