Does Cashing Offseason Checks Really Lead to Immediate Success in MLB?

Jason CataniaMLB Lead WriterMarch 26, 2013

With big-name—and big-money—stars like Hanley Ramirez and Adrian Gonzalez now on the Dodgers payroll, expectations are sky high.
With big-name—and big-money—stars like Hanley Ramirez and Adrian Gonzalez now on the Dodgers payroll, expectations are sky high.Denis Poroy/Getty Images

Move aside, New York Yankees. It's the Los Angeles Dodgers' turn to give it a try.

Buying a championship, that is.

For more than a decade, that refrain—buying a championship—applied to baseball's "Evil Empire," with its unlimited, big-market budget. But more than any MLB team in recent history, the Dodgers will test whether a World Series can be bought this season.

Consider: The Dodgers' payroll on Opening Day last year was $95,143,575, according to USA Today's MLB payroll database.

This season? That figure will jump to—no, climb aboard a rocket ship and take flight to—somewhere around $213,014,286, according to Cot's Contracts of Baseball Prospectus.

You know, give or take a few hundred thousand for a roster bonus here or a contract incentive there.

That figure would be the highest in the history of the sport, as Bloomberg's Mason Levinson wrote back in December, about a month after the club spent a mere $209 million to land pitchers Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu—on the same day.

That figure would also be a 123.9 percent increase over the team's 2012 payroll, as Yahoo! Sport's Jeff Passan pointed out over the winter.

Of course, everyone remembers the other big purchases—er, acquisitions—the Dodgers made last year in "trading" for Hanley Ramirez of the Marlins and then Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett of the Red Sox—a trio that had $261 million of future payroll obligations coming to them at the time of the deal last August.

If the Dodgers actually do have a bottom line, they're still digging around trying to find it.

With such egregious spending, one has to wonder if it'll all be worth it. Are teams that see a large spike in salary going for broke—or just going broke?

Looking at payroll data from the past 10 seasons (2003 to 2012), I marked down every instance in which a team's payroll spike over the previous year jumped at least 20 percent. There were 72 such occasions, or about seven per year.

For what it's worth, the Dodgers' 123.9 percent blastoff was easily the largest increase. The only team that even doubled its year-over-year payroll (i.e. an increase of 100 percent or more) was—drum roll, please—the Marlins, who went up 107.4 percent from 2011-12 and 103.4 percent across 2006-07.

The Marlins, of course, are known for their epic fire sales—heck, we saw one just this winter—which helps explain why they have two of the three-highest hikes over the past 10 years.

What's more interesting than that, though, is how these 72 teams fared.

Of the 72 times the 20 percent bump was reached, the team that opened its wallet and broke the piggy bank saw a net-positive win differential only 28 times.

Put another way: A 20 percent payroll rise led to more wins the following season only 39 percent of the time.

That means in the remaining 61 percent of instances, the club's win total either stayed the same or (gasp) dropped.

Safe to say, then, the majority of them didn't get that much bang for their buck.

One team that did, though, was the Rays in 2008. You'll remember that was the year Tampa flipped the switch from broken franchise to go-for-broke surprise contenders, an identity it's worn proudly since.

Sensing they were on the verge of something big—and they were—the Rays front office (and probably their accountants too) rolled up their sleeves and found a way to nearly double their payroll from 2007's $24,123,500 to $43,820,597.

But even then, much of the payroll increase came from giving money, in the form of extensions and raises, to players already on the roster like James Shields and Carlos Pena.

Their one big outside expenditure in 2008? Troy Percival, who got $8 million for two years. But despite saving 28 games that season, the 38-year-old was mediocre at best (4.53 ERA, 1.23 WHIP), spent time on the DL and wasn't even able to be on the mound to close out a memorable ALCS Game 7 against the Red Sox. 

That honor went to David Price, which makes for a perfect microcosm for this topic: Often, it's not about how much a team spends, but how much value it nets.

Surely, the Dodgers, as well as the Blue Jays, Nationals, Reds and Royals—the five teams with the largest payroll spikes entering 2013—hope they can prove to be the exception to the rule, like that 2008 Rays club.

But if not, they'll get what they paid for.


All team payroll information came from USA Today, unless otherwise indicated.