Budgeting Brewers Weather Economy
MILWAUKEE (AP) -- Brewers owner Mark Attanasio was at a bicycle shop in Kona, Hawaii, when a message popped up on his Blackberry he felt compelled to answer.
Attanasio's message to a reporter: Maybe baseball needs a salary cap. After all, Attanasio watched as the Yankees spent more than $423.5 million on free agents CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira.
Attanasio, who typically keeps a low profile, was surprised at the number of responses his answer prompted -- both privately and over the airwaves.
"A couple of years ago, we signed Jeff Suppan on Christmas Eve and it was world-wide news and it was a slow day otherwise. And this was world-wide news I guess," he said during a recent trip to Milwaukee.
But Attanasio isn't keeping quiet about his concerns regarding free agency and a potential salary cap. As a Los Angeles-based investment banker, he's in perfect position to see the ripple effect of the souring economy.
Any cap effort, he insists, needs to be a compromise between the owners and players.
"We're several years away from the CBA coming up, what needs to be looked at -- as hard as this may sound -- is a partnership between the union and the owners and the teams," Attanasio said. "If folks can look at it as a partnership and say, 'What's the best thing for the health of the sport?' then maybe you can come up with something that makes sense."
The current labor contract runs through 2011 and includes a luxury tax designed to slow spending but not cap it. When owners pushed for a salary cap in 1994, it led to a 7 1/2-month strike, the first cancellation of the World Series in 90 years and an attendance drop that took the sport a decade to recover from.
Attanasio makes it clear he's not blaming the Yankees, or their deep pockets to go after any free agent. But he thinks that when Milwaukee received only a pick at the end of the first round and one in the second for losing the left-hander that carried them to the postseason, something's wrong.
Texas got New York's first round pick because of the Teixeira signing.
"The system isn't working right now. If you have to lose a CC Sabathia and you don't get a first-round pick, there's a problem with that," Attanasio said. "At the same time, free agents are not getting signed because of the draft pick compensation you'd be giving up. I'm not sure that's really fair to them either."
Without action, Attanasio worries the situation might get even worse: Two new stadiums in New York that open in April will boost the revenue of the Yankees and Mets even higher.
"We're trying to look at preserving the competitive balance in baseball, which admittedly we've had," Attanasio said. "I think that's been a good thing for the sport. The question is will we have it going forward if there's a new paradigm with brand new stadiums in our largest city and looking at how some of the spending has gone right now, we're all looking for that."
Milwaukee receives money from revenue sharing and has remained competitive since Attanasio bought the franchise before the 2005 season. The Brewers have had a higher payroll each season.
"We're not looking for a handout here in Milwaukee. We're not looking for more payments, more whatever, more taxes, that's not the point," he said. "We're just looking at a fair shot to compete."
Milwaukee certainly has the right elements. Miller Park will be in its eighth season in 2009 and the club last year reached the postseason for the first time since 1982.
The Brewers' projected payroll is already over $80 million, but as a budget-conscious franchise, one bad signing can set the team back years.
Milwaukee has homegrown nearly all of its talent. Six of the eight projected starters this season were drafted by the organization.
To stay competitive, general manager Doug Melvin signed Ryan Braun to a $45 million long-term extension, gave Prince Fielder an $18 million, two-year deal to avoid his first arbitration years. The Brewers are expected to seek long-term contracts with Corey Hart, J.J. Hardy and Yovani Gallardo in the spring.
Milwaukee also signed veteran closer Trevor Hoffman to a $6 million, one-year deal.
"Every single one of our guys -- Prince, J.J., Dave Bush, Corey Hart, Rickie Weeks -- they're going into the millions of dollars from the hundreds of thousands of dollars," Attanasio said. "That's a high-class problem. We have good young players who are performing really well."
But as the payroll rises, Attanasio realizes the club is being stretched to a limit, and Milwaukee has dropped off serious pursuit of another starting pitcher despite the free agency of both Sabathia and Ben Sheets.
"We've always tried working, providing budget for Doug, to give him flexibility for the whole season," Attanasio said. "If we add a starter now and we get up into the mid to high 80s in payroll, if you have some negative events, we wouldn't then have flexibility and that would be a first for us.
"We don't want to put ourselves in that position and there are always unknowns."
But it's not all gloom in Milwaukee. The Brewers drew more than 3 million fans at home for the first time ever last season and for next season sold 1 million tickets faster than ever.
Attanasio also said season ticket renewals were around 95 percent, while more than 10,000 fans turned out for an event in January with the temperature outside in the single digits.
"We've had a good first three innings," Attanasio said. "But it's a long game."
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)