Do the Cardinals Deserve a Competitive-Balance Pick?

If you haven’t heard the news, the St. Louis Cardinals received their punishment from Major League Baseball this week in response to the actions of former director of amateur scouting, Chris Correa. Correa hacked the database of the Houston Astros using some variation of the password Eckstein. As Jeff Sullivan explained, the Cardinals are expected both to pay the Astros $2 million and give them two draft picks, numbers 56 and 75. The consensus seems to be that the Cardinals got off light.

As Grant Brisbee noted, the second of the Cardinals’ picks has actually been given to them in the form of a competitive-balance pick, which provides convenient timing to discuss whether the Cardinals should even have that extra pick to begin with.

Per the recently established CBA, 14 teams will receive competitive-balance picks every year. Teams qualify for these picks by placing among the bottom 10 of major-league teams either by (a) revenue or (b) market size. According to Forbes, the Cardinals actually place among the top 10 of all clubs when it comes to revenue. They rank 24th, however, by market size. Therefore, they qualify for an extra pick.

While there seems to be much consternation about the Cardinals’ hacking penalty right now, wait 18 months. If the club loses Lance Lynn to free agency and then receives a better comp in addition to their own normal pick, they’ll possess three picks among the top-40 selections.

Question of the hacking scandal aside, there are questions about whether the Cards deserve any comp picks in the first place. By one definition, they certainly do: they meet the criteria agreed upon by the league.

There are plausible arguments against the characterization of the club as a “small-market” franchise, however. Most of them begin with a discussion of fanbase. Consider: here are the annual attendance averages per team over the last five years, with data collected from Baseball-Reference.

For the most part, teams that receive compensatory picks appear in the bottom half of this chart. The few teams in the bottom half of the chart not receiving compensatory picks have either been tanking or been bad, but not necessarily on purpose. Seattle’s attendance has improved over the past few years as the team has put up better records. Milwaukee’s competitive teams in the early part of the decade have led to good attendance. Colorado has a lovely ballpark. The Cardinals, though, are way up there, ahead of some of the monsters of revenue. Given that attendance, the Cardinals have been able to spend at a pretty high level compared to the rest of the league, as the following graph shows.

Again, we see mostly teams carrying low payrolls towards the bottom (or right side) of the chart, most of them receiving a competitive-balance pick. Only the Astros and Braves, who have been rebuilding in recent years, join them. The Cardinals rank 11th overall. Perhaps that mark isn’t totally representative: the Cubs have surpassed them in payroll recently and the Mets would surpass them if not for ownership difficulties. Even placing those two clubs ahead of St. Louis, though, the Cardinals would still appear comfortably in the top half of teams. Baltimore is up there, too, although that franchise has benefited from receiving the revenues not only of their only television broadcasts but some of the Nationals’, too, which provides additional revenue.

So, in the Cardinals, we have a team that has a ton of fans. The money that comes with those fans enables the Cardinals to spend in the upper half, nearly the upper-third, of baseball. As a result, giving the club an additional pick for competitive balance seems kind of foolish. However, the Cardinals do operate at the shallow end of the pool when it comes to their market size. The graph below shows every team except for Toronto, who broadcast in all of Canada, and their television market size.

The bottom-10 teams on this list all automatically qualify for a compensatory pick, so even though Baltimore is still reaping dividends from the Nationals’ television situation and even though the Cardinals draw three million fans per year, they automatically receive a pick. The Arizona, Minnesota, Oakland, and Tampa Bay Rays are all among the bottom-10 teams in terms of revenue. Oakland and Tampa Bay suffer due to stadium issues with the former also sharing their market with a more popular team. Minnesota, meanwhile, is right on the edge in terms of market size, while Arizona just started a better television contract.

We could argue that the Cardinals’ market size should actually be bigger given their regional history and the blackouts that occure in neighboring states, though that isn’t really reflected in their television contract, as shown in the graph below taken from this piece last year.

The Cardinals are starting a new television deal in 2018, and it will provide more money than they’re receiving now, but it still won’t place them in the upper echelon of teams. The last two graphs illustrate how the Cardinals are a lot like most of the small-market teams when it comes to some local disadvantages, while the first two graphs show how they differ from those same clubs. So how should we reconcile the two?

On the one hand, the Cardinals don’t need a lot of help. Yes, some of their revenues are the product merely of winning — which, presumably, is the product of being a well-run organization. Some of those revenues are also due to Cardinals’ longevity as a franchise, though — and were, for a long time, the only team west of the Mississippi (if only by a few hundred yards). Assuming you think competitive-balance picks should exist at all, if you think they should be revenue based, the Cardinals don’t deserve a pick. If you think they should be market based, then they probably do. If you think it should be a combination of revenue and market, this is what a simple average of the rankings looks like (after somewhat randomly placing Toronto in the 11th spot, owing to reports that there are around 14 million television households in Canada):

MLB Market Size Factor Ranks
Market Size Revenue Average
NYY 1 1 1
LAD 3 2 2.5
NYM 1 6 3.5
CHC 5 5 5
LAA 3 7 5
SFG 9 3 6
BOS 12 4 8
TEX 8 10 9
WSN 13 9 11
PHI 7 16 11.5
CHW 5 20 12.5
HOU 15 13 14
ATL 14 15 14.5
DET 16 14 15
TOR 11 19 15
SEA 19 12 15.5
STL 24 8 16
OAK 9 28 18.5
KCR 28 11 19.5
MIN 20 21 20.5
PIT 25 17 21
ARI 17 26 21.5
SDP 27 18 22.5
COL 22 25 23.5
BAL 26 22 24
TBR 18 30 24
CLE 23 27 25
MIA 21 29 25
CIN 30 23 26.5
MIL 29 24 26.5
Highlighted Teams Receive Competitive Balance Picks

The revenue numbers here are from the 2015 season, so the Royals’ figures are due for a World Series spike. That caveat noted, this table provides an idea of how one might assess competitive-balance picks based on a combination of market size and revenue together. The bottom 14 teams, theoretically, would be those receiving extra picks. The Cardinals appear at the top of this particular group.

Perhaps this scenario isn’t appealing. If so, you could limit extra picks to teams in the bottom 10 of both revenue and market, leaving just the Brewers, Marlins, Orioles, Reds, and Rockies. But that excludes some teams that appear pretty deserving, like the A’s, Royals, and Twins.

Perhaps one solution would be to reclassify the clubs each year, but that would only encourage creative bookkeeping and other hassles with which MLB might not want to deal. If you’re going to have a system that compensates for smaller markets and lower revenues, there’s an equal argument to keep the Cardinals in as there is to leave them out. What we do know is that not enough owners cared enough to devise a system to keep them out.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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mike sixelmember
7 years ago

I’d think market size is irrelevant….and to tell the people of Iowa they don’t count in the market, while still blacking them out? Wow. Either they are in the market, or not. If the purpose is to balance out market advantages, the number of people don’t matter….money does. Maybe weather and taxes if we think FAs care about those. But number of people in the area? That is a driver of revenue….

I don’t think the Cards should be excluded because they are successful. I think the league should look at what matters to competitive balance…

7 years ago
Reply to  mike sixel

Yup, market size should be equal to the black out zone, STL has a small market size cause noone lives in the actual city anymore cause it went the way of detroit and I bet theyve done some gerrymandering with the actual boarder of the market area

7 years ago
Reply to  OTMHeartBBC

True, the population of the city itself has been shrinking for decades, but I’m sure they count at least the metropolitan area (when it’s not closer to another team’s city) among the market size calculations.

The Real McNulty
7 years ago
Reply to  OTMHeartBBC

1. Market includes STL metro area, putting it among PIT, Denver, SD, Tampa
2. Yes, to black out people who live too far to travel to games is bad, but again, they live too far away
3. St. Louis has not gone the way of Detroit, unless you mean the 1877 decision to freeze the border between city and county.

7 years ago
Reply to  OTMHeartBBC

First, the black out zone is based in large part on regional competition, which doesn’t equate to fanbase. Second, this point is overblown in the Cardinals’ case because there aren’t many population centers in their blackout zone. We’re talking about rural Eastern Missouri, Northern Arkansas and Southern Illinois. The combined population of those areas equates to one St. Louis suburb.

7 years ago
Reply to  stan

Stan, you might want to actually look at a map of their blackout zone. It’s much, much larger than you think. It includes all of Iowa, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, along with the large majorities of Missouri and Illinois. Oh, and parts of Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee (including Memphis). That’s about 11 million people you’ve missed.

Dave T
7 years ago
Reply to  Careless

Talking about blackout zone can be a reasonable point, but we need to do that for all teams if we’re going to look at markets that way. That includes, obviously, doing so for all other small market teams.

It’s often noted that Iowa, for example, is within the blackout zone of 6 teams (Brewers, Cardinals, Cubs, Royals, Twins, and White Sox). Three of those teams besides the Cardinals get comp picks and are often thought of as “small market” teams.

To take another small market example, Cincinnati’s blackout area covers a good chunk of Ohio, most of Indiana, and all of Kentucky. If I’m looking at the map correctly, that picks up three additional good-sized metro areas (Columbus, Indianapolis, and Louisville) in addition to lots of other small cities and towns.