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Small-ball has returned to the majors

WP: Baseball market reality shows it's better to play smart, than pricey

Welcome to the era of baseball on a budget. It's time for brains and judgment to have their day, not just juice and financial muscle. This period in the game's history is just beginning and none too soon. But you can see it everywhere, from the mid-market teams in last year's World Series to the fundamentally sound, unselfish teams that dominated the World Baseball Classic.

The Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, Angels and a few other mega-market teams won't be joining the rest of the sport in the frugal fun. They know that big money will still have years when it can buy the pot, as it always has. Big is still better. But not nearly as much better as it has been in recent times. For many other franchises, especially the 15 or so teams that are not among the very richest or the very poorest, these are days when dollars well spent can put you in the postseason. Or, as the White Sox and Astros proved last October, get you a date in the World Series.

As if to underline the point, the WBC illustrated every theme from last year's postseason. The small-ball and off-speed pitching masters from Japan and South Korea, as well as the divinely precise, unselfish Cubans prospered while the U.S. team went home early, beaten by Canada, South Korea and Mexico as the rich Americans waited for home runs that didn't arrive often enough.

In the first inning of the WBC title game, Japan paved the way to its championship with four runs without a single hard-hit ball. You'd have thought that Scott Podsednik, Tadahito Iguchi, Jermaine Dye, Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski -- the modest top five hitters in the White Sox' order last October -- were playing for Sadaharu Oh's club. Draw a walk, lay down a bunt, steal a base, hit behind the runner, beat out an infield hit, then murder 'em with a five-hop ground ball into center field.

Why, the style reminded you exactly of the best feel-good story of the first five months of the '05 season -- the spunky, one-run wonder, low-payroll Nationals fighting for a playoff spot before they got tired, got hurt and got on each other's nerves.

In this post-steroid era (with the number of positive drug tests finally under 1 percent), it has become clear that pitching and defense, as well as more versatile, diverse offenses, once again have a place at the top of the sport. Especially in tense, lower-scoring venues like the late-season playoff races, the chilly postseason and the WBC.

In other words, if you can't afford a $100 million payroll, it's a viable time to be an affluent but not obscenely rich team. For example, clubs like both the Nats and Orioles should, in the future, be able to pay enough to compete on this more level field.

It's no accident that the rise of mid-market teams has coincided with the decrease in performance-enhancing drugs. The artificially inflated sluggers and strikeout pitchers of recent years commanded the most astronomical salaries. Plenty of the richest didn't cheat. But too many did. To reach the top of the heap, some teams had to hold their noses and pay inflated salaries for superstars with muscles-from-a-bottle. Now, that's changing.

Last season, home runs were down almost 10 percent in the majors. Only one man hit 50 homers. More important, only 27 players hit 30 home runs -- less than one per team. That would be comparable to just 15 players with 30 homers back in the many decades when there were only 16 teams. Homers are still a bit too cheap, but that's due more to the cozy new retro ballparks than cheating. The tiny yards of Philadelphia and Cincinnati would have added dozens of homers for Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Frank Robinson, who now see their career totals threatened by suspect 21st-century gentlemen.

Because of this transition from power ball to a more balanced blend of brawn and moxie, we're entering a period of semi-frugal baseball. No, the rich teams still aren't like the rest of us. But they're closer. The sport doesn't have parity. (Who wants it? Too boring.) But the Marlins did win the '03 title with an Opening Day payroll of only $48,750,000, less than a third of the Yankees whom they beat in the Series. And the Twins and Athletics, among others, have contended often with modest payrolls.

The teams that spot the next trend most quickly and adapt their rosters to capitalize on it will get the most value for their dollars in coming years. So far, the Nationals and Orioles certainly seem to be early adapters.

Baltimore has decided to build around its five-man pitching rotation of Daniel Cabrera, Erik Bedard, Rodrigo Lopez, Kris Benson and Bruce Chen, coached by ex-Braves pitching maestro Leo Mazzone. Adding Benson to replace disappointing Sidney Ponson was the team's top offseason priority, rather than getting more power hitters to replace Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro. Look what rotation depth did for the White Sox, whose five starters completely shut down foes last October.

If the Orioles can patch together an adequately deep bullpen, which still seemed problematic in spring training, the Birds may finally end their streak of eight straight losing seasons. However, the Orioles may face one persistent problem. It's hard to build a team on a sensible budget that can win lots of 3-2 and 4-3 games if you play in a home park where rival sluggers don't have to "get it all" to get it out of the park. And nobody's going to touch the comfy dimensions of golden-goose Camden Yards.

In Washington, the Nationals are totally committed to the thesis that times have changed. Will the Nats move in the fences at cavernous RFK Stadium? "No way," said General Manager Jim Bowden who has spent the last year retooling his personnel to suit his park. "We want line-drive gap hitters with extra-base power who can have a high average, not fly ball [home run] hitters," said Bowden. "There are a lot of hits out there in our [big] outfield. The long fly balls get run down. The line drives don't."

So, the Nats have signed Jose Guillen and Nick Johnson, two such hitters, to multiyear contracts. Both have proved they can hit around .290 as well as amass plenty of doubles with their 15 to 25 homers. Jose Vidro, when healthy, also fits this style. The Nats' No. 1 draft pick in '05, Ryan Zimmerman, projects as exactly this type of all-fields, line-drive, high-average hitter who may have twice as many doubles and triples as he has home runs. Finally, Alfonso Soriano, who was traded for upper-cut-swinging Brad Wilkerson, is also an all-fields, line-drive hitter. Yes, whether it works or not, there's a method to the madness.

It's no accident that Vinny Castilla, Preston Wilson and Wilkerson -- who all fit the mold of big-fly all-or-nothing sluggers who will never hit close to .300 in a big ballpark -- have left the organization. The Nats don't think they suit the dimensions of RFK or the new Nationals Park, which has been designed at the team's request to be "a pitcher's park."

Conversely, the Nationals have sought pitchers who are available at sensible prices because they have had one bad season or lost their confidence. Will RFK restore them? Ramon Ortiz, who still throws 95 mph, was shell-shocked in tiny Cincinnati last year. Will he find himself again, return to his solid Angels form, much as Esteban Loaiza did last year? Loaiza quickly forgot his half-season of misery with the '04 Yankees and returned to his former self, a steady White Sox starter.

If the Nats play with the team unity and fundamental soundness of the first half of '05, then all these theories may have some meaning. However, if their defense remains as unfocused as it has been in Florida and if their lineup lacks internal chemistry, as it did in '05, then all the Nats' smart talk won't count for much. Why some lineups are combustible and others are inert is still one of the game's mysteries. Who'd have thought obscure Podsednik and Iguchi were the proper table setters for a world champion?

The powerful and entrenched have a knack for derailing democratic uprisings. The Yankees' lineup, for example, once again looks like a king's ransom all-star team. But so did the U.S. team for the WBC, which included Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez.

Don't count out the power of a buck in any sport, certainly not baseball. But, as Opening Day arrives, at least 20 teams are firmly convinced that their budgets will not prevent them from making the playoffs. Once you reach October, as teams like the '02 Angels, '03 Marlins and '05 White Sox showed, nobody weighs your wallet before handing you the World Series trophy.