WHEN MAJOR LEAGUE owners met in Milwaukee last week, ostensibly to rubber-stamp yet another incremental improvement to the sport's drug policy, commissioner Bud Selig noticed something remarkably different about the barons of baseball. ¬∂ "I didn't meet an unhappy one," he says. "This was one of those rare meetings.... This was a love-in for two days. No complaining. I'll tell you this was ... it was great." ¬∂ The collective happiness of the owners being directly proportional to the thickness of their wallets, the owners should be feeling chipper these days. Attendance is up for the fifth straight season, and with two new stadiums being built in New York and a new Baseball-owned network debuting next year, their pipeline of shared cash figures to keep coursing steadily. But the good times include an on-field benefit as well: the best competitive balance most of them have seen during their tenure as owners.
Fourteen years after owners canceled the World Series because the players didn't buy their need for a salary cap and seven years after the owners threatened to eliminate the Minnesota Twins and the Montreal Expos because they believed too many teams had no chance to contend, baseball is enjoying an egalitarianism not seen since the 1980s. The morning standings last Saturday, more than a quarter of the way through the season, went down for most owners as sweetly as their mimosas. The difference between the fourth-winningest team (the Los Angeles Angels) and the 23rd (the Pittsburgh Pirates) was only four games. None of the teams with the five highest payrolls held first place. Instead, four of the six first-place teams—Cleveland (No. 16 on the money list), Arizona (23rd), Tampa Bay (29th) and Florida (30th)—were spending about as much money combined as the Yankees are for a last-place team ($209 million). "This is one time I can say," Selig boasts of the parity, "that this is exactly what we tried to do. I think we have more parity than any [sport]."
The Rays and the Marlins in first place in mid-May? Looking at the standings too long these days can induce vertigo. The American League East particularly seems to have confused down with up. Not only did the Yankees bottom out in last place this deep into a season for the first time since 1990, but they were also exhorted by the boss's son, team cochairman Hank Steinbrenner, to play more like ... well, like the Rays, owners of nine last-place finishes in their 10-year history.
Welcome to baseball's Bizarro World.
LED BY a bespectacled oenophile who works his sorcery beneath a framed quote from Dr. Seuss, Tampa Bay is winning with pitching, defense and young players, the sometimes forgotten commodities of the power-obsessed Steroid Era from which baseball is trying to escape. "Maybe," says manager Joe Maddon, the cat in the Rays' hat, "we're the right team at the right time."
"Oh, they're legit," says Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina, whose team lost three of four in St. Petersburg last week. "The way they pitch and they play, they're not going away."
The Rays, Arizona Diamondbacks and Minnesota Twins, which according to baseballreference.com are the three youngest teams in baseball when it comes to position players, were a combined 74--57 (.565) through Sunday, with a total payroll cost of $167 million. The three oldest clubs, the Blue Jays, Yankees and Tigers, were a combined 60--74 (.448) at a cost of $445 million.
Teams have embraced a new paradigm: The young player is more important than ever before. The success of every-day players from the 2005 draft (Justin Upton, Ryan Braun, Troy Tulowitzki, Jacoby Ellsbury, for example) and pitchers from the '06 draft (Tim Lincecum, Max Scherzer, Joba Chamberlain, Luke Hochevar) has persuaded front offices to give opportunities to their youngsters. And teams now love to dole out multiyear contracts—as long as they go to young players who tend to stay off the disabled list and have their best years ahead of them.
Small- and mid-market teams are gleefully signing their young stars to long-term deals that preempt salary arbitration and free agency, a trend that will continue to render the ever-thinning free-agent market even more inefficient. That market increasingly is left with fewer—and older—players who are given exorbitant salaries just as many of them are entering their thirtysomething decline phase. Of the 42 players at week's end with at least eight home runs, only seven were older than 31.
Just last week the Milwaukee Brewers locked up leftfielder Braun, 24 (eight years, $45 million); the Marlins secured the services of shortstop Hanley Ramirez, 24 (six years, $70 million); and the Rays locked up pitcher Scott Kazmir, 24 (three years, $28.5 million with a club option for another year). In each case the club bought out at least two potential free-agent years from the player. The Rays had already given like-minded extensions to starting pitcher James Shields, 26; first baseman Carlos Pena, 30; and rookie third baseman Evan Longoria, 22. Other young stars who have postponed their shot at free agency include Justin Morneau of Minnesota, Alex Rios of Toronto, Tulowitzki of Colorado and Grady Sizemore of Cleveland.
"Revenue sharing may have helped [the trend]," says Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin, "but I think that it's a change in the industry mind-set more than anything.... Look at [Phillies] first baseman Ryan Howard; he's making $10 million with less than three years [in the league]. By the time these guys are free agents, you're talking $15 million to $20 million a year. Not a lot of teams can pay one guy that kind of money and still compete. Then you look at Morneau's deal, and he's making $14 million a year in his free-agent years. It makes sense for the player too. Now he has security and can concentrate on what he does best: Just go out and play ball."
The shift toward emphasizing younger players was dramatically evident during last week's Yankees-Rays series. New York features seven regulars who are 32 or older. Two of them (third baseman Alex Rodriguez and catcher Jorge Posada) were on the disabled list, and four others were hitting below their career averages (outfielders Johnny Damon and Bobby Abreu, shortstop Derek Jeter and first baseman Jason Giambi). The Yankees scored only six runs in the four games, hit only one home run and stole no bases (they ranked last in the league at week's end) and showed little range defensively.
The Rays, meanwhile, ran the bases aggressively, chased down just about anything airborne in the outfield, turned key double plays and shackled New York hitters with power pitching. In short, Tampa Bay looked nothing like anything seen before in the franchise's history. Gone are the name (Devil Rays), uniform (so long, green, turquoise and yellow), worst bullpen in more than half a century (6.16 ERA last year) and loser's attitude. ("We've always been concerned about the lack of professionalism in the past," Maddon says.)
THE REMAKING of the Rays actually began last July, when the club used the trading deadline to get a jump on the 2008 season. "Overhauling the bullpen was daunting," says G.M. Andrew Friedman, who shipped infielder Ty Wigginton to Houston for reliever Dan Wheeler.
In September the Rays sent scout Larry Doughty to file a report on free-agent-to-be reliever Troy Percival, then with the Cardinals. "He was raving about him," Friedman says. Friedman and Maddon recruited Percival with a visit to his California home in November, convincing Percival that the Rays were ready to take a leap forward but needed his veteran influence. On Nov. 30 they signed Percival to a two-year, $8 million contract. "The first day of spring training Percy walks in with his cup of coffee and starts talking to people, walking around the room, getting on guys. We never had that before," Maddon says. "Nobody ever did that. Guys just did their own thing."
The chatty Percival keeps players loose and humble. For instance, he promised to fine pitcher Matt Garza, who was obtained in a trade with the Twins, $500 every time he acted like a jerk on the mound, though Percival used a more colorful term.
"What's the matter? Nobody in Minnesota ever said you acted like a [jerk]?" Percival asked him.
"Uh, yeah, they did," Garza admitted.
The Rays went 18--8 in spring training. Says Friedman, "Guys like Percy and Cliff Floyd were able to tell these guys, 'We've been to the playoffs, and we're just as talented as those teams.' Now it's a matter of learning how to win. Spring training games are usually worthless, except for us. Spring training had more value to us than anybody else. The team for the first time started to think about challenging to play in October. And now they believe it."
The Rays also added lefthander Trever Miller to the bullpen and bumped closer Al Reyes to setup duty to make room for Percival, who has backed up his clubhouse chatter with 11 saves in 13 opportunities and a 0.53 WHIP at week's end. They also sealed a leaky infield by getting sticky-handed shortstop Jason Bartlett in the Minnesota deal with Garza (for outfielder Delmon Young) and moved third baseman Aki Iwamura to second base to make room for Longoria, who figures to be a franchise fixture. Says one AL G.M. of Longoria, "I think he's the most impressive young player that's come up in the past couple of years. I'd take him over anybody. And he's going to be a 40-home-run hitter."
The turnaround has been stunning. The Rays were the worst defensive team in the league last year, as measured by defensive efficiency, a Bill James--created measure of how well teams turn batted balls into outs. This year the stats say they're the second-best defensive team in the league. The bullpen is fourth-best, cutting its ERA by nearly three runs (3.38). And with a hard-throwing rotation of Kazmir, 24; Garza, 24; Shields, 26; Edwin Jackson, 24; and Andy Sonnanstine, 25, and last year's No. 1 overall pick David Price, 22, on the way, the Rays "are winning in a way we believe is sustainable," Friedman says.
MAYBE THE Rays were overdue to win anyway. After all, they have drafted no lower than eighth for nine consecutive years—and they have the first pick overall again next month. But the revenue sharing system, a provision of the 2002 labor deal, and the boom in new revenue streams such as satellite television and radio and digital media, have allowed every team a better chance at securing its young players. Meanwhile, power, the most expensive commodity in the game, has been deemphasized with the crackdown on performance-enhancing drugs.
The Rays may be a new phenomenon, but parity is not. Since the labor deal went into place in 2003, 20 of the 30 teams have reached the playoffs. And even if Tampa Bay—which was 25--19 through Sunday after never having been more than three games over .500 in its existence—doesn't reach the postseason, it has hope for the first time. Just about everybody gets a turn on the carousel and a shot at the brass ring. Since 2002 every team in baseball has been in first place on May 15 with only four exceptions: Toronto, Pittsburgh, Colorado and Washington.
The Rays, who'd never been in first this late before this year, did their best to act as if they've been here before. Maddon, for instance, who has a sign saying GOT WINE? above his office doorway, stuck to his mellow postgame selections: a 2005 Napa Valley Merlot one night, a 2004 Napa/Sonoma Cabernet blend the next, after an extra-inning win against previously unscored-upon Yankees closer Mariano Rivera.
"You're looking for a growth moment?" Maddon said. "There's one right in front of your face tonight."
On such nights anything seems possible in baseball. "Be who you are and say what you feel," reads the framed quote beneath the Cat in the Hat portrait behind Maddon's desk, "because those who mind don't matter, and those who matter don't mind."
The Rays all of a sudden matter. It is a baseball world imagined by Selig, if not Seuss himself.
Not only did the Yankees bottom out in last, they were exhorted by Steinbrenner to play more like ... THE RAYS.
Baseball Prospectus's Nate Silver judges which monster starts are for real
ALL STATS THROUGH SUNDAY
LF Carlos Quentin
.301 11 HRs 27 RBIs
Some of the best candidates for breakout years are players who suddenly get a steady job with a new team after having had to scratch and claw for playing time before. Think David Ortiz with the Red Sox in 2003. Or Carlos Pe√±a with the Rays in '07. Or Carlos Quentin in '08.
The Verdict: For Real
CF Nate McLouth
.306 12 HRs 36 RBIs
McLouth has a well-rounded skill set, but he's never been much of a power hitter; the most home runs he ever hit in a season as a minor leaguer was 12. He's not big or strong enough to sustain this year's power over the long haul.
The Verdict: Fluke
RF Ryan Ludwick
.336 11 HRs 29 RBIs
You might be tempted to apply the Carlos Quentin theorem to Ludwick, since he's another guy who has never before gotten such steady playing time. But Ludwick is 29. (Quentin is 25.) Particularly improbable: Ludwick has hit .397 against righties, 119 points above his career average.
The Verdict: Fluke
SS Ryan Theriot, CUBS
.331 1 HR 12 RBIs
Theriot has fooled us before: He was hitting more than .300 as late as May 19 last year before eventually slumping to .266. A player who relies as heavily as Theriot does on singles—81% of his hits—is unlikely to sustain such a fast start, though Theriot's improved plate discipline should keep him from slipping too far.
The Verdict: Fluke
2B Dan Uggla, MARLINS
.316 13 HRs 31 RBIs
A peek behind the numbers of this 2005 Rule V pick reveals something that doesn't quite add up: Uggla is hitting .316 despite having struck out in almost one third of his at bats. He has too many holes in his swing to hit this far above his career norm of .263, but he'll keep hitting for power.
The Verdict: For Real
3B Blake DeWitt
.318 4 HRs 21 RBIs
The minor league record of this Dodgers rookie was not particularly impressive. You don't go from having a .793 OPS in the minors, as DeWitt did last year in Class A and Double A, to a .908 OPS in the majors without running a little hot.
The Verdict: Fluke
SP Edinson Volquez
7--1 1.33 ERA
Volquez is second in the National League in strikeouts per nine innings, and he has improved his ground ball--to-fly ball ratio to 1.76 to 1—a key metric when your home yard is as power-friendly as the Great American Ball Park. He's not going to finish with an ERA out of the Dead Ball era, but he's going to be very good.
The Verdict: For Real
1B Conor Jackson
.310 5 HRs 32 RBIs
Because Jackson has an exceptionally strong plate approach—he walked more often than he struck out in 2007 and is on pace to do the same this year—he should continue to make the most of his at bats.
The Verdict: For Real
C Mike Napoli, ANGELS
.258 10 HRs 23 RBIs
Fans who still pine for Rob Deer have a pretty good facsimile in Napoli, who has just 12 singles on the year—but 10 homers. Napoli, who hit 29 and 31 homers in his last two seasons in the minors, certainly has the power stroke tomaintain that production.
The Verdict: For Real
RP Brian Wilson
Last year a save was earned in 49% of major league games, but Wilson has earned a save in 12 of the Giants' 17 victories this year, a 71% rate. He won't keep feeling the good vibrations for very much longer.
The Verdict: Fluke
NOW ON SI.COM
SPORTS IN REAL TIME. ALL THE TIME. ALL FREE.
Joe Lemire and Melissa Segura take a closer look at the surprising starts of the Mets' Ryan Church and the Reds' Edinson Volquez
Photograph by J. Meric/Getty Images
FROM PARODY ... To parity, that has been the path of the once-dysfunctional Rays, who made a joyous statement with last week's domination of the Yankees.
STARTER SET At 26, Shields is the old man in the Rays' rotation, and he's signed to stay with the team through 2011.
ROBERT BECK (QUENTIN)
ROBERT BECK (NAPOLI)
JASON POHUSKI/ICON SMI (MCLOUTH)
DAVID ZALUBOWSKI/AP (LUDWICK)
JOEL AUERBACH /US PRESSWIRE (UGGLA)
PAUL JASIENSKI/GETTY IMAGES (JACKSON)
DANIEL R. HARRIS/ICON SMI (WILSON)
BRAD MANGIN (VOLQUEZ)
DUSTIN SNIPES/ICON SMI (DEWITT)
AL TIELEMANS (THERIOT)
LIKE A SPEEDING BULLET The Rays have shot up the standings with pitching and defense and a high-energy attack led by Carl Crawford.
NICK LAHAM/GETTY IMAGES
A SAFE CALL By taking three of four from the Yanks, Pe√±a and the Rays impressed New York that they're in the race to stay.