There was an interesting wrinkle introduced to baseball's economic structure yesterday: MLB, the players' association and the Florida Marlins reached an agreement that will require the Marlins--one of the biggest beneficiaries of baseball's revenue sharing program--to increase their payroll until their new ballpark opens in 2012.
Owners of big-market clubs have become increasingly critical of teams like the Marlins, who receive big payouts from the revenue sharing program, but had a payroll of just $37 million last year. Red Sox owner John Henry suggested last month that there were seven perennial offenders, if you will. The Marlins are one of them, and it's long been suspected the Pirates are, too. If you look at Forbes' 2008 MLB operatng income rankings, the Nats are high on the list, along with modest payroll teams like the Marlins, Rays, Twins and Orioles.
It's possible the Marlins agreement sets precedent for other teams to increase payroll, though the Nats certainly have been spending this winter. Mainly, though, I want to look at another element of the ruling: The NL East already includes three teams with big payrolls (the Phillies, Mets and Braves), and though there's no indication the Marlins will be forced to bump their payroll into the nine-figure realm, they'll be less likely to part with young stars like Dan Uggla and Josh Johnson, who both stand to get big raises over the next several years. Remember, the Nats got Josh Willingham and Scott Olsen from the Marlins last fall in large part because Florida saw the two arbitration-eligible players as prime candidates to help them shed payroll.
If the Marlins have already been able to field competitive teams with minimal payrolls, they'll likely become even more dangerous with the ability to keep their young players. That will make the NL East even more competitive, and probably decrease the Nats' margin for error that much more.
It'll be interesting to see how the Nationals finish the winter--do they add another pitcher, or do they get a second baseman like Orlando Hudson or Adam Kennedy? And then there's this winter's round of arbitration hearings; that process begins later this month when teams and players start to exchange salary figures, and it should bump the salaries of Willingham and Brian Bruney. They already have $46.725 million committed for 2010 (plus a $1 million buyout to Austin Kearns), and with arbitration and other contracts for pre-arb players, the dollar figure should push into the mid 50s again. The payroll was around $60 million last year, so it would seem like there's room to add another piece and be right around the 2009 payroll, or add two with a slight bump.
But what's clear is the Marlins agreement won't cut the Nats any slack. In a division with the Phillies (two-time NL champs), Marlins, Braves (both wild-card contenders last year) and the Mets (saddled with bad contracts, but still in possession of some veteran talent), the Nats will have to be smarter and craftier to move up.