Have the Days of Simply Buying Championships Vanished from Baseball Forever?
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Is spending big money the key to success in Major League Baseball?
The chances of winning are certainly helped by a large payroll. Ask Chris Perez what he thinks about the Cleveland Indians keeping their payroll low this season while the Detroit Tigers expanded their budget to sign players like Prince Fielder.
"You get what you pay for in baseball," Perez told Fox Sports' Jon Paul Morosi. "Sometimes you don’t. But most of the time you do.”
But does a team really get what it pays for these days?
The teams with the five highest payrolls in MLB this season, according to USA Today—the New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Angels and Detroit Tigers—could all miss the playoffs this year.
No team made a bigger splash in spending money during the season than the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers took on the salaries of Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford to help them compete for an NL West title or wild-card playoff spot, yet could miss the playoffs.
Will they be a favorite in the NL West next year?
What did the Miami Marlins get for shelling out loads of cash during the offseason? The Marlins signed Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell to big free-agent contracts but currently hold last place in the NL East and could very well finish the season there.
Compare that to the Oakland Athletics, who went into this season with the second-lowest payroll in baseball at $55.4 million. Yet as of Sept. 14, the A's hold one of the American League's wild-card playoff spots.
Despite a payroll near the lower-third of teams in MLB, the Washington Nationals have the best record in MLB and appear to be the favorite to win the National League pennant. Their Beltway neighbors, the Baltimore Orioles, could win the AL East or second wild-card spot, yet have one of the lower payrolls in baseball.
If the Nats aren't the NL front-runners, the Cincinnati Reds likely are. The Reds are in the middle of the pack in team payroll, just ahead of the Nationals. Right above the Reds in total salary are the Atlanta Braves, who have a firm grasp on one NL wild-card bid.
Other teams still in the playoff mix despite lower payrolls include the Pittsburgh Pirates, Tampa Bay Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks.
Is this a one-year anomaly?
Perhaps the A's and Orioles won't be in the same competitive position next season. But the other lower-salaried teams listed above look to be playoff contenders for years to come because they've drafted well and developed talent through their farm systems.
In a previous article, I asked whether or not the Yankees might return to their free-spending ways if they fail to make the playoffs this year. The last time the Yanks didn't qualify for the postseason, they handed out $432.5 million in free-agent contracts to return the team to championship glory. But could opening up the vault again next year yield the same results?
It appears as if the Yankees and Phillies have learned that spending huge money isn't a guarantee of success.
Both Yankees general manager Brian Cashman and Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. have publicly stated that they would like to get their payrolls below the luxury-tax threshold. Amaro wants to avoid the $178 million limit for next season while Cashman and Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner have an eye on the $189 million threshold for 2014.
The Red Sox appear to be reducing their payroll too, after shedding $260 million from their budget in the blockbuster trade that sent Gonzalez, Crawford and Beckett to the Dodgers.
Yet the days of spending big money aren't over in baseball, if for no other reason than there's so much money available to an increasing number of teams.
Huge television broadcast contracts have changed the game, providing major boosts to clubs like the Angels and Texas Rangers. The Dodgers are spending money with the knowledge that they'll eventually cash in on a TV package that could exceed $8 billion, according to Forbes. The Yankees and Red Sox aren't the only teams benefiting from larger regional TV deals anymore.
The Rangers, San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals are each among the top 10 payrolls in the game, likely to make the playoffs and could compete for a World Series this fall. If any of those teams win a championship, will that deter big spending? It doesn't seem likely.
Can a team buy a championship anymore? Perhaps not. We probably won't see a team like the 1997 Florida Marlins or 2009 New York Yankees again.
But a team does have to spend money to win consistently, whether it chooses to invest in free agents or international signings and player development. That's something that hasn't—and likely never will—change.
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