Small-market teams know their limitations

Small-market general managers, like shoppers on a tight budget, have to find a way to make their money go farther.

Originally Published: December 1, 2006
By Sean McAdam | Special to ESPN.com

Think of the winter meetings, which begin Monday in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., as a giant shopping mall.

At one end, there are the high-end department and luxury stores where most big-market general managers will head in search of expensive gifts; their credit is practically unlimited. Sticker shock is almost nonexistent.

At the other end of the mall sit the discount stores, where the small-market GMs will congregate. Here, budgets are limited, every dollar must be well-spent, and the merchandise isn't nearly as flashy.

The small-market general managers, like shoppers on a budget, have to make their money go farther.

"When you're in Boston or New York, any player that becomes available, you have to be on top of it because he could be a difference maker. In a smaller market, usually one player doesn't make a difference. We have to have a lot of average players and a few good ones."
-- A small-market GM
Aware of their limitations, most of these small-market general managers won't even bother walking to the other end of the mall. Such a trip can only result in a waste of time and the feeling of frustration.

"One of the first things we do," said Milwaukee Brewers general manager Doug Melvin, "is take a look at the free agents who may be willing to come here. It doesn't make any sense to get dragged into negotiating with players who are looking to move the bar on contracts."

"I think there's a lot of preparation that goes into it," agreed Allard Baird, the former general manager of the Kansas City Royals, now a special assistant with the Boston Red Sox. "You have to prepare realistic targets and concentrate your efforts in that direction. You know exactly where you're at and you know the house you live in. You know you just have to be creative."

It was believed that this offseason would present improved opportunities for small-market teams, with many flush with cash from enhanced media revenues – new and old alike – and revenue sharing. But a thin free-agent class has had the opposite effect.

"There's a supply-and-demand issue at work," said an executive with a large-market team. "You're seeing third-tier guys, who ordinarily might be going to small-market teams, being priced out of those clubs because there's so much money around and so few players.

"In some ways, it's never been tougher [for small-market teams]."

While some might view the discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots as limiting, Melvin and others seek to find the positive. Now working within the confines of the game's smallest market, Melvin has also worked on the other side. He was the general manager of the Texas Rangers when they signed Alex Rodriguez to the biggest contract in the history of the game, and later worked in the Red Sox front office.

Money used to be no object; now, it's everything. So, with the Brewers' more modest payroll, Melvin makes the best of the situation.

"I turn the tables and challenge our people, our scouts, and they respond," said Melvin. "We had a meeting with our scouts this week and told them they will use and value their opinions. That perks them up."

Melvin and his scouting staff take satisfaction where they can find it. He points out that the Brewers landed outfielder Scott Podsednik with a waiver claim, and later swapped him for Carlos Lee. Lee, in turn, recently signed a $100 million deal with the Astros.

"So," chuckled Melvin, "I guess you could say that we turned a $20,000 investment [the price of Podsednik's waiver claim] into a $100 million player. We take a lot of pride in finding bargains."

Of course, Lee is now with the Houston Astros, so the Brewers didn't reap the return. That's one more reminder to Melvin that his job is entirely different from those of his big-market colleagues.

"I said to Brian Cashman recently, 'You have to look [at] every player out there,' " recounted Melvin. "You start at the very top of the list and go from there. I go the other way, and start from the bottom, eliminating players."

With more limited resources, small-market general managers must make do with less and find talent in the less obvious places, including the Rule 5 draft and the signing of six-year minor league free agents.

Those moves, however, aren't nearly as glamorous or attention-getting as the marquee names available on the free-agent market. A good, inexpensive young talent may bode well for the future, but he won't sell tickets the way Barry Zito might.

Fans want big names, even if they cost big bucks.

"We run into that," acknowledged Melvin. "But our fans understand, too. They want to win, but they also want a team they can relate to. I think they understand it's tougher [for us to compete]. As long as we work hard and do the best we can – that's what they expect."

"When you're in Boston or New York," said a small-market GM, "any player that becomes available, you have to be on top of it because he could be a difference maker. In a smaller market, usually one player doesn't make a difference. We have to have a lot of average players and a few good ones."

So the bargain bins get picked over. Some of the budget goes to international development and scouting. And the glitzy, most desired presents go home in the suitcases of the big-market teams.

"It's the reality of the business," said Baird. "You know what you can do."

And just as important, what you can't.

Sean McAdam of The Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.