This post from SI.com's Frank Deford prompts me to consider the pros of a salary cap in baseball. After all, I like socialism! Shouldn't I support a move to promote competitive balance and fairer salaries for the lower echelons of pro players? I don't think so.
First off, I am in favour of revenue sharing, and I think the current system works fairly well. The cheapest teams (perennially the Marlins, and this year likely also the Padres) spend less on player salaries than they receive from the collective pot. If they are diverting this money to other operational needs it reflects badly on those organisations and their inability to maintain a viable fan base, not on the system that is trying to maintain them. Deford references the fact that in-market TV revenues are not shared, which is true, but I think there have to be limits to sharing. The Red Sox' NESN and Yankees' YES are innovative capitalist ventures that one doubts would exist if TV revenues were split 30 ways from the central MLB fund. (Note that this evokes the argument that socialism inhibits innovation. To defend socialism I would claim it allows plenty of scope for individualism, while the socialist system interferes as necessary to defend the interests of the people. Yes, I said it: baseball is not a matter of life and death. Sh!)
On to a salary cap, which I was surprised to find Deford does not mention at all, upon re-reading the article. Surely that is the most glaring difference between the organisational structures of the NFL and MLB? Even the Red Sox' co-owners John Henry and Larry Luchino have advocated for it, and they have the 2nd-3rd highest payroll in baseball. I don't often disagree with my team's management (and I'm grateful to them for that!) but here I must.
Here's one problem: the competitive balance is impaired more by the incompetence of bad teams and their unwillingness to spend on development and salaries than it is by the ability of a few teams to pay excessively for free agent talent. After all, most years the Red Sox, Yankees, Mets and Cubs have the highest payrolls, and it's true they typically compete every year, but these teams have not won the World Series 7 of the past 9 years since the start of the decline of the Yankees' '90's dynasty. 5 of the 9 none of those four have reached the World Series, being displaced by such behemoths as the Diamondbacks ('01), Marlins ('03), Rockies ('07) and Rays ('08).
Here's another: baseball has a great (though declining) tradition of players who remain with one team for their careers. Given the vast disparity in talent between college and major leagues (contrasted to other sports), one often sees long-term rebuilding efforts where veterans are traded and youngsters are developed in their place. These would reach their big paydays roughly concurrently, and I'd hate to see a situation where a home-grown player a team could otherwise afford and would like to keep were forced out, such as happens in the NFL (e.g. Matt Cassell) and NBA (I'm guessing). Consider the potential Red Sox' line-up three years from now: Youkilis, Pedroia, Ellsbury, Anderson, Lowrie, Lester, Buchholz, Papelbon, Bard, Bowden are all great talents out of the Red Sox farm system. Still others have been traded for Martinez, Bay and Beckett, many of whom (Masterson, Hanley Ramirez, Hagadone) would command good salaries if they had not been traded. These all add up ... to over the cap?
Before a cap is discussed, other reforms should be instituted and their effect realised. A minimum salary somewhere near the amount teams earn through revenue sharing should be enforced, to avoid embarrassments such as the Marlins some years and the Pirates 17 years and counting. Furthermore a hard slot system should be introduced as part of the next CBA (collective bargaining agreement) in 2011. Both these will allow (or force) teams to both field a quality team and develop the best available talent in their farm systems. If these are enough to placate the fans of small market teams then talk of a cap should die away. If not, then I'll reconsider. But not for a few years.