Baseball won't go the way of the NBA

February, 26, 2011
2/26/11
12:30
PM ET
Much of the last week (if not, in fact, the past six months) has been devoted to wailing and gnashing about Carmelo Anthony and what his insistence to play for the Knicks means for the NBA. As a Cleveland fan, I'm certainly sensitive to the issue of elite players using their free agency leverage to engineer hand-picked “power” teams. Trust me, I've been there.

[+] EnlargeFelix Hernandez
Christopher Hanewinckel/US PresswireBaseball teams typically need more than one or two elite players to win championships, as evidenced by Seattle and ace Felix Hernandez last season.
Is this good for the NBA? Frankly, I don't care all that much. It's the NBA. I'll get by.

More interesting to me is the question, “What does this mean for baseball?"

To be honest, I don't think it means a damned thing.

Baseball teams have been putting together collections of elite talent for the entire modern free-agency era, arguably since the end of the 19th century. Sure, there have been flurries of arguments against a high-budget team (usually the Yankees) putting together an unbeatable juggernaut at the expense of the so-called “little guys,” but this rarely materializes. I see a couple obvious factors here, and one surprising one.

One obvious one is roster size. One player on an NBA roster makes up 20 percent of the team in play and about 8 percent of the whole team: In MLB, these numbers are more like 10 percent and 4 percent. If an NBA team gets three elite players, they make up 60 percent of the starting lineup, and probably play on the order of 50 percent of the total minutes. If the Phillies sign even as many as four elite starting pitchers, they still need a bullpen, offense, and defense.

Another factor is that one elite player can have a disproportionate impact on a basketball game. Not only did LeBron James lead a team of role players to the NBA Finals in 2007, but the Detroit Pistons of the early-00's were the only team in recent memory (since 1980, say?) to win the Finals without having one of the five best players in the NBA on the squad. In contrast, not only did Felix Hernandez, good enough to win the Cy Young he deserved, not lead the Seattle Mariners to a winning record, he didn't do so while having Cliff Lee in the same rotation.

That seems like another factor: Admittedly, I'm a much bigger baseball fan than NBA fan, but it just seems like there are more players in MLB that can be considered really excellent compared to their peers. (Of course, there are twice as many positions, too.)

The surprising reason, however, might be at least partially explained by the salary cap (or lack thereof). There was no way for New Jersey to offer Anthony a different amount of money than New York. While Cleveland could offer James more money than any other team, it was only one more year, and the percentage difference was fixed. In contrast, the woeful Detroit Tigers were able to entice Ivan Rodriguez with what was considered a disproportionate offer at the time, and although such plans don't always bear fruit (Jayson Werth's deal with Washington comes to mind as the most recent example of one not likely to work), the Tigers did win the AL Pennant in 2006.

Also, there are more ways to put together a playoff-caliber team in MLB, which is why we've seen teams like Tampa Bay, San Francisco, Texas, St. Louis, and Philadelphia in the World Series in recent years. The baseball playoffs are more susceptible to randomness, too: It's pretty rare for an NBA champion to be a team that pulled several upsets en route to their title.

I'm not saying one sport is better than the other: You're here, so you probably share my opinion on the subject. But I'm pretty confident that while the NBA landscape might have been changed significantly for the foreseeable future, the MLB landscape looks pretty much unaffected by it.

Steve Buffum writes The B-List, a blog about the Cleveland Indians.

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