How did the Cardinals end up in a competitive balance draft lottery, anyway? There’s a boring procedural answer to that question — St. Louis is a relatively small media market — but regardless, the Cards don’t require any additional draft picks. They’re quite good at using the ones they already have, consistently landing in the top 10 of Baseball America’s farm system rankings and churning out capable-to-terrific major leaguers. That they’re now set to receive a bonus pick in the upcoming MLB draft is a case of the rich getting richer.
Theo Epstein concurs. He said on Wednesday that he thinks the Cardinals are “the last organization in baseball that needs that kind of annual gift.” There isn’t any trace of bitterness in Epstein’s remarks. He made sure to couch them in glowing admiration for the way John Mozeliak and his team conduct business — front office geek-genius game recognizes front office geek-genius game, apparently — but surely, Epstein isn’t pleased that, as he’s trying to bring the Cubs into the competitive phase of a protracted rebuild, the best team in his division is picking up extra assets simply because they play in a medium-sized city.
The notion that markets don’t matter as much as they used to — across sports, not only in baseball — has picked up steam over the past few years. In the NBA last season, three of the four best regular season records belonged to San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Indiana. The NFL has a hard cap and robust revenue sharing, which means Green Bay can compete with Chicago. If you look at the last decade of World Series winners and losers, the list is dominated by some familiar names, but St. Louis, Detroit, Tampa Bay and Denver are hardly media capitals. This isn’t to say that there aren’t advantages to playing in Los Angeles or Boston, but small market teams seem to have less ground to make up than they did circa 1985.
And for that matter, the Cardinals might play in 58th-biggest city in the country, but their following is considerably larger than the size of their town suggests. The middle of the map doesn’t have a lot of baseball teams, and the Cardinals are a sort of default rooting interest for a lot of people who live in, say, Oklahoma or Nebraska, in part because the Redbirds have been so historically successful. This is embarrassingly inexact data journalism, but for the sake of crude context: The Cardinals have two million Likes on Facebook; the Cubs have 2.2 million and the actually small Pirates have 800,000. (Also of note: Somehow, the Pirates didn’t receive a competitive balance pick this year.) Forbes values the Cards at $820 million, which is eighth in MLB, and the team brought in an estimated $283 million in revenue last year. The Cubs got $266 million, and the Pirates produced $204 million. In other words, the Cards are doing more than well, in terms of their balance sheet.
This puts MLB in a tricky position. If they include St. Louis in the competitive balance lottery, they’re bolstering a well-stocked and financially healthy team, and if they exclude them, they’re punishing the front office for being so good at their jobs that they’ve played themselves out of an advantage they would otherwise receive. There’s no simple solution to this. (Well, except for abolishing the draft, which is fundamentally unfair to incoming players who have no say as to where they’re going to start their careers, but that’s not going to happen any time soon.) The most pragmatic one would be for MLB to stop worrying about market size when it doles out these picks. Basically, just take the 12 teams that had the lowest revenue in the previous year and hand the draft selections to those franchises, whether they play in Kansas City, Houston or Seattle. That would be the truest way to give to the less fortunate. (As “less fortunate” as multi-million dollar enterprises can be, at any rate.)
I’m no hard-liner on this. If the folks in charge of such things want to give a well-run organization something of value for free, that’s OK, too. If you twist it a certain way, it could be seen as MLB incentivizing smart management. It’s just that if they’re doing it under the guise of competitive balance, they should probably choose a different guise, because the Cardinals are already in great shape, as Theo Epstein and the rest of the league are all too aware.