Major League Baseball’s highest opening day payroll belonged to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Committed to $272.7 million in player salaries, the Dodgers began the weekend in first place.
Baseball’s lowest opening day payroll belonged to the Miami Marlins. Committed to $68.4 million in player salaries, the Marlins began the weekend in last place.
A case could be made that there’s a correlation between the success of the free-spending Dodgers and the failure of the bargain-basement Marlins, but I’ll let somebody else make it. Thanks to unprecedented parity, that old chestnut about big spenders winning and cheapskates losing no longer applies.
Take the Houston Astros, whose $70.9 opening day payroll was the second lowest in baseball. The Astros won 30 of their first 47 games, and it’s difficult to envision a scenario in which they don’t win 60 more games over the next four months. If Houston wins 60 more games, it’ll reach the 90-victory plateau that virtually assures a playoff berth.
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While the Astros have emerged as heavyweights, the Boston Red Sox continue to languish in a mediocre AL East. At $187.4 million, the Red Sox began the season with a higher payroll than every team but the Dodgers and New York Yankees.
Ah, the Yankees. Remember when they used to buy their way into the playoffs with a payroll that dwarfed the competition? As paragons of America’s largest media market, the Yanks collected the most television revenue in baseball. Compared to New York, Kansas City was a one-stoplight village with a ballclub given no chance to play meaningful games after Mother’s Day.
Last October, the Royals played a whole lot of meaningful games the Yankees got to watch on TV. The transference of power does not appear temporary: With a middle-of-the-road payroll ($113.6 million, No. 15 among 30 teams), Kansas City this season might have the most complete team in baseball. The Yankees have the oldest.
Since the Yanks were a dominant force that won four World Series between 1996 and 2000, baseball has implemented revenue sharing and put a competitive-balance tax on excessively high payrolls. There now are limits on how much a team can spend on the draft and the international market.
In a more subtle development, access to analysis-based statistics has further reduced the gap between the Haves and the Have Nots. Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane set this trend by necessity, and it worked out so well for him that no other executive would dare admit to ignoring such essential information as on-base percentage and runs saved by fielders.
Between the tweaks designed to minimize competitive disadvantage and the universal acceptance of advanced metrics, payroll size has become moot. Of the 12 teams with the highest opening day payrolls in 2014, one team — the San Francisco Giants — won a playoff series.
Extending a rivalry that goes back to the 19th century, the Giants and Dodgers are running neck-to-neck, first place one day, second place the next. Flipping a coin, it seems, would be the most reasonable method of predicting which team will win the division.
But here’s what’s crazy about a match race impossible to call: The Giants are operating with a $172.6 million payroll, or $100 million less than that of the Dodgers.
Two teams with almost identical records, possessing the same aspirations, and one team is paying $272.7 million for its talent and the other is paying $172.6 million for its talent.
This makes sense how?
As for the Mariners, their $119.7 million opening day payroll placed them on the fringe of the top-third tier of big spenders, sandwiched between the St. Louis Cardinals, who began the weekend with the best record in baseball, and the Chicago Cubs, a major-market franchise and among the most recognizable brand names in pro sports.
If you’re prone to see the Mariners as skinflints strictly because their payroll is exceeded in the AL West by the Los Angeles Angels and Texas Rangers, I’ve got no comeback. The Angels opened the season at $150.9 million, the Rangers at $142.1 million.
But the size of a baseball team’s payroll these days is irrelevant. Tampa Bay, with stadium issues and long-term survival issues and a $76 million payroll that puts it in neighborhood of Baltic Avenue, has been hanging with the Yankees, aforementioned assemblers of a $219.2 payroll.
The Pittsburgh Pirates, at $88.2 million, are perennial playoff contenders. Despite a payroll of $135.8 million, the Pirates’ cross-state rivals in Philadelphia are not contenders.
The Cincinnati Reds outspent the Minnesota Twins by almost $8 million this season. The Reds are a mess, the Twins are a revelation.
And so it goes: Every example of a good team that made a major investment in talent procurement (Washington Nationals) can be countered by a good team beholden to a more modest budget (New York Mets), or a bad team that shot for the stars and seems to have misfired (Red Sox).
As the Yankees proved, money used to be a fundamental tool for the construction of a championship roster. Then some rules were established, just as baseball executives got wise to new methods of talent evaluation, and money no longer is a fundamental tool for the construction of a championship roster.
A word comes to mind about how the business of baseball has evolved over the last 15 years, from a sport dominated by the richest franchise to a sport that found its richest franchise entering the weekend with a one-game lead in the AL East over its weakest franchise.