They say a fool and his money are soon parted. Unfortunately for some of baseball’s highest priced teams, that’s becoming more evident with each passing day.With New York’s epic fail against the Detroit Tigers in the ALCS completed last night thanks to Detroit’s series-sweeping 8-1 victory, the Yanks are out of the playoffs.
The team with the highest payroll in the game ($198 million in 2012), now joins the Phillies ($174 million), Red Sox ($173 million), and Angels ($154 million), as the four richest teams in baseball all watching the World Series from their living rooms next week (payroll numbers courtesy of USA Today).
The Tigers, who have the fifth highest payroll in baseball at $132 million, certainly aren’t the Oliver Twist of the playoffs. They’re a big spending team that has managed to navigate the postseason and now has a chance for their first world title since 1984.
But for most of the season, Detroit was a disappointment. It took a furious late-season rally for the Tigers to overtake the White Sox and win the AL Central, winning only 88 games in the regular season. Six teams in the American League won more games than Detroit in 2012.
But the playoffs are about luck, timing, and even more luck. The Tigers’ starting rotation is led by the best pitcher in the game and some young arms that are throwing their best right now. They were also fortunate enough to run into a Yankees team that completely forgot how to hit a baseball.
So it’s not like the Tigers were a runaway freight train all season that used their cash to make themselves a dominant American League power. Yet, here they are, in the World Series.
Good for them.
However, the trend in Major League Baseball this year certainly seemed to be the teams with smaller payrolls having their day. The Washington Nationals ($81 million), Baltimore Orioles ($81 million), Cincinnati Reds ($82 million), and Atlanta Braves ($83 million) all made the playoffs with payrolls under $100 million.
And while the two teams playing in the NLCS, the Cardinals ($110 million) and the Giants ($117 million), both have hefty salary commitments, they still rank just eighth and ninth among all Major League teams.
Why? Cheap, home-grown players and smart free agent acquisitions.
The Cardinals decided last offseason not to mortgage their future and re-sign Albert Pujols to a mega-contract. Instead, they went with Allen Craig at first base.
Craig earned $495,000 and the earliest he can become a free agent is after the 2017 season. Craig hit .307/.354/.522 with 22 HRs, 97 RBI and 35 doubles this year.
Pujols earned $12 million this year for the Angels, but at 32 years old, is still owed $228 million over the next nine years. The Angels will pay him $30 million in 2021, when he is 41 years old. This year, Pujols hit .285/.343/.516 with 30 HRs, 105 RBIs and 50 doubles.
Anyone with a working brainstem can see that Craig is the better value in this deal.
St. Louis resisted the urge to spend huge money on their signature franchise player, and were rewarded when their cheaper, younger option produced at about 75-80% of what Pujols did.
The Phillies, to their credit, have tried to make decisions like this recently. When Jayson Werth became a free agent, the Phillies could have outbid the market to keep their slugging right-fielder. Instead they chose to let Werth sign a ridiculous contract with the Washington Nationals, and planned to turn the job over to their young superstar-in-waiting, Domonic Brown.
Unfortunately for the Phillies, Brown did not produce in the way that Craig did for St. Louis this year. That necessitated a trade with Houston that landed the Phillies Hunter Pence.
The Phils were chasing a World Series led by the rotation of a generation, the Phour Aces. They felt they had to spend more money to get Pence and give up promising young minor leaguers Jonathan Singleton and Jarred Cosart in order to put themselves in the best position to win a World Series.Cosart and Singleton are now among the top prospects in the game, and appear to have promising big league careers ahead of them.
Pence is now a Giant. And, if you hooked Ruben Amaro up to a lie detector test, I think he’d tell you he’d probably not do the Pence deal again.
The Phillies sacrificed cheap, young talent (albeit unproven) for a veteran player who cost more. All because they were seduced with winning another World Series.
Which is what makes the Cardinals’ restraint last year so unusual. After winning the World Series they made the smart baseball move, and now it appears as if they will be rewarded, just one win away from their second straight World Series appearance.
The problem with chasing a World Series in the way the Yankees, Phillies, Red Sox and Angels have done, is that a franchise and fanbase can lose focus and allow themselves to make massive salary commitments to players who are usually older and on the decline.
Young players don’t cost anything. They’re cheap because they haven’t accrued enough service time to trigger free agency. And, they’re still on the way up.
Most free agents hit the market in their early 30s. Sometimes, like Cole Hamels, a quality free agent hits the market in their mid-to-late 20s, and in those cases, the expenditure is sometimes a wise course of action. But most are older players. And, most free agents are paid more than they’re actually worth, because there is a market that dictates those salaries.
The two things the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies all had coming into the season were sky-high payrolls and older rosters. All three teams eventually failed (although New York was good enough to make the playoffs and actually win a playoff series, which is no small feat) because they were too old and injury prone.
The Red Sox spent much of the second half of 2012 excising their mistakes from the roster in an attempt to get younger, more athletic, and financially flexible. Both the Yankees and the Phillies have said they want to do the same thing.
What baseball in 2012 taught everyone is that having the most money doesn’t guarantee success. Outbidding everyone for the highest priced free agent doesn’t necessarily equal wins and championships.
And with the addition of a second wild card team, it’s easier than ever to make the playoffs (although granted, it’s still pretty hard). Gone are the days where making it through a 162 game schedule and finishing in first place meant a 50/50 shot at getting to the World Series.
Baseball is a game of balance. A balanced roster gives a team the best chance for success.
The Phillies proved in 2011 that having four of the highest priced starting pitchers doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have an offense or bullpen that can support it.
The Yankees in 2012 proved that high-priced, aging veterans can falter just as easily as cheaper players.
And the Red Sox this year proved that assembling a roster full of high-priced talent doesn’t always mean they’re going to work well and play well together.
Money is a great advantage. But a productive farm system is even more valuable. The Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland A’s have shown that smart teams with baseball sense and an attention to the right metrics can be just as successful as the mega-powers.
Money is wonderful, but money poorly spent renders that advantage useless.
For the Phillies, their payroll of $174 million is more than enough to win a championship and gives them a huge advantage over every other team in the National League East.
But that money must be spent wisely, and it must be spent in a balanced way.
Money itself cannot help a stupid team win a championship. A smart team uses their money wisely and gives themselves the best chance to succeed.
All that being said, even if a team does everything perfectly, there is no guarantee a World Series parade will come to town. And a team must get lucky enough that their younger players will produce when called upon.
Still, as the Tigers await the winner of the Giants-Cardinals NLCS, the teams with the four highest payrolls will sit at home and watch.
It’s a trend that seems to be happening more and more with each passing year.