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Chicago Proud
for Our Sox!

by George Bova

Payroll Follies

by George Bova

In the natural order of things, Sox Fans fret.  We fret about trades before they happen and regardless of the outcome, next fret about the trades that were never made.  We fret about important upcoming series facing big opposition and regardless of the outcome, next fret about past results from series already completed against lesser opponents.  The beer is too warm, too cold or just plain overpriced.  Always.

Being a Sox Fan is tough on stomach linings.

So it is that the roster moves made by our beloved Sox this winter has Sox Fans fretting about everything that has happened -- and WORSE! -- what hasn't happened, too! 

Though the first games of the 2009 season are still nearly four months away, and roster moves aren't nearly completed, everyone assumes Sox payroll will be significantly lower entering the new season than the same time a year ago.  Time to fret, right?

Well, yes.  Yes, it's always the right time to fret for Sox Fans.  Whether fretting over this particular issue is worth the ulcers is quite another question.  Couldn't we spend the stomach acid on something more worthy, like day-old churros?

It's true teams with higher payrolls in general terms have better performance than teams with lower payrolls, but it is anything but a direct correlation.  How you spend your payroll is far more important than how much payroll you have to spend.  The 2005 Sox won the city's first baseball world championship while cutting payroll eight percent.  Dumping a contract as rich as Magglio Ordonez' will definitely have that sort of positive effect on your payroll, if not a positive effect on-field performance, too.  Who doubts Jermaine Dye's 2005 performance plus $10 million cash savings wasn't a bargain compared to the 2004 alternative in right field?

The truth is the best talent in major league baseball is often the most expensive, but it is also very rare, too.  There is no substitute for talent, but MLB's collective bargaining agreement certainly confuses the issue by misallocating many of the best salaries to the most mediocre talent..  Restricted free agency and salary arbitration rules serve to make winners and losers in a manner that has very little to do with merit.  In fact the fate of every ballplayer's salary is based far more on the classic workman's guild model of apprenticeship and journeyman.  Anyone who has ever worked in a union shop knows this first-hand.

Young ballplayers are often the amongst the very best talent on their ballclub.  Many of them begin earning top salaries at their positions very quickly -- but never do they earn those salaries without following the work rules negotiated and agreed-to by the MLB owners and the MLBPA players' union.  Like any apprentice, they must put in a minimum number of service days at the major league level before they become eligible for salary arbitration.  Meanwhile lesser talents become eligible for salary arbitration or free agency -- and the resulting personal riches -- for nothing more than having spent more time on the major league roster, never mind how mediocre  they might have been.

It was Sox' owner Bill Veeck who hit the nail on the head over 30 years ago.  "It isn't the high price of stars that is expensive, it's the price of mediocrity."

The 2008 Sox aren't a playoff team without the contribution of 25 year-old Carlos Quentin.  He earned $400,000 for the effort.  When the MVP candidate was lost to injury in September, the remainder of the Sox line up struggled.  They looked and played old.  Adding payroll isn't going to fix this problem.  Minnesota caught and passed the Sox and nothing but three consecutive heroic victories to finish the season clinched the crown and prevented a winter's worth of regrets for Sox Fans.

And who pitched two of those three heroic Sox victories?  Gavin Floyd (25 years-old, $400,000 salary) and John Danks (23 years-old, $400,000 salary).  If either of these kids failed to deliver in the clutch, the Sox hit the Florida golf courses to start October rather than post-season game dates with Tampa Bay.

The Sox need talent.  All teams need it.  But the notion the Sox need more payroll to get the talent is a false premise.  Who doubts the savings of $11.5 million otherwise to be paid to a loser the likes of Javier Vazquez wouldn't be spent far better someplace else on the roster?  Or what about the savings of $10 million in 2009 for what a great team player the likes of Orlando Cabrera commanded in 2008?

Is any Sox Fan feeling warm and fuzzy knowing the 2008 Sox spent over $1.9 million for the production of Mike MacDougal?  Of course not.

It's how you spend the payroll that seals your team's fate, not the size of the payroll.  It was Tampa Bay's talent built on a $48 million payroll that closed out the Sox, 3 games to 1.  George Steinbrenner's Yankees?  They were using those Florida tee times the Sox and Rays cancelled for themselves.

The roster moves GM Kenny Williams has made the first three months of this off season has opened up plenty of payroll headroom for the Sox.  The ugly truth is the Sox still feature an old, slow-footed heart of the line up with Konerko, Thome and Dye hanging on even as Ken Griffey departs.  The 2009 Sox are a team that seems especially well-suited to be served well by the addition of more youth.  The fact this sort of talent is generally cheaper ought to be a welcomed circumstance for Sox Fans.

It certainly is welcomed by this Sox Fan. 


George Bova is editor and founder of White Sox Interactive.  You can write George at george@whitesoxinteractive.com


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