The Troubles of a Small Market Team

Updated: December 3, 2016

According to recent reports from multiple sources, the Pittsburgh Pirates are all but certain to trade away superstar outfielder Andrew McCutchen this offseason. While I don’t believe the Angels have what it would take to acquire him, it does raise some interesting questions, like why the Pirates would consider trading a top five talent with two very reasonable years remaining on his contract? McCutchen is coming off of the worst full season of his career, slashing only .256/.336/.430 with a -0.7 BRef WAR, much of that tied to horrendous defensive numbers.

Is McCutchen out of his prime, or is it a one-season fluke? Should the Pirates expect a bounce back, or are they making the right move trading him now? The problem facing the Pirates, and most small market teams, is that they can’t afford to wait and find out. While McCutchen is making an extremely reasonable 14 million next year with a team option for 2018 at 14.75 million, if McCutchen does not bounce back and is indeed out of his prime, that contract becomes an albatross.

While big market teams like the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and Angels can afford to live with a bad contract or two, teams like the Pirates or the Tampa Bay Rays have to make every penny count, and a contract that large, while a bargain for a player like McCutchen, becomes a massive burden if he stops producing. Bigger market teams like the Toronto Blue Jays or Washington Nationals, who can afford to take on almost any contract, can then buy low on a player who has been a superstar for most of his career and hope for a bounce back season, while the Pirates must try to get what they can for McCutchen before he kills his value any further or worse, leaves for nothing.

The Pirates or the Rays have very few avenues to improving their team, and trading away current stars to restock areas of needs or one of the only ways. The life blood of teams like the Pirates are prospects; talented players on cheap contracts. Hopefully, a team can hit on just enough prospects to build a contender, i.e. the 2008 Rays or the Pirates the last few seasons, or at the very least they can continue to flip those productive prospects for even more productive prospects to potentially find the right mix, i.e. the Oakland Athletics every single year.

It’s tough being a small market team; you have to hit on every single transaction, and even the most modest free agent signing can be a massive drain on the franchise if it doesn’t pan out. You have a short window of contention if you get enough prospects producing in the majors at the same time before they begin to make too much money and thus, must be traded away before losing them for nothing.

It’s not impossible, as the Kansas City Royals, St. Louis Cardinals, and Cleveland Indians have built contenders in small to mid-markets the last few seasons, but it isn’t easy – there’s a reason why big market teams like the Red Sox, Yankees, San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs, and Philadelphia Phillies have won eight of the last ten World Series – the bigger market teams have the more significant advantage as they can afford to make more mistakes.

The small market teams just can’t afford to make any mistakes; no bad free agent signings, no holding onto players too long or letting them leave for nothing, every prospect has to pan out, every draft pick has to be a slam dunk. The road to a championship is never easy, but some teams hold a decidedly larger advantage over others, and that won’t change any time soon.

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