Nuts to caps

Not all of the mainstream press accepts the owners’ recent whining about salary caps at face value, and today the San Francisco Chronicle’s Bruce Jenkins takes a whack at it. A key thing to remember about salary caps:

To make the Jason Kidd-to-Dallas deal work last year, the Mavericks had to re-sign Keith Van Horn, who was living in retirement with no intention on coming back, and send his contract to New Jersey (I think only his hat made the trip). Just the other day, a column on the Sports Illustrated Web site noted that “the Cavaliers possess two enormously attractive (trade) assets in swingman Wally Szczerbiak and forward Ben Wallace.” You’re thinking, what? Then you realize it’s not about their talent, but their soon-to-be-expiring contracts.

NBA trades are all about expiring contracts. You’re not trading for help, you’re getting people you can’t wait to unload. “Hey, did you see the guys we acquired to put in next summer’s trash can?” The chemistry-tortured Detroit Pistons would probably do well to unload Rasheed Wallace before the February 19 deadline, but wait – if they keep him until summer, they clear some cap space. Come to think of it, the NBA is just barely being played in real time. In our minds, we’re already well into 2010, when LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Steve Nash, Dwyane Wade and several more top free agents have chosen new teams.

As many have established, salary caps are bad ideas economically speaking. But even if they weren’t, they are aesthetic nightmares that insert unsightly, unwieldy, and downright complicated concepts like “franchise tags” and “expiring contracts” into the sporting discourse. Are they comprehensible? Well, sure, and I suppose it would be no great trick for every team to hire a cap guru if they felt the need. Certainly the readers of this blog could get their heads around caponomics if they had to.

But there is no escaping the fact that salary caps and all they have wrought serve to alienate the common fan from the essence of the game even more than he is already alienated, thereby rendering sports a slightly less enjoyable thing. Sure, no matter what the economic situation is, the Royals would never have been able to sign CC Sabathia. But without a salary cap in place at least there is an enemy to complain about in the Yankees or their skinflint owner or their brain dead GM or what have you. What do Kansas City bargoers complain about if there is a salary cap? Section 1.5(A)(1)(i)?

Such a discussion wouldn’t even be worth the beer.

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  1. YankeesfanLen said...

    Sice we in Yankeeland have NEVER considered salary caps and are willing to pay for (when we can get) over-priced tickets, pay more for YES network on cable, and have extra commercials even on radio, let’s let baseball be the labratory for free-wheeling capitalism!
    That’s worth a beer, isn’t it Hal and Hank!

  2. Pete Toms said...

    Baseball isn’t pure capitalism by any stretch ( though I don’t follow it, I think soccer is ).  The “Yankee tax”, revenue sharing, BAM, StubHub deal etc…there is plenty of the wealthy subsidizing the less wealthy.

    And caps are stupid and boring.  If you’re lucky enough and smart enough to assemble a great team, you can’t keep it together because you can’t pay everybody.  So your less lucky, less smart competitors sign some of your better players because they are too incompetent to find enough themselves.  What’s entertaining or interesting or compelling or worthwhile about that?

  3. Mike said...

    Here’s one fan-friendly aspect of a salary cap.  By no means does it justify having a cap, but it does allow sports fans something to discuss over a beer.

    The NBA’s salary cap does allow for the existence of the Trade Machine (  It’s fun for fans to experience first hand the balancing act necessary under a salary cap.  But as Len suggests above, it’s also fun to have your owner write a big check to the best available free agents.

  4. Rob said...

    Besides the obvious, I wonder if the roster rules and structure of baseball would prevent these types of cap-clearing deals.  As it is, the NBA is full of buy-outs that don’t happen in MLB.  I think this is because the roster rules of MLB make the opportunity cost too high for teams to just hang on to a useless player; they have to play him.

  5. Sam said...

    I have to disagree here.  Yes, the Lebron sweepstakes are out of control in regards to clearing cap room in 2010.  But that is the year the best player in the league will become a free agent.  If there were a comparable player in MLB, you can be sure that the yanks and sox would make sure to create the payroll flexibility to get that mythical player.  It seems like there are salary dumps in MLB also.  You can complain about the quirks of the NBA Salary Cap but I enjoy a lot of it myself.  I’m not saying it’s the perfect solution, but I think the fact that players in all sports are what are turning off the common fan, not the cap.

  6. jay11 said...

    How does this alienate fans?

    Baseball teams sign dozens of people every year that nobody cares about.  Teams already trade away players before their contract expires and they lose them to free agency. Teams already have to factor in potential draft pick compensation.  Why would a trade for one or two extra players as a sign that you are planning on making a free agency pickup next year alienate fans? 

    Or is the point just that salary caps are stupid, expiring contracts can be associated with salary caps…therefore expiring contracts are stupid.

  7. kranky kritter said...

    Yeah, who needs a salary cap? And why handicap jockeys in horse racing? I’m sure if it were done away with, the 89 lb jockey wouldn’t win EVERY race.

  8. Craig Calcaterra said...

    It’s not that expiring contracts are stupid. It’s that the fact of the salary cap makes them so important that a team’s transactions are often very far removed from the current situation and needs.  Maybe that makes sense when you’re a GM, but as a fan, I find it very difficult to get enthused when basically every move a team makes is geared towards two years from now and many of those moves make the team hard to watch in the short term.

  9. Craig Calcaterra said...

    Kranky:  Quick—who’s your favorite jockey?  How’s your horse race fantasy team looking like this year?

  10. Nick said...

    The Royals fans would still find legitimate things to complain about, like giving max contracts to Jose Guillen and wasting cap space on the likes of Kyle Farnsworth and Willie Bloomquist.

  11. YankeesfanLen said...

    Don’t get me started on Farnsworth!!!!He should be traded even further away than KC- Detroit obviously wasn’t far enough.
    Wait-let him join Zito on the Giants, they need to have another basement-dweller.

  12. pete said...

    My favorite part of expiring contracts in the NBA is that teams and players agree beforehand that a player will be traded, released, and resign with the original team after 30 days. It happened last year, I believe, and it’s going to happen again this year with Wally Szczerbiak and the Cavs.

  13. Jeremy said...

    Salary caps certainly aren’t the perfect solution—especially not your straw cap—but they would work to mitigate some of the problems present in baseball.  Maybe Kansas City fans don’t have anything to complain about.  Toronto fans certainly do.  In a division with two of the highest spending teams in baseball, Toronto manages to stay competitive with the rest of the league but not with Boston or the Yankees.  Year after year of disappointment. 

    The lastest retort is that because Tampa has been able to compete, Toronto should be able to as well. In context, though, what Toronto would need to do to compete makes that impossible in their market.  Toronto would have to endure years of losing, something their fickle fanbase would never survive. 

    A lack of opportunity also serves to alienate fans.  Despite the success of teams like the Florida Marlins, the current economic structure of MLB constrains opportunities to win, which is not necessarily a bad thing, and eliminates them completely, which is an unncessary bad thing.  A soft salary cap is very workable.  While the bargoers of Kansas City may not understand the intricacies of the cap, that doesn’t mean they won’t talk about it.  People fill their social lives talking about things they haven’t taken the time to research: free speech, foreign policy, economic decisions, religion, health care.  Most baseball fans talk about how great Justin Morneau is because of RBI or how great teams are at manufacturing runs.  They still enjoy the game without necessarily understanding the nuances of it.

  14. Doug said...

    I’m sure I’m oversimplifying (as we all are when we talk about such things), but here’s how I look at leagues with salary caps and without.

    In Capped leagues (HFL/NBA), a team’s success is based on the ability of the team leadership to assemble a team, the coaches to coach it, and the players to execute.  All on a (relatively) level playing field.

    In MLB, all of the above is also true, but the playing field is decidedly un-level.

    Maybe I’m not the “common fan”, but I’m personally more alienated by the structural inequality of MLB than I am alienated by the salary cap structures of the NFL or NBA.

    When my favorite NFL team loses, I know it’s completely the fault of my team’s decisions.  And I can’t say that when my favorite MLBG team loses – they may be under-competent, but the financial deck is also stacked against them.

  15. Mark said...

    I just had the profound displeasure of reading the entire article. Typical Bruce Jenkins drivel.

    Apparently he cannot distinguish between correlation and causation, drawing the conclusion that because the NBA has a salary cap, that is the reason for the Lakers/Spurs dominance of the last 10 years or so.

    What he fails to realize is that basketball is by its very nature dynastic. Fewer moving parts, fewer injuries, and one player can impact the game much more than in other sports. In fact, eliminating the cap would just make it worse since the big-market teams could surround their superstars with more stars, ensuring even longer runs of dominance. As it stands, if the Lakers lost Gasol or the Spurs lost Ginobili for the season, their championship asiprations would probably vanish.

  16. VanderBirch said...

    Agreed with you on the Dynastic Point Mark. The same is true of the NFL somewhat, as a great head coach and QB are far more influential than any one player/manager in MLB.

    One of the key problems with introducing a cap in MLB is the incredible revenue disparities at work. Much like European soccer, the big clubs are the key economic drivers for the league, and MLB has to be somewhat careful as to the extent they limit these teams. The Yankees brand, like that of Manchester United or Real Madrid, is really influential in expanding the global popularity of the game, whereas the NFL is more of a team driven league.

    Because you have teams in MLB who are in different revenue stratospheres, like the Marlins and Yankees, finding a way to actually make a cap workable is going to be almost impossible. MLB needs to work out how to level the revenue playing field a little before thinking about a cap IMO.

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