There was a time not so long ago when it was pretty easy for baseball fans to handicap the pennant races and predict which division winners and wild-card teams would make it into the postseason.
All you had to do was follow the money.
The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox were almost automatic. The dirt-cheap Tampa Bay Rays were the most glaring exception, but the playoffs were largely populated with the teams carrying the biggest payrolls. It was not a counterintuitive equation, of course, in the only major American professional sports league without a salary cap.
The notion that money can buy you anything — love, happiness, a World Series trophy — is as American as apple pie, but something is happening in 2013 that defies all economic and competitive logic. The season has reached its mathematical halfway point and most of baseball's most expense teams would like to have their money back.
Look around. This past weekend, the Yankees left town in fourth place after the Orioles swept them in a three-game series at Camden Yards. They're spending $228 million on player salaries this year and $93 million is going to five guys who have been injuried for all or a large part of the first half.
If you want a bit of perspective, consider that banged-up stars Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson and Kevin Youkilis combine to earn more than the entire 2013 Orioles payroll ($92 milion).
Meanwhile, the team with the best record in baseball is the Pittsburgh Pirates, who have the fourth-lowest payroll in the game at about $67 million, and — if the season were to end today — six of the 10 playoff teams would have payrolls at least $10 million below the league average.
Does this mean that baseball is heading into a new era of economic austerity?
Don't hold your breath. The richest teams will always try to buy their way to the top of the standings, and the sport is in the midst of another big growth spurt in local and national revenue. But the current disconnect between payroll size and on-field success is a significant development that could change the way even the top revenue teams do business in the future.
The world was watching when Yankees general manager Brian Cashman publicly lost his patience with Rodriguez last week and made it pretty clear that the Yankees believe his giant contract was a huge mistake. It also hasn't gone unnoticed that attempts by the two Los Angeles-area teams to spend their way to the promised land have left both teams with losing records and disappointing numbers from their most expensive players.
The only big-spending teams at the top of the standings going into Thursday's games were the Texas Rangers and the Red Sox, both of which have shed some big contracts over the past year and feature a growing presence of younger, homegrown players.
It's probably just a coincidence that the Los Angeles Angels have lured away big-money free agents Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton over the past two years and the Rangers and St. Louis Cardinals have remained among the winningest teams in their respective leagues, but the decline of the Angels has to make that a cautionary tale for other franchises hoping to buy a title.
The success of teams like the Orioles, Rays, Pirates and Cleveland Indians may just represent the emergence of a new generation of young talent that will eventually price itself out of the small and medium-sized markets. Manny Machado and Bryce Harper may well be tomorrow's $40 million-per-year players. But for now, it appears that baseball is settling into a new economic equilibrium.
Give Billy Beane and the "Moneyball" Oakland A's credit for proving it was possible to compete on a very small budget. Credit the Rays for taking one of baseball's smallest payrolls all the way to the World Series. And give Andy MacPhail, Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter some props for pulling the Orioles out of a decade of despair without breaking the bank.
There will always be a big market/small market dichotomy in baseball, but it appears that even the big-market teams are learning from the mistakes of the recent past and trying to strike a more balanced approach toward achieving consistent success.
No doubt, a lot of that success will continue to go to the highest bidder, but the sport appears to be reaching for a new level of economic sanity and —- if you ask fans in places like Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cleveland — it couldn't have come at a better time.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.