MLB Payroll versus Playoff Reality (Daryll)

Major League Baseball has a widely held assumption they would like to dispel: in baseball you can buy championships.

While the 2003 Moneyball A’s were one of the first teams to help buck this trend, the haters shock back with the truth that those A’s never actually won a playoff series. Good point.

Yet in recent years we’ve seen low payroll teams like the Kansas City Royals(16th), Cubs (14th)and the Houston Astros (18th) win it all. This year we could see an even higher upset.

As the 2018 MLB season enters September, some playoff races are decided but several remain nearly wide open. Here are the teams left and where they started the season in payroll:

In the American League East, the Red Sox have a commanding 7.5 game lead over the Yankees. They should, since they started the season 2nd in payroll at $206M. The Yankees are in 2nd place but with a 4.5 game lead over the 2nd wild card team the Oakland Athletics, who themselves have a 5.5 game lead over Seattle. The Yankees payroll is at $161M, good for 10th in starting season payroll. The Yankees have upped their in season payroll to nearly $180M and now are 6th in MLB payroll.

In the AL Central, the Indians were the presumed leader of the division from the start and thanks to even worse play in the division have had this division won since June. They started the season 15th in payroll at $136M and have upped only slightly to $142M.

The American League West gets interesting. The AL West started the year with the 6,7,8 highest payrolls in the game. The Astros were the highest at $172M, which is understandable after winning the World Series. The Los Angeles Angels spent big this off-season and started the year at $171M, but it has not translated in the standings. While the Astros are at 82 wins, the Angels are 3 games under .500 at 66-69.

It gets more interesting after that. The Mariners were the third highest AL West team, starting the season at $165M. They are in the wild card hunt still technically, but 7 games behind first place and 5.5 games behind the A’s for the second wild card spot. Chances of their first playoff appearance sine 2001 – the longest drought in baseball – look slim after a promising start.

Now we come to the big surprise: the Oakland Athletics. The A’s started the season with a payroll of just $62.65M. The top four players on the SF Giants (#1 Starting Season salary of $221M) alone was $76M. The A’s have increased as the season has gone on to nearly $80M but are still ranked 27th in salary compared to the bottom when the year started. They of course have 81 wins, 1.5 GB from the Astros and would have the best record in the National League. Those Giants? An even .500 record.

While the American League has some payroll intrigue mostly thanks to the A’s, the National League has legitimate pennant races for every spot up for grabs.

The Cubs have the largest lead of any division leader at 4.5 games, and perhaps they should since they started the season 4th in overall payroll at nearly $182M and have upped it by $10M as the season has gone on. They’ve had to do so in response to the second half surge of the 2nd place Cardinals – who started the year 13th at $147M and have increased to $163M as they’ve climbed the standings from irrelevant to hottest team in baseball. Close behind are the upstart Brewers, who had the best off-season of the trio. They started the year 23rd in payroll at $91M and have upped their payroll to $106.5M. Currently the Cardinals and Brewers hold the top 2 wild card spots by a 1.5 games over the NL West.

The NL East has to be looked at more by who isn’t leading it than who is. The Washington Nationals entered the season with a new manager and a payroll of $180M, 4th in the league and just behind the Chicago Cubs. The New York Mets were also trying the new manager route and sat at 5th place near $173M. Things have not worked out.

The Nationals are exactly a .500 ballclub at 68-68 while the Mets are 15 games out of the East and in total disarray. The Mets have trimmed down to under $150M while the Nationals wait and see if they can sign Bryce Harper to keep him in town this off-season. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, the teams that ARE leading the division are the Atlanta Braves, who themselves started the year with the 4th lowest payroll in baseball. They have been led by rookie Ronald Acuna Jr and second year player Ozzie Albies, along with veterans Nick Markakis and Freddie Freeman. They started at just over $83M but have increased payroll to nearly $130M. The league average is $138M.

The Phillies meanwhile, who finished in last place a year ago signed two multi-year contracts in the offseason with Carlos Santana and Jake Arrieta to start the year at $93M. Arrieta has been everything they had hoped for, along with the development of Aaron Nola, Nick Pivetta, and others in the rotation. They’ve increase their payroll by about $10M but the real question is if indeed they can sign impending free agent Bryce Harper. We shall see. The Braves currently hold a 3 game lead and the Phillies are 3 GM for the second wild card.

Last we come to the goat rodeo of the National League West. As you recall, the San Francisco Giants started the season with the highest payroll in baseball at $221M. The Dodgers who more recently have been dominating the payroll charts (2014-2017) came in this season modestly at 11th and $158M. The Rockies were at $139M and the Diamondbacks at a modest $119M. The Padres who I must list to get a mention as the 5th team in the division were 27th of 30 teams at $72M. Just above the 72-63 Rays and 2nd place A’s for reference.

The Dodgers struggled early, but have recovered and as of this morning sit tied with Arizona in the West with the Rockies a 1/2 half game out. This division will be very fun the final month. Meanwhile, the Dodgers have shed their payroll shackles and traded for a few months of Manny Machado and others, pushing their payroll up to 3rd in baseball and $196M. That is more like it! Whether there changes make the difference time will tell us – and very soon.

The economics of baseball have changed over the years. As teams get younger, more athletic, and signing the big older free agents doesn’t have the same impact it used to. Teams bring up young players, sometimes signing them to long term extensions to buy out arbitration years (like the Braves with their 8 year deal with Freddie in 2013) to have core players to build around. Sometimes it does work like with the Braves, other times it doesn’t like with the Padres and Wil Myers to this point.

There is a month left in the baseball season, and the contenders are spread throughout the payroll charts top to bottom. This is parity. This is competition. This is Major League Baseball in 2018.

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