x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

No money, no problem

This year's MLB playoffs are challenging the notion that post-season success requires spending big money.

Oakland Athletics catcher Stephen Vogt, top, is mobbed by teammates after his game-winning, bases-loaded single in the bottom of the ninth in a 1-0 win over Detroit. Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP Photo
Oakland Athletics catcher Stephen Vogt, top, is mobbed by teammates after his game-winning, bases-loaded single in the bottom of the ninth in a 1-0 win over Detroit. Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP Photo

Small market, big dreams.

In baseball these days, those are not mutually exclusive concepts.

The current post-season serves as an encouraging testament to the potential of the “little guys,” as such low-budget franchises as the Pittsburgh Pirates, Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland A’s are still playing October baseball.

The payrolls of the three teams rank among the bottom five of the 30 teams in the sport, each of them checking in under the US$70 million (Dh257m) level.

Meanwhile, the New York Yankees ($229m), Philadelphia Phillies ($159m), Los Angeles Angels ($142m) and San Francisco Giants ($142m) are home twiddling their thumbs this month.

Yes, big-market spenders such as the Los Angeles Dodgers ($230m), Boston Red Sox ($159m) and Detroit Tigers ($149m) are fulfilling expectations by winning post-season spots.

But the success of some small-market teams is consistent enough, and understandable enough, to provide a blueprint for those who can’t afford to write enormous checks to the game’s biggest veteran stars.

Tampa Bay has reached the post-season four times in six years. Oakland has won the American League West Division the last two years, outplaying their much richer rivals, the Angels and Texas Rangers.

Pittsburgh is seemingly everyone’s favourite post-season underdog because they posted their first winning season in 21 years.

But it was not serendipity. The Pirates finally figured out how to develop and retain talent in their farm system, and spend their money on quality pitching.

Tampa Bay has been brilliant in drafting talent and developing, predominantly, top-shelf pitching prospects.

Oakland has been a pioneer (think “Moneyball”, the book and movie) in using advanced statistical measurements to identify under-valued players.

Like Tampa Bay, the A’s also use their limited resources to draft, acquire via trade and stockpile as many young, quality pitching prospects as they can.

Everyone may love home-run hitters, but pitching is the sport’s great equaliser.

The Rays have become so adept at winning, despite their limited financial resources, that they have become a destination for hungry, lower-level free agents.

“They might take a little less money to come play for the Rays,” Tampa Bay’s best pitcher, David Price, said last week. “The guys we got, they want to be here.”

That us-against-them mentality certainly serves the small-market teams well.

In the end, however, it is baseball smarts that go the farthest in building a roster with affordable players.

If you cannot out-muscle them, it is possible to out-think them.

As Pittsburgh owner Bob Nutting told the New York Times last week, regarding his organisation’s inability to pay the biggest salaries, “The playing field is not level, but a team like Pittsburgh can never use that as an excuse.”

No need, at least not this year.

sports@thenational.ae