Major League Baseball has an obesity problem.
A sport that prides itself on success through simplicity - hard work, execution, chemistry - is being swallowed whole by indulgent owners, spoiled players and gluttonous contracts.
A list of the game's highest paid athletes for 2013 reads like a missing person's report: Alex Rodriguez ($29 million) is hurt and way past his prime. Same goes for Johan Santana ($25.5 million). Mark Teixeira ($23.1 million) is hurt and reaching the twilight of his own career.
The next tier isn't much more productive. Tim Lincecum ($22.2 million) is clinging to his spot in the Giants' rotation and had an ERA over 5 a year ago. The underachieving Vernon Wells ($21 million) and Carl Crawford ($20 million) almost have to feel guilty when they cash their paychecks.
Alfonso Soriano ($18 million) drove in a grand total of three runners in April as the Cubs' leadoff hitter. Prized free agent Josh Hamilton ($17 million) is batting .208 with nine RBI in his first full month with the Angels. Teammate Albert Pujols ($16 million) can barely run anymore, yet he's due $220 million over the next eight seasons, including $30 million when he's 41 years old.
The weight of these deals is crushing dysfunctional teams like the Angels, Dodgers and Blue Jays early on. All big spenders this past offseason, the three expected contenders have a combined record of 34-53 through Friday. Meanwhile, three of the five cheapest franchises in baseball payroll-wise - the A's, Pirates and Rockies - are 51-38.
Why? The sport is being dominated by sluggers who put up gaudy numbers on the field to secure gaudy numbers off of it. Owners treat their ballclubs like fantasy teams, where sweepstakes to acquire the biggest names often end in long-term deals that can quell a player's motivation to succeed - or even play.
This certainly isn't the business model all professional sports follow. When Darrelle Revis joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last month, he signed a six-year, $96 million contract. Not a penny is guaranteed. NFL players, by in large, get paid based on future performance; Major Leaguers are compensated for what they've done in the past. The motivation to suit up and succeed remains tangible in pro football, which is a driving force behind the league's energy and competitive balance.
If franchises would focus more on the basics - steady defense, a reliable bullpen, strong farm system to develop home-grown talent - and less on the glitz and glamour of the free-agent market, success would follow for a much smaller pricetag. Superstars fill seats and attract headlines, but if they fail to perform or even play - a trend that is almost an epidemic now in ballparks across baseball - the fall from grace can get ugly in a hurry.
This is the game's modern-day dichotomy: large-market teams spend like there's no tomorrow, often saddling themselves with players who quickly become more trouble than they're worth once the check is in the mail. Small-market teams, meanwhile, build around the tried and true self-made approach - yet often lack the firepower to sustain the same kind of success in September that they experience in April.
What will the future bring? Expect more of the same, where big-city franchises do their best to buy championships. While they may cash in from time to time, the swings and misses will come more often than not. And unlike the businesses and banks that control Wall Street, they won't be too big to fail. The game - still pure and unforgiving at its core - will make sure of that.
Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached afternoons and evenings at 1-800-622-6613, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org