MLB’s small market teams overcoming long odds and big problems for shot at title

Life as a small market baseball team is always difficult. There’s never enough money to go around and the odds always seemed stacked against you. But over the years, plenty of teams have proven that you can compete for playoff spots and championships without being one of the league’s top spenders. It’s all about understanding how small market teams need to operate.

Small market teams in Major League Baseball operate in cycles. They go through a rebuilding phase that can sometimes last years. Then comes a period of steady improvement in which they can see tangible improvement. If all goes well during those first two phases, the small market club will have a window of opportunity to compete for championships. Finally, the time comes when the small-market club must choose to start the rebuilding process all over again.

This year, the Milwaukee Brewers and Kansas City Royals have provided perfect examples of small market teams at different stages of this cycle. The Brewers are starting to push their window open, while the Royals are approaching the end of the line.

“People say it’s great when small market teams get to the postseason, and you can do that on any given year. The challenge for small markets is to sustain success. The system is not really set up to sustain success.”

Doug Melvin, former Brewers GM

At the start of the season, few would have expected the Brewers to be competing for a wild-card spot, much less have a chance at winning the NL Central. But that’s exactly where they are. The Brewers have endured five straight seasons without a postseason birth, including the past two years in which they finished more than 30 games out of first place. But during that time, they were able to acquire plenty of young talent. Now the Brewers are finally seeing tangible signs of progress in 2017.

However, Milwaukee is only at the start of its window of opportunity. This is a tough position for small market teams. Milwaukee has a great farm system that the team could use to acquire pieces to help them solidify a postseason spot in 2017. But the Brewers will also need those pieces in the years to come. Milwaukee must resist the urge to go all-in on 2017 in order to keep its window open as long as possible. It’s often a difficult decision to make for small market teams that have endured years of losing.

The Royals, meanwhile, are approaching the end of their window. The Royals have done well to sign a few of their key players to long-term deals to keep them in Kansas City. But the Royals have also had to sell off key players in order to stay afloat financially. With several more key players set for free agency this winter and the Royals unable to re-sign all of them from a financial standpoint, Kansas City’s window is about to shut.

“Whether we made the playoffs or we didn’t, we knew we’d be playing competitive baseball. We felt if we played competitive baseball, we’d get better. And we have.”

Dayton Moore, Royals GM

Now is the time when Kansas City must choose to take one last shot at competing for a playoff spot or start the rebuilding process. It’s another classic decision that small market teams must make. By keeping the trio of Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Lorenzo Cain through the end of the season, the Royals have a fighting chance at reaching the playoffs. But at the same time, trading those three players this summer could help restock their farm system and expedite the rebuilding process that’s likely to come following the 2017 season.

These are not easy decisions to make for small market teams like the Royals and Brewers. Making the wrong choice can end up being disastrous and result in a failed rebuilding process. But making the right choices during the rebuilding process can lead to glory, as the Royals found out after winning the 2015 World Series.

It’s not easy being a small market club. The window for success is short and the margin for error is small. But if you get it right, reaching the top can feel awfully good. Just ask the Royals.

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