Can MLB Survive in San Diego?

Websoulsurfer offers some interesting thoughts on the Padres current payroll situation and long-term prognosis. A few points deserve further attention:

I have found that no team since the advent of Free Agency has won a World Series with one player making more than 16% of total payroll and no team has made it to the World Series (or even the NLCS) with one player making more than 20% of the total payroll.

This seems to match what we would expect. Many investment strategies emphasize diversification as a way to minimize risk, the idea being that any single failure is less likely to cause a catastrophic collapse. You know, don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

No small market team today can afford to keep players of Adrian Gonzalez’s caliber, players that will earn $20+ million in free agency, and continue to compete with one player taking up such a large of a percentage of their total payroll.

I’m in total agreement here as well. My opinion diverges from Websoulsurfer’s, however, when it comes to the implications of these realities. He asserts that “The system in baseball as a whole needs to be changed in order for these small market teams to consistently compete.”

Many people believe this to be true, but I am not one of them. Organizations have demonstrated that smarts can overcome money. The Oakland A’s, thanks to Moneyball, are the most famous example, but the Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins also have found ways to thrive over the years despite relatively limited resources. There is no reason other teams cannot duplicate these successes… as long as they know what they’re doing.

This is why building a strong farm system is so critical to teams like the Padres. If you’re operating on a tight budget, you don’t ever want to feel compelled to overspend on a premium talent. It is better to have good, cheap replacements ready when the time comes to move Gonzalez or let him walk than to enter into a contract that restricts the procurement of supporting talent. Ask Tom Hicks about Chan Ho Park and Alex Rodriguez, or the Rockies about Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle.

Given the choice between smarts or money, I’ll still take smarts every time. I mean, I’d prefer both; who wouldn’t? But I’d rather follow the model of the 21st century Twins than the 21st century Baltimore Orioles, who have just enough cash to throw it at the wrong people.

Don’t get me wrong, money has its advantages. For one thing, you don’t have to be as smart because it’s easier to outspend your mistakes. But there are ways for small-market teams to consistently compete that don’t involve tweaking the system. Such strategis may not be easy to formulate and execute, but as other teams have shown, they do exist.

(Also, from a pride standpoint, I have an issue with attempts to artificially “level the playing field.” I suspect I’m in the minority, but I want to see “my” team win based on its own merits, and not because of anyone else’s pity.)

Websoulsurfer’s larger point, as I understand it, is that he doesn’t have concerns about San Diego’s viability as an MLB market. In his view, the current situation is a by-product of the Moores divorce and a broken system that prevents small-market teams from competing with the big boys.

I don’t share this outlook, and to illustrate why, I will quote liberally from the Ducksnorts 2009 Baseball Annual:

The climate, geography, and history of San Diego are a blessing and a curse. With consistently great weather; easy access to the Pacific Ocean, mountains, and desert; and transplants from other parts of the country (because of the substantial military presence here, and because it’s just a desirable location), San Diego provides residents ample opportunity to ignore its home teams.

The NBA (Hawks, Clippers) has been unable to keep a franchise in San Diego. Minor-league hockey (Gulls) and basketball (Stingrays) have encountered similar issues. The Gulls, for their part, were a dominant force in the IHL, WHL, and WCHL, but ultimately collapsed despite their success in a city that offered people so many other entertainment options. (A new version of the Gulls recently resurfaced in the WSHL, but who knows how long that will last?)

The problem hasn’t been as severe for baseball, although there have been moments. Prior to the 1974 season, the Padres were all but headed to Washington, D.C., before Ray Kroc bought the team and kept it in San Diego. Still, the Topps Baseball Card Company had been confident enough to print cards that winter identifying several Padres players as members of the Washington National League team.

Later, when [Tom] Werner came to town in 1990 and conducted his infamous Fire Sale in 1993, questions regarding San Diego’s viability as an MLB market resurfaced. When Bud Selig considered contraction in the early part of the 21st century, Minnesota and Montreal were the two most frequently identified targets, but San Diego also entered into the discussion.

The existence of a big-league baseball club in this town is not a given. It never has been, and it likely never will be. With teams directly to the north in the larger media markets of Los Angeles and Orange Counties, another an hour’s flight to the east in Phoenix, the vast Pacific Ocean to the west, and the economically challenged nation of Mexico to the south, the Padres simply don’t have much room to expand their fan base beyond those that call San Diego home or otherwise claim ties to the city.

Is the situation beyond hope? No. As the Padres showed in the mid-’90s and during their first four years at Petco Park, it is possible to succeed here. (In fact, I’m convinced that if the Padres win Game 163 in 2007, we’re looking at an entirely different picture right now, but that’s another notion altogether and one that nobody can prove or disprove.)

But sustainable success in this market will require effort. The farm system, a key driver toward that end, is finally bearing fruit; with any luck, the new regime will be able to continue what Grady Fuson and company started.

Beyond attracting and retaining talent, the bigger challenge is attracting and retaining fans. The old boss did a good job of building the product, but assumed that a winning team would sell itself. It didn’t, and when the team stopped winning, the fans stopped caring.

The new boss appears to be making the right moves in terms of generating interest in the team beyond what it does on the field. I go to games for the baseball, but people seem to be excited about this year’s giveaways. I’m glad for that, because it could help drive ticket sales, which would help keep the Padres in town and me at the ballpark watching games while other folks play with their bobbleheads or whatever.

To answer the question in the title, yes, I believe MLB can survive in San Diego. However, as the Padres have demonstrated over the years, it won’t be easy. And I sure as heck don’t ever take their presence for granted. There are probably better markets for a big-league ballclub. Not that there is any indication that this will happen, but it would break my heart to see the Padres pick up and move to one of those markets.

Here’s hoping the current effort to make nice with disillusioned fans converts to success on the field and at the gate. I’m not ready to let go of this team.