Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

Baseball has a serious competitiveness problem


Arenado’s trade just another example of teams not trying to win. Photo via

I don’t think this post is necessarily a surprise to those of us who follow the sport. MLB has a serious competitiveness problem, and it seems to be coming to a particular head for the 2021 season … just in time for the CBA to expire.

The reason I bring this up is because of a series of really, really concerning moves we’ve seen this past off-season, coupled with some of the more seismic moves seen in the past couple of off-seasons, has really got me shocked.

Specifically, i’m about:

  • the Colorado Rockies dumping their franchise player and likely future hall of famer Nolan Arenado for a set of middling prospects AND sending $50M to the Cardinals.
  • I’m talking about one of the absolute wealthiest teams in the sport (the Chicago Cubs) trading away key players (Yu Darvish) and doing little to augment their team for 2021.
  • I’m talking about Boston trading away the best home-grown player they’ve had since, I dunno, Ted Williams, in what amounted to a salary dump (again, this is Boston, who make more than $500M annually in revenues) when they jettisoned Mookie Betts.
  • I’m talking about teams in major, huge markets (Texas Rangers, Seattle Mariners) basically not trying.
  • I’m talking about the best team in the AL last year (Tampa Bay) flipping its best player (Ian Snell) for 60 cents on the dollar BEFORE he even got that expensive.
  • I’m talking about teams like Atlanta (whose numbers are public record because they are owned by a publicly-traded company) earning $476M in revenue in 2019 and basically holding pat on payroll for years.
  • I’m talking about teams in mid-sized markets (Arizona, Baltimore, Miami) acting as if they’re barely staying afloat.

And so on.

I did a quick analysis of where the MLB teams stand in terms of whether they’re really “trying” for the 2021 season, based on their off-season activity and their 2020 results, and i came up with a pretty shocking list of teams. By my counts:

  • 14 teams are purposely doing as little as possible to improve their teams this off-season. Not surprisingly, these 14 teams account for 14 of the 17 smallest projected payrolls right now.
  • Another 3 teams are competitive and/or have high payrolls, but are making moves that question their intent (specifically: Boston, San Francisco, and Tampa)
  • This leaves the remaining 13 teams which are clearly “trying,” actively signing and improving their teams, increasing payroll, etc. Again, not surprisingly, these 13 “trying” teams currently comprise 12 of the top 13 projected 2021 payrolls.

Here’s the core data, stored by division and then projected payroll rank. I used Cot’s 2021 payroll projections , Fangraphs Roster Resource Depth charts/transaction trackers, and MLBtraderumors 2021 FA tracker to gauge activity.

TeamDivisionRankCB Tax 40-manTrying?Notes
Chicago White SoxAL Central11166.6YesAcquired Lynn, signed Hendricks
MinnesotaAL Central17125.9YesDone enough to maintain divisional lead
Kansas CityAL Central2196.8NoOnly minor moves
DetroitAL Central2291.2NoOnly minor moves
ClevelandAL Central2962.7NoTraded Carrasco and Lindor
BostonAL East2201.9Sort-ofThey've made moves, but really payroll hamstrung. Betts trade was disappointing
New York YankeesAL East3199.9YesSigned LeMahiue, Kluber, acquired Taillon
TorontoAL East12148.3YesSpringer acquisition plus Siemen trade, Matz trade
BaltimoreAL East2679.9NoWaiver claims and rule5 picks.
Tampa BayAL East2870.1Sort-of… but traded away Snell.
HoustonAL West4195.8YesStable, competitive roster
Los Angeles AngelsAL West7185.2YesAcquired Cobb, Iglesias, etc.
TexasAL West2389.9NoNot really attempting to compete in AL West, traded away Lynn
OaklandAL West2489.1No0 FA signings, almost no off-season activity
SeattleAL West2580.6NoVery little improvement attempts
St. LouisNL Central10169.7YesAcquired Arenado but that's about it for activity
Chicago CubsNL Central14143.5NoTanking mode; traded Darvish, non-tendered Schwarber
CincinnatiNL Central18125.6NoLittle movement in improving the team.
MilwaukeeNL Central20102.9NoAlmost no off-season activity
PittsburghNL Central3058.2No100% tanking mode; traded away most of their assets; just ONE guy on a multi-year contract
WashingtonNL East5193.7YesMultiple acquisitions pre season
PhiladelphiaNL East6186.2YesResigned Realmuto big, got Didi
New York MetsNL East8180.7YesHuge moves pre 2021; new owner, signed McCann, acquired Lindor and Carrasco, bullpen signings
AtlantaNL East15138.1YesTwo starters … but refuse to go much higher than current
MiamiNL East2773.6No
Los Angeles DodgersNL West1204.4YesDefending WS champs
San DiegoNL West9172.2YesGot Darvish AND Snell, plus Musgrove??
San FranciscoNL West13146.1Sort-ofLots of movement, but none to really make them competitive
ColoradoNL West16128.3No
ArizonaNL West19103NoNot a SINGLE off-season move

Furthermore, there’s some teams who I give credit for “trying” who just happen to be in divisions where basically everyone else is NOT trying … so just treading water constitutes as a pathway to success. Going division by division:

  • AL East: NY and Toronto competing. Boston sits at #2 in payroll thanks to god-awful contract management during the Dave Dombrowski era. Tampa was the best team in the AL in 2020, but projects to have the 3rd lowest payroll and just flipped Snell. Baltimore of course is doing almost nothing as normal.
  • AL Central: Chicago and Minnesota sit mid-league in payroll but get a free ride thanks to the rest of the division actively tanking. Kansas City, Detroit and Cleveland all trying to get worse on purpose.
  • AL West: Houston treading water with a great and expensive roster, the result of years of purposely tanking and starting this whole trend. The Angels continue to ineptly spend their money and not get Mike Trout to the playoffs. Nobody else trying, and Texas, Seattle, Oakland all sit in huge markets. Texas in particular is particularly galling; they reside in the 4th largest market in the majors and project to have the 23rd ranked payroll.
  • NL East: the most competitive division, with 4 of the 5 teams trying and spending money. Of course, as noted above Atlanta’s wealth is hamstrung artificially (which must be awesome for their fans). Miami continues to be an embarassment, a revenue suck on the rest of the league.
  • NL Central: perhaps the most egregious example; just one team seems to be trying to win in 2021 (St. Louis). The other four are dumping players and not spending money (Cubs, Cincy, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh, which projects to the lowest payroll in teh majors)
  • NL West: the Dodgers will always spend, and the Padres are really well positioned out of the blue, which has made the rest of the division wave the white flag already. San Francisco treads water getting out from under a ton of expensive, aging players, while Colorado has traded away an all-star team worth of talent in the past few years, and Arizona continues to be one of the most inept franchises in the game while sitting in the 10th largest US market, one that is growing wildly.

For me, a big part of this is the Luxury tax cap, which clearly is treated as a hard cap and thus stops wealthier teams from going over it. But another huge part is the lack of a corresponding salary floor. There’s also little incentive for teams to compete and win with pre-determined RSN payments driving their revenues. I think the league needs to look at bigger revenue sharing for its smaller teams to keep them competitive (like what the NFL does). Lastly, too many teams have now seen the pathway to success that bottoming out does and are emulating it … all at once. Only one team can draft #1 overall, but half the league is trying to do so. How do you resolve this?

In any case … the lack of trying and lack of spending has led to hundreds of millions of dollars of payroll NOT being spent on players … and they’ve got to get the playing field back to level. I think we’re going to see a pretty ugly work stoppage after 2021. I’m sure we’ll be revisiting this. But when it comes to good faith attempts to compete, more than half the league is not holding up their end of the bargain for 2021.

Written by Todd Boss

February 3rd, 2021 at 1:28 pm

12 Responses to 'Baseball has a serious competitiveness problem'

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  1. I’m not convinced they need more revenue sharing. If I read it right, Baseball Reference had revenue sharing over 200 million dollars, per team, in 2018. It’s pretty challenging to say the Pirates can’t spend more than 40 million on salary when they have 200 million coming in (non virus) years. But from a profit creating perspective, it must be pretty sweet to get 200 million dollars while only spending 40 million on the players and then all non-shared revenues from tickets and tv and hot dogs are just bonus cash to swim in in your Scrooge McDuck vault. They don’t even take the risk of paying to build their stadiums; they let the tax payers do that. Remind me to be rich someday. Being rich seems like a great way to get rich.

    Bland Moniker

    3 Feb 21 at 2:17 pm

  2. $200M PER TEAM? No way. Where did you see that?

    Only some of the teams get revenue sharing. shows the payers and payees of revenue sharing and the most any team gets is in the $30-$35M range.

    Todd Boss

    3 Feb 21 at 2:56 pm

  3. This is what I saw:

    “In Major League Baseball, 48% of local revenues are subject to revenue sharing and are distributed equally among all 30 teams, with each team receiving 3.3% of the total sum generated. As a result, in 2018, each team received $118 million from this pot. Teams also receive a share of national revenues, which were estimated to be $91 million per team, also in 2018.”

    Blank Moniker

    3 Feb 21 at 5:26 pm

  4. I’m not sure what the discrepancy is. I admit, your link looks way more in-depth. My best guesses, in order of likelihood (these are not mutually exclusive):
    1. I misunderstand something.
    2. These are calculated differently. i.e. if a team would have paid in 180m based on local revenues under the formula, then they get paid back 30m, as their share of the 210m.
    3. Baseball doesn’t explain anything about its books, and this is leading to pretty different conclusions from folks looking at this.

    Bland Moniker

    3 Feb 21 at 5:42 pm

  5. While nobody can fault the Nats for being “cheap” — Mike Rizzo consistently has one of the biggest budgets in baseball to play with — it does kind of feel like leaving two ~60 OPS+ hitters in the everyday lineup with no minor league depth to speak of is not exactly going “all in” on 2021, either.

    Still, as Todd points out, it could be a lot worse. At least the Nats don’t have a crackerjack third baseman they just traded away (plus $50M!) for packing peanuts. We may not be trying REALLY REALLY hard to win in 2021, if we go into the season with both Robles and Kieboom playing virtually every day and the likes of Gerardo Parra, Jake Noll, Yadiel Hernandez, Hernan Perez, and Yasmany Tomas duking it out for the last bench spot, but at least we’re not holding a clearance sale in front of Nationals Park.


    3 Feb 21 at 7:52 pm

  6. The NFL forces teams to spend within 11% of each other. They have a hard cap, but also a hard floor. MLB has teams that spend THREE HUNDRED PERCENT less than other teams. Let’s see, that’s 11% vs. 300%. Yes, there is total TV revenue sharing in the NFL. Baseball desperately needs something similar, as TV deals give teams like the Dodgers and Yankees bottomless bankroll, while strangling the smaller-market teams . . . except the one in Charm City, which has been allowed to leach off its larger neighbor for a decade and a half. (Don’t get me started on how much I hate Bud Selig, as the list is VERY long.)

    But yes, it’s all totally ridiculous, as is the fully allowed tanking that greased the rise of the (otherwise rich) Cubs and Astros. The Braves pretty much tanked their way to their current relevance as well. (And yes, the Nats also tanked their way to three franchise-cornerstone draftees, although that particular tanking was due as much to incompetence as it was to frugality. The Lerners did piss off a lot of folks by fielding such underfunded/bad teams right after opening the publicly funded stadium, though.)

    MLB has to have a floor . . . yet it doesn’t even seem to be a topic of conversation for CBA negotiations. Look, MLBPA idiots, if you want your guys to get paid, force more spending by two-thirds of the league. That’s a pretty simple equation. Just think how much salary funding would instantly be pumped into baseball if there was a $150M floor.

    On the other end, I don’t particularly mind having a ceiling, especially with the disparity in TV revenue by the super-rich franchises. But I also don’t think the ceiling has increased fast enough. The Nats still NEED to spend about $30M more right now, but they’re not going to do it because of the tax line.


    3 Feb 21 at 8:37 pm

  7. And yes, Sao, The Return of Baby Shark wasn’t exactly what I had in mind for a reserve OF.

    Frankly, though, the budget isn’t totally standing in the way of a solution at 3B. Right now, the larger issue is Rizzo’s over-infatuation with a player who is only on the cusp of the top 100. Cavalli could key a Bryant or Suarez deal, with little added pain. It wouldn’t take Cavalli to get Bryant straight up, but it probably would to get the Cubs to take on Castro’s salary in return, or pay $4M of Bryant’s to keep the Nats under the tax line.


    3 Feb 21 at 8:44 pm

  8. I apologize for belaboring the math, but upon further review, it looks like the primary issue here is one of definitions. Local revenue across baseball is about 7.3 Billion. 48% of that money is shared. The payor/payee system basically says if your revenue is less than the mean, you get paid, if you earn over the mean, you pay. So the teams collecting 35 million in sharing are essentially teams whose revenue sharing bill was about 80 million. But its the same thing as everyone paying in and then getting a $118 million dollar check.

    It looks like national sharing is in addition to this, and that is 2.7 billion split amongst the teams. So whatever we call it, teams can count on (in non-plague seasons) about 200 million dollars. Revenue on top of that is basically half of what they generate locally, so total revenue for teams like the Rays is actually probably under 300 million, despite the sharing. The richer teams do remain much richer. But I think the broader point is I 100% agree with the point of this post; there’s no good reason for a dozen teams to have salaries under 100 million when they are normally guaranteed more than double that regardless of how much money they can raise.

    Bland Moniker

    3 Feb 21 at 8:59 pm

  9. Bland Moniker: How do MLB teams make money? Basically three ways

    – Local TV Revenue, which varies widely between markets. had a great review of the RSN landscape when the big huge Dodgers deal was announced in 2012, and much of this detail is still relevant today. LA Dodgers get somewhere between $240M and $280M a year per their RSN contract. By way of comparison, Miami, Pittsburg and some other smaller markets were getting less th an 1/10th of that figure, $18-$20M. Average it all out and thats why you have a bunch of teams getting sharing. HOWEVER, if the Dodgers are getting $240M, again only 48% of that is sharable, so yeah they pay out but they still have a massive amount of money at their disposal.

    – National Broadcast share; split 30ways so everyone gets the same. $2.7B split 30 ways or the $91B figure you mentioned. This includes Nat’l tv, licensing and (of growing importance) internet streaming.

    – Ballpark operations: (ticket sales, concessions, corporate sales, retail, suites, premium seat fees and postseason).

    So, as you noted (and as per this link: $118M guaranteed from the revenue sharing pot, which in some team’s cases is only 48% of their local revenue. Then another $90M from national TV money … and that’s before they get a dime from the gate. Postseason revenue, by the way, is a huge cash cow for the teams, which is why they’re desperate for expanded playoffs.

    One of the 30 teams is publically owned (Atlanta) and they have to publicly report their books. has a great overview of just how these teams operate. But yes, generally speaking, its incredibly disengenuous when a multi-millionare owner of any of these 30 teams says they’re losing money when you know they have $200m before they sell a ticket or pay a dollar in salary.

    Todd Boss

    4 Feb 21 at 12:14 pm

  10. It’s hard to fault Rizzo for wanting to hold onto his horses. Cavalli, Rutledge, and Lara all have significant risk attached to them, but they also all have advanced stuff for their level and project as potential #1/2 starters with the proper development. As usual, the Nats system is quite top-heavy. If Rizzo thinks he’s got potentially two- or three-fifths of a long-term, cost-controlled rotation beginning as soon as 2022 or maybe more like 2023, and below that, he has a pile of lottery tickets with maybe a few high-floor, low-ceiling types…well, it’s a dream, but dreams die hard, and the Nats are going to be wandering in the wilderness all decade if they can’t graduate some top prospects into top players.

    At any rate, Steve Mears says he hears Mike Rizzo is still working the phones, so while I wouldn’t count on another impact move before Opening Day, I wouldn’t discount the possibility either.


    4 Feb 21 at 1:04 pm

  11. Thanks Todd,

    I think we’re on the same page, and I learned some things. I think baseball needs a salary floor, not more revenue sharing. If teams are viewing their finances as approximately $200M guaranteed, and then they keep just over half of every local revenue dollar raised (because 48% of local revenue is shared), it might make financial sense to slash payroll. If, for example, the Pirates conclude that another 80 million in spending on salaries will make them respectable and result in another $100 million in local revenue, they wouldn’t do it (if finances are the only consideration), because that is spending 80 million to keep about 52 million. Draft pick considerations that can make a team respectable, or even quite good, without spending exacerbate this, but even strictly financially, I can’t say it’s surprising seeing so many teams not try.

    Bland Moniker

    5 Feb 21 at 3:18 pm

  12. If MLB was “doing it over again from scratch,” they’d do precisely what the NFL is doing and nationally coordinate TV revenues. this would completely level the playing field across all the teams, and would eliminate “rich teams” and “poor teams,” “large market teams” and “small market teams.” And it would immediately make 30 teams actually TRY to win, year after year. Couple that with salary floors and ceilings, and you’d have a much more stable league.

    In Baseball; Tampa bay sells their best star because they can’t afford him. In Football, Tampa goes out and buys the best QB on the FA market and makes it to the super bowl. There shouldn’t be such a difference in the way these teams operate.

    Todd Boss

    5 Feb 21 at 5:10 pm

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