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After the Rangers defeated the Astros in the ALCS last week, there were a surprising number of fans of the latter that essentially said, “Texas only won because they spent so much money to defeat Houston.” Which, first of all, who cares if that’s true, and second, that’s also not true. The Rangers did spend a lot of money, yes, and much of it on free agency instead of on extensions to established, homegrown players, but they barely spent more than the Astros did. As I got into for Baseball Prospectus [subscription required], the only reason the two payrolls weren’t even closer than they are is because the Mets covered a big chunk of what was still owed to Justin Verlander, a midseason trade acquisition for Houston, for the 2023 season.
The piece goes in a little deeper than just checking some team payroll, too, but I’d like to make another note here, based on something I only implied rather than stating directly, that was brought up to me by a couple of people. The Astros were remade through tanking, and that lifestyle is all about efficiency and cheapness: it’s all sold as a package justification to fans, so they’ll put up with the losing and feel like it was all worth it in the end. The reality of what the Astros did is ignored, or twisted, to fit this kind of narrative of the need for cheap: Houston had to pocket money for years and years and not try even a little bit, or else they wouldn’t have been able to do what they did, which is become one of the most successful clubs of their era.
The Astros have been spending the entire time they’ve been any good, however. They were never as cheap, in their competitive years, as the reaction to the Rangers’ spending implies they were. They didn’t spend because they squirreled money away during the tanking years, either: they waited until revenues were higher because they were succeeding, and then they spent, and the pocketed cash from the non-competitive years remained just that. Which is the opposite of what the Rangers have done, which was to spend money to attempt to make money (though it should be pointed out that the Rangers also have an extremely lucrative local television deal that allows them to cover a massive piece of even a huge payroll, which made the decision easier for them. And yet, not every team would make the same decision!)
This idea of the Astros as like the baseball equivalent of a mom and pop shop just scraping by persists in the fan base despite it having no basis in reality. Jeff Luhnow and owner Jim Crane really did a number on the minds of those people, in a way that apparently doesn’t let them recognize that the Astros are bumping up close against the luxury tax threshold most years, and even exceeded it in 2020. They’re much smarter about it than someone like, say, the Angels, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are spending to win, just like their cross-state cousins.
Neil deMause went into full details over at Field of Schemes, but the short of it is that the Royals’ plan for a publicly funded stadium will, over time, cost the public far, far more than what is being advertised. Shocking, I know, but still absolutely worth diving into:
Still, even if it’s not $6.4 billion, we’re talking about a shit-ton of taxpayer money here. Using my best back-of-the-envelope scribbling and this present value calculator, it looks like the future tax surcharge diversion would be worth something in the range of $500-700 million in present value. The insurance bill, depending on your assumptions, could be up to $500 million. So it’s very likely well over $1 billion worth of taxpayer costs here, and that’s without any public infrastructure spending or property tax breaks or anything else that might eventually get rolled in as well.
Evan Drellich wrote up a consideration for the disaffiliated minor-league teams with an antitrust suit out against Major League Baseball: do you chase history, or a payday? There’s no guarantee the plaintiffs in the suits Drellich mentions will actually bring them to the Supreme Court and not settle beforehand, and while there’s a duty to try to change history, yes, SCOTUS isn’t exactly the best place to do it, for reasons we’ve gotten into in this space and others ones on dozens of occasions over the years. (Retroactive liability: it’s a burden that empowers MLB’s status quo.)
It’s an informative piece, especially if you haven’t been keeping up with the current suits or past ones — Drellich spoke with a number of experts, including those who have brought suits against MLB in the past, both successfully and unsuccessfully. There shouldn’t be an antitrust exemption for MLB, and even SCOTUS has historically agreed on this point, but removing it is not a simple or clean process, so, what to do?
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