American League teams have an unprecedented advantage over the National League at the one place that is more important than the ball park. That place is the negotiating table.
If we're looking strictly at World Series outcomes, most would say that the National League has been more dominant recently, winning three out of the last four World Series titles. In a sport with no salary cap, winning the World Series is priority number one. Titles sell tickets. Titles sell merchandise. These sales bring cash, and cash brings talent.
But I have a feeling that the NL’s dominance is about to end, because big league sluggers now have a compelling reason to move to the American League. Big time players are no longer demanding only money. Baseball’s stars want long term deals as well. The two biggest free agent fish this year, Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols, both signed deals of 9 years and 10 years respectively. Long term contracts like these are risky, as most players’ fielding ability decreases with age. The designated hitter position eliminates this risk.
Let’s focus on Albert Pujols. He just signed a 10 year guaranteed 240 million dollar contract with the Anaheim Angels. His pay rate increases each year, starting at 12 million in 2012 and topping off at 30 million in 2021. He is 31 years old, which means that the Angels will still be paying this slugger top dollar when he turns 40. Pujols has never been coveted for his defensive skills, and certainly they will deteriorate as time passes. It would have been an astronomical risk for any National League team to sign Pujols to a 10 year deal, especially one that grows in guaranteed money as time passes. The knowledge of his certain physical deterioration would be the difference. The idea of having a 41 year old, 30 million dollar investment playing the field for 150 plus games is idiotic.
But with the option of playing Pujols in the designated hitter position, the Angels are safe. When Pujols is too old to play first base, they can plop him in the DH spot and use him strictly for his hitting. A team like the Cardinals would have to keep trotting him out to play defense if they still wanted to utilize his bat. The Angels had the ultimate upper hand at the negotiating table knowing that they could offer not only big money, but also a long term deal to Pujols. They could ensure minimal wear and tear and maximum offensive production.
The result of this divide will be an exodus of pure hitters to the American League. Sure, pitchers could still come to the National League with the assurance that facing the opposing pitcher will add three outs to their stats each time they pitch. On the other hand, pitchers stand to bolster their most important stat, win-loss record, by pitching for the offensive powerhouses that the American League will soon be building.
It’s probably time for the National League to bite the bullet and change the way they play, and not because it gives them any truly drastic advantage on the field. In order to stay competitive on the playing field an organization must be competitive in the negotiating room, and the AL just yelled checkmate.
(All credit due to Damon Bruce here, who opened my eyes to this concept on his show over the last few days)
Photo Credit: Crabcake Sports