Great article arguing that although baseball is an inefficient market, it is not a completely free market:
The problem with likening the market for baseball players to an equity market is that the former is not a genuinely free market. The reserve clause binds players to the team that drafted them for the first six years of their career; during this time they cannot become free agents and sell their services to the highest bidder. So the intrinsic value of a highly productive player will rise, but he will not necessarily be paid his market value until he has completed his “indentured servitude” (as Lewis termed it). Thus it is not surprising that while payroll cannot tell us anything about wins, it does a pretty good job of predicting a team’s average age: young players are much cheaper.
To understand how much the reserve clause matters, let’s look at the young talent on the Oakland squad Lewis chronicled. Shortstop Miguel Tejada hit 30 home runs for the low, low price of $290,000 in 2000. Two years later, when he won the American League MVP, he made only $3.5 million (I know, but it’s all relative). His free agent contract, which he signed with the Baltimore Orioles after the 2003 season, was for $72 million over six years. Eric Chavez (whom the A’s actually did sign to a long-term market-value contract in 2004) produced 32 home runs in 2001 for $625,000.
Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, and Barry Zito, the A’s “big three” pitchers, led the team to the 3rd, 2nd, 1st, and 1st American League ERA ranking, respectively, from 2000 to 2003. In 2001, when the A’s won 101 games, the combined salary of Tejada, Chavez, MVP-runner up and all-star first baseman Jason Giambi, Mulder (21 wins), Hudson (18 wins), and Zito (17 wins) was under $8 million. In the first year after each player’s “indentured servitude” ended, the six made a total of $43 million. The A’s won even though they were poor because they did not have to pay their young players what they were worth.
Giambi, who won the MVP in 2000, epitomizes the economics of baseball. He joined the Yankees as a free agent after the 2001 season. In that first year with his new team, he made more in salary than in the seven years he spent in the A’s organization combined. This turned out to be some deal for Oakland. As the San Francisco Chronicle’s Vlae Kershner recently pointed out, Giambi produced about half of his career home runs and RBIs in an A’s uniform. For that output, the team paid about 9 percent of his career earnings (up to the end of last season).
Just as the A’s could not have afforded to compete without the reserve clause during their “moneyball” run, no small-market team could compete without it today.