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Michael R. Stevens


The 2013 Baseball Season

Keep an eye on bargain-hunting teams.

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Editor's Note: This is the second installment of Michael Stevens' two-part piece celebrating the start of a new baseball season, Last week, Michael looked at two exceptionally interesting slices of baseball history, both with resonance beyond the field of play. This week, he looks ahead, speculating on how the 2013 season will unfold.

Ah, the 2013 season—130 years after the summer of beer and whiskey flowing in the rickety American Association ballparks, and 80 years since that summer when Satchel Paige showed up in Bismarck and an integrated team beat all comers on the high plains. In some ways, the game hasn't changed that much, despite the passage of time. In other ways, it's changed profoundly.

A lot of the talk about baseball nowadays focuses on giant salaries and long-term contracts. But what about bargain-hunting: teams that get the most from relatively modest investments? I'll start out at the furthest reach from my own sphere of baseball knowledge and interest, the NL West. The Padres seem to be the logical choice to begin with, since they've been in bargain mode for many years, as their $67 million total payroll attests. Among the ineligible players for our bargain-hunt, we find Carlos Quentin (wait, when did he leave the White Sox?) at $9.5 million, Huston Street (wait again, isn't he still the A's closer?) at a cool $7 million, and, down the ladder a bit, Jason Marquis (wait, has he now pitched for every major league team—twice?!) at $3 million. Alas, San Diego has no clear candidates for low-budget star, just several guys on the DL, and Jedd Gyorko, whose name is cool and who is the only player on the roster at the absolute league minimum of $490,000 (I know, if kind of stretches our usual sense of the term "minimum," doesn't it?). The Padres seem to be less bargain-gifted than simply impoverished. Let's move to Colorado, where the Rockies sport a modest $71 M total, with predictable payout for the stars of the team: Helton makes about $6 M, Gonzalez $8 M, Tulowitzki $10 M. But I like Jon Garland bringing a veteran arm (euphemism for 87 mph fastball?) to the team for a mere $500,000, and for just a thousand dollars less, a backup shortstop with a medieval name like Reid Brignac. The Rockies have potential this year—keep an eye on them! Arizona has a quirky layout to its salary chart—catcher Miguel Montero is the highest paid player at $10 M? Eric Chavez is still worth $3 m. as a back-up third sacker? That's all a bit shaky, but I like first baseman Paul Goldschmidt at a mere half a million, and I think this team will compete into September. The Dodgers have now matched the Yankees with four players over $20 M, but the illogic of Ted Lilly making more than Clayton Kershaw (though neither is hurting, as both are well over $10 M) will be a strike against this overpriced club. The real trouble is that they have only a handful of guys under a million a year, and Paco Rodriguez and Tim Federowicz are just not adequate bargain-boons. The Dodgers fade under media and fan pressure in the heat of August, despite the presence of the hero and exemplar of my high school baseball days, Don Mattingly, at the helm. What are you doing out there, Donnie Baseball? Last but surely not least come the Giants, who will win this division with Spartan efficiency and heartlessness—but it won't be the three starting pitchers at $20 M and above (Lincecum, Cain and Zito, can you spare a dime?), but rather the shrewd work at the other end of the pay scale, with quality pitcher Madison Baumgarner just under a million, and starting infielders Brandon Crawford and Brandon Belt right around $500,000 each. That's baseball bargain brilliance, and that means late October baseball for San Fran.

In the NL Central, the Brewers don't look good on the bargain front; at the top, we find that Ryan Braun makes less than Rickie Weeks (!), and below the million-dollar mark, the best possibility is Yuniesky Betancourt at $900,000. The Brewers star is on the wane, it would appear, unless catcher Martin Maldonado ($494,000) hits like a young Candy Maldonado! The Pirates are all screwed up in this regard, with their lowly $66 M payroll nevertheless not well-crafted for this bargain-hunt. How is the rusty-kneed former Tiger struggler Brandon Inge making over a million dollars? The bottom of the payroll doesn't register on the super-bargain meter at all, though if Chase D'Arnaud gets off the DL, we at least can try that "medieval-sounding name" ploy again. Now what of the Cubs, run by former wunderkind Red Sox GM Theo Epstein? Could $104 M be spent more strangely? Why do the aged Alfonso Soriano, who had his best season as a rookie with the Yankees, and former middling D'Backs/Tigers/Nationals pitcher Edwin Jackson, together consume almost a third of this team's payroll (earning $19 M and $13 M respectively). Likely not. The Cardinals also have an apparent bargain-phobia, since $50 M of their payroll goes to four sets of aged knees, in Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, Carlos Beltran, and Rafael Furcal. But the Cards also feature quality contributors John Jay and Daniel Descalso at around $500,000 each, and that could get them a run at the division in the last two weeks of the season. In fact, though I like the way the Reds' payroll seems equable and sensible—Joey Votto makes the most, then Bronson Arroyo, then Brandon Phillips, etc., their mid-range salaries just above the million dollar mark hurt their bargain-hunting status. If they'd only dropped Jack Hannahan and Manny Parra below that 'line of demarcation,' instead of leaving them at exactly $1 M, things might have been different. Only the emergence of bottom of the salary barrel J.J. Hoover on the mound could shore up the bargain-status here, so I see the Reds stumbling down the stretch, with the Cardinals sniffing blood and taking the division on the final day.

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