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In major league baseball, there’s no such thing as runaway spending

March 30, 2014 - 12:05am

After making Billy Williams the Cubs’ first $100,000 player in 1973, owner P.K. Wrigley told the left fielder “you fellows are going to price yourself out of baseball.”

Four decades later, $100 million contracts are commonplace and the players still haven’t come close to pricing themselves out of the game.

TV money, corporate sponsorships, exorbitant ticket prices and all those $9 beers add up, giving owners the ability to pay players ungodly amounts of money, if they so choose.

It’s a new version of “Moneyball,” without the stats geeks running the show.

With the bright lights of Hollywood as their backdrop, the new kings of neon are the Dodgers, whose $235 million payroll in 2014 will end the Yankees’ 15-year run as baseball’s top spending team.

The Dodgers rewarded ace Clayton Kershaw with a seven-year, $215 million contract, the largest ever for a pitcher, one year after signing Zack Greinke to a six-year, $147 million deal.

They already had three other players with contracts of more than $140 million in Adrian Gonzalez ($154 million), Matt Kemp ($160 million) and Carl Crawford ($142 million), with Hanley Ramirez next in line for a huge payday.

Other teams are stepping up. This week the Tigers gave Miquel Cabrera, 31 in April, an eight-year extension worth $248 million that makes his overall deal $292 million over 10 seasons and the Angels signed Mike Trout, 22, to a six-year $144.5 million contract.

Can a baseball team still buy a championship — the Yankees Way?

Or can a small-market team with a savvy general manager and a strong farm system overcome the obstacles — the Rays Way?

We shall see, with opening day finally here.

Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti believes the focus on the Dodgers’ spending is overblown.

Frugal Frank McCourt owned the Dodgers before he sold them to Guggenheim Partners CEO Mark Walter and a group of investors for $2 billion in May 2012.

“We’ve come a long way in a couple of years,” Colletti told the Chicago Tribune this spring at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Ariz. “We were at $90 million this time of year two springs ago. There was a big deal made (of) last year because we were at $210 (million) or whatever. So over two baseball seasons (2012-13) we have spent nearly $300 million on payroll.

“How many teams have spent more than $300 million on payroll the last two seasons? Five, six, seven? So how different was it? It caught a lot of attention, in my mind, because we (had been) so low.

“If we were up near the Yankees … and when you think about L.A. and New York we ought to be up near the Yankees. All due respect to Boston and Philly — two great baseball organizations, two great cities, tremendous fan bases … they love baseball there, but they shouldn’t necessarily be ahead of the Dodgers (in payroll).

“If two years ago, we had been close to the Yankees, and we added $15 million, nobody says anything. But since we were coming from the middle of the pack, payroll-wise, it caught a lot of people’s attention. It became the story and it became the spotlight.”

That spotlight is not going away any time soon. Blue is the new black, and the rest of the National League GMs have to find a way to outsmart a franchise that won’t be outspent.

The Giants, who won the World Series in 2010 and 2012, are spending $154 million in 2014, a hefty amount but $81 million less than the Dodgers. Competing against a team that has its own 24-hour TV network and a seemingly unlimited budget is difficult but not impossible.

“It’s an old saying, but it gets settled on the field,” Giants general manager Brian Sabean said before a game in Scottsdale, Ariz. “People don’t realize that our division, no matter who the favorite is, it’s tough to win. Just look at the history.

“While they’ll be the favorite, I’m sure that us, or anybody who competes against them, is going to try to prevent them from winning the division. Whoever wins the division and wins 90-plus games is going to have to earn it. The whole division is better.”

The Dodgers have tried to buy championships before. They signed starter Kevin Brown to a then-record $105 million, seven-year contract at the 1998 winter meetings in Nashville, making him baseball’s first $100 million player and upsetting the apple cart.

“As a former general manager, I’m alarmed by the terms,” Major League Baseball vice president for baseball operations Sandy Alderson told USA Today. “As a member of the commissioner’s office, I’m alarmed by the terms. As a fan of the game, I’m alarmed of the terms.”

Former Dodgers manager Davey Johnson responded to all the criticism in his rare way, saying: “Parity is not the American way. The American way is to dominate somebody else.”

As it turned out, the Dodgers did not dominate in ‘99, and didn’t even make it back to the postseason until 2004, after Brown had been traded to the Yankees. Brown went 58-32 with a 2.83 ERA and 1.10 WHIP in five seasons with the Dodgers, but one pitcher can’t do it alone.

After the McCourt fiasco, MLB couldn’t be happier having the Dodgers drive the money train, especially with big-market teams such as the Cubs and Mets (now run by Alderson) still in the early to middle stages of rebuilding plans.

The Dodgers are one of the game’s most storied franchises, with a celebrated announcer in Vin Scully and a hot, new star in Yasiel Puig. Bringing the Lakers’ “Showtime” element to Chavez Ravine is a no-brainer, so look for a steady diet of Dodgers games on ESPN and MLB Network (along with the traditional Yankees and Red Sox fared.)

Baseball’s highest spending teams all figure to contend, while the likes of the Cardinals, Reds and Braves will represent the middle class. That leaves most of the low-spending teams on the outs again, with the exception of the Rays and A’s, who have two of the game’s smartest GMs in Andrew Friedman and Billy Beane, respectively.

Competitive balance has been improved slightly since 2001, when MLB commissioned a survey that concluded 42 percent of fans said they would be “less interested in baseball if competitive balance is not improved.”

The MLB report concluded “the lack of competitive balance can be seen as a direct result of the economic imbalance in the game caused by disparities in revenues leading directly to disparities in team payrolls.”

The Pirates and Royals climbed back through their farm systems, while the Nationals became born-again spenders after their system began producing stars.

Payroll disparities still exist, but now reformed spenders are impersonating small-market teams with the Orioles, Brewers and Royals surpassing the Cubs and Mets in the payroll ranking.

There’s no pressure in 2014 on teams like the Cubs, who sat out free agency and rank 23rd in payroll. They have been issuing verbal IOUs to their fans for the last three offseasons, asking them to be patient until their prospects reach the majors and jell. All they have to lose is their reputations as geniuses.

But for Colletti and the mega-spending Dodgers, there’s nothing but pressure to win it all and justify the biggest payroll in baseball history.

“Pressure? For who?” Colletti asked. “I don’t worry about it. Let me take you back to where I grew up in Franklin Park, and how I grew up, and you can tell me what the pressure is.”