Now that the regular season is over, lets take a look at the opening day payrolls and how the teams finished up:
What we see here is some direct relationship between payroll and performance at the very top and bottom of this table: the Yankees certainly bought their way into the playoffs while the Pirates certainly played their way to the worst record in the league with the lowest payroll in baseball. But how do you explain the other 28 teams in between?
First lets talk about the high end of the spectrum. The Red Sox slumped at the end of the season to the 10th best record but were only a game worse than the AL West winning Rangers. Several high payroll teams (Cubs, Mets, Tigers) continue to show why long term contracts for aging veterans are not the way to win in modern baseball. Well, unless you’re the Yankees and you buy enough of them to cover for mistakes (see Vazquez, Javier). The two LA teams are both in the upper ends of the payroll spectrum but faltered this year for different reasons (the Angels with injuries and key FA losses and the Dodgers with ownership ridiculousness).
At the other end of the spectrum, the Padres and Rangers are in the beginning stages of where Tampa and (to a lesser Extent Florida) are now; teams that gutted themselves, developed their teams through superior drafting and player development (even with the Lee trade most scouting pros believe the Rangers still have the best or 2nd best farm system) and kept payroll low. If you have superior drafting capabilities and develop players, soon you’ll have a good young team, cost contained, that outproduce multi-million dollar free agents. Also, Kudos to the Atlanta Braves for smartly spending money and continuing to produce quality major leaguers. A team that spends $84M on payroll certainly can’t complain about being poor, but to produce a playoff success with a young team and with more players in the wings (Mike Minor comes to mind)
A good number of teams fall more or less in line with their payroll productivity. St. Louis underperformed this year but finished with the 12th best league record and the 12th highest payroll. Milwaukee, Arizona, Washington, Cleveland, Colorado and Philadelphia all basically finished in line with their payroll output.
However, when a team with the second lowest payroll (Padres) misses out on the playoffs on the last day of the season, arguments for a salary structure in the major leagues basically goes out the window. Why would you penalize a team for excelling at player development and shrewdness in the amateur market by going to an NFL-esque salary structure? If the Rays can consistently outperform a higher payroll team like Toronto with more expensive personnel, shouldn’t the message be to teams to get better management and a better plan? The real lesson learned is that no matter what your payroll, incompetence in the front office will turn a $100M payroll into a poor team (see the NY Mets for the past few years). Each of the GMS of the teams with the 5 biggest “negative” deltas between payroll and record (San Diego, Texas, Tampa, Cincinnati and Oakland) are on the short lists of anyone’s GM of the year candidates. Meanwhile, the Executives of the 5 “positive” delta teams (the Mets, Cubs, Mariners, Orioles and Tigers) are being questioned or (in Minaya’s case) already out the door.
The Yankees continue to spend a ridiculous amount of payroll (at $200M+, that is nearly 7 times what Pittsburgh spent last year) and look to add to that amount with rumored FA chases of Cliff Lee and Carl Crawford. This cannot be healthy for the competitive spirit of the other teams playing in the AL East. But if there doesn’t prove to be a direct correlation between payroll and results, how can anyone realistically ask for a salary cap?