MILWAUKEE, WI - OCTOBER 02: Third base umpire Jeff Kellogg stands on the field during Game Two of the National League Division Series between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park on October 2, 2011 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
No, I'm not calling you stupid.
Those of you who were conscious beings during the 1992 presidential race know it's a play on Bill Clinton's campaign mantra: It's The Economy, Stupid. Those of you who were not conscious beings in 1992 -- or who haven't yet studied the 1992 presidential campaign in your history or political science classes -- should do yourself a favor and watch the movie War Room. You'll learn a lot about the Clinton campaign's single-minded focus on the failures of the economy under the first President Bush as a basis for electing Clinton. And it worked.
It's The Second Wild Card, Stupid is the mantra of many MLB front offices this off-season.
Maybe not the Marlins, where the opening of the new publicly-financed ballpark has the Fish in big-time spending mode. Maybe not the Angels, with a new, lucrative TV contract in hand. And maybe not the Rangers, who came within a strike of winning the World Series and then bid more than $50 million for the right to negotiate with Japanese pitching sensation Yu Darvish.
But look around. The rest of the teams expected to compete for a playoff spot are taking an incremental approach this off-season.
In the American League East, lots of folks -- here and elsewhere -- are talking about the Yankees' self-imposed payroll limits. The same for the Red Sox. Indeed, the Sox were linked to free-agent closer Ryan Madson but went the lower-cost route by trading for Andrew Bailey. Both teams are in need of starting pitching but neither has ponied up the money for Edwin Jackson. The Rays are doing their Rays thing -- locking up young players to team-friendly deals and looking for bargains in trades and free-agent signings. The Blue Jays reportedly went big in their bid for Yu Darvish, falling just short. Toronto might be in the hunt on Prince Fielder and Edwin Jackson could be a fit. The jury's still out.
In the Central, the Tigers are the team to beat and they've done little to add to last year's roster. Detroit will face payroll increases via arbitration for young players and are still looking for a starter, but that will likely happen via trade. The Indians look to challenge the Tigers. The Tribe brought back Grady Sizemore in a team-friendly deal and made a bid for Carlos Beltran before he signed with the Cardinals. The Tribe could still make a move or two, especially at first base, but don't expect big dollar commitments in Cleveland. The Twins are wondering what kind of value they'll get for the expensive, long-term contracts they gave to Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. In the meantime, they added Josh Willingham for three years/$21 million and starter Jason Marquis for one year/$3 million, in the hopes of regaining the competitiveness they showed in 2000s.
And then there's the West, where the two-headed monster of the Rangers and Angels have dominated the big off-season moves. They may be the new Yankees-Red Sox, with the old ones started to take a more conservative approach.
In the National League East, the Phillies committed $50 million to Jonathan Papelbon over the next four years, but waited out Jimmy Rollins and signed him for only three years and $33 million. The Braves have stood pat for the most part. A trade or two is likely, but there is nothing to suggest the Braves will spend a lot on any remaining free agent. The Nationals are on the verge of competing with the Phillies and Braves. Signing Prince Fielder would put them in the mix, but so far, they haven't taken the leap.
In the Central, it's a three-team race among the Reds, Cardinals and Brewers. Cincinnati has improved via trades without adding much to the payroll. The Brewers let Prince Fielder leave and signed Aramis Ramirez and Alex Gonzalez instead, for a combined $17.25 million for 2012. The Cardinals saw Pujols leave for Anaheim and added Rafael Furcal and Carlos Beltran on two-year deals, costing the team $18.5 million for 2012.
What to make of the NL West? Purple Row's Andrew Fisher had an excellent round-up last week of the off-season moves, so far. The defending division champion Diamondbacks made a bunch of low-cost moves -- including the trade for Trevor Cahill -- and one moderately priced free-agent signing, adding Jason Kubel for two years/$15 million. They let higher-priced Joe Saunders leave to free-agency. The Giants have a $130 million payroll but it's saddled with a lot of dead weight (Barry Zito, Aaron Rowand and Aubrey Huff). They've added only low-cost options Angel Pagan and Melky Cabrera via trades. The Rockies added Michael Cuddyer and Ramon Hernandez for less than $14 million in 2012, and traded away Huston Street, among others.
What to make of this relative frugality? Sure, the Yankees and Red Sox have legitimate concerns about the steeper luxury tax in the new CBA. But for those teams, and others, why spend more than necessary to improve your chances of making the playoffs when there's a strong possibility there will be one additional playoff team in each league come this October?
Granted, a final decision to add a second Wild Card has yet to be made. Under the terms of the new CBA, that decision will come no later than March 1. But all signs suggest the decision's already been made -- if not announced -- and that we'll see two Wild Cards in each league this season.
That changes the calculus for the competitive teams.
Since the Wild Card was added to the playoffs in 1995, the win differential between the team that would have captured the second Wild Card -- had such a thing existed -- and the team with the next best record averages only 3.1 games. In the American League, that win differential is only 2.9 games.
If history is any guide, the battle for the second Wild Card in both the American and National Leagues will be decided by only a few games. Sure, every team says its goal is to win the World Series (well, most teams do). But winning the World Series is a crap shoot, isn't it? Look at the Cardinals in 2006 and 2011. Look at the Giants in 2010. Look at the Yankees, whose payroll grew from $125 million to $207 million between 2002 and 2011, with only one World Series championship to show for it.
Why spend more if doing so more doesn't necessarily provide a competitive advantage? Having the best, most expensive talent helps, but it's certainly no guarantee. Get into the playoffs and see what happens.
It's the Second Wild Card, stupid.