Are High Dollar Free Agents the Key to Building a Playoff Caliber Team in Major League Baseball Today?

Updated on February 13, 2019
Mr Archer profile image

Archer has been an online baseball writer for over seven years. His articles often focus on baseball strategy and team management.

Money, money, money
Money, money, money | Source

Pitchers and catchers report, time for some baseball!

Spring is springing, although it has not yet sprung. While it is due to hit 60 degrees here today, snow is on the horizon for the weekend and my thoughts turn south and west to the fields of Spring Training. Players are reporting to their spring training locations and are making ready to play another season of my favorite sport. At the time of this article there remain somewhere around a hundred free agents which are unsigned and talk of collusion, of tanking, of intentionally losing and freezing out veteran players as they try to get a large payday for their skills is prevalent. For some, it is the first time through this maze termed Free Agency; for others, it may well be their last. Most, if not all believe they can bring that certain something to a club, a spark which will take a team to the playoffs, maybe even the World Series. Some simply want to get paid what they believe they are worth.

All feel they deserve to get paid for how they have performed in the past, as they played out their first few years in the league while being paid less than market value. But can they actually take their team to the promised land? Are they, and they alone, the final piece to the puzzle? Are they the straw that stirs the drink? In short, are they really worth what they feel they are worth when it comes to paying for athletes to fill a competitive baseball team?

Is money the key to success when winning in baseball?

Making the postseason is (or should be) the goal of every baseball team in existence. How to make it there is the question all need answered. Is drafting well the key? Trading for quality players? Harmony in the clubhouse? Or is money the be all, end all when it comes to building a competitive team in today's baseball market? Does a team have to spend its every last dime to put a team on the field with a reasonable expectation of winning enough games to make the post season? Should an owner sign a player (or two or three) to contracts which pay a player more money in a single year than most people could spend in five lifetimes? Are they truly worth the investment?

I sat down and looked at some numbers (I am a numbers kind of guy) in order to determine if this statement about spending a lot of money is a true statement. I stayed in this century, not going back any further than 2001 as baseball has changed direction when the millennium came around, in my most humble opinion. I looked at who made the playoffs; who went to the World Series; who won it and what the salaries of each MLB team looked like over that span of time. Once I plotted these numbers on my trusty Excel spreadsheet (I am not called Captain Spreadsheet for nothing) and sat back to look at them, I was mildly surprised by what the numbers were telling me.

One thing I have learned over the many years I have walked this earth is: numbers never lie. They are as true in their worth as can be and there is no disputing what they say.

So, what did they tell me?

The Top Ten Teams By Payroll: Average Payroll 2001 - 2018

Team
Payroll
Rank
Postseasons
World Series
Championships
New York Yankees
$190,882,628
1
14
3
1
Boston Red Sox
$144,928,950
2
10
4
4
Los Angeles Dodgers
$140,609,168
3
10
2
0
Los Angeles Angels
$115,818,604
4
7
1
1
Philadelphia Phillies
$115,474,432
5
4
2
1
Detroit Tigers
$112,783,662
6
6
1
0
San Fransisco Giants
$110,274,231
7
6
4
3
New York Mets
$109,714,246
8
3
1
0
Chicago Cubs
$106,298,751
9
7
1
1
St Louis Cardinals
$100,016,598
10
11
4
2

Well, that is interesting.

So, what do those numbers tell me? Well, first off the Yankees spend far more on average than anyone else in the league. Over eighteen years they are averaging $190,000,000 a year! Boston is second with almost $50,000,000 less per year. To put that in perspective, Boston could add players like both Machado and Harper every year to close the gap on the Yankees if they wanted to. Somewhere in the back of my mind I always knew the Yankees liked to spend on free agents, I simply never knew how much they spent.

But look closely: While the Yankees have been to the playoffs four more times than Boston, they are behind when it comes to making it to the Series, four to three. And while New York won once, Boston is a smooth 4 for 4 in World Series this century. They may have had to wait a long time to break the curse of the Bambino but once they did they demolished that curse.

But what else does this table show us? The Dodgers, for all of their spending have not done so well when it comes to winning in the post season. Oh they make it there but once there...? San Francisco has been very good, making it to the postseason six times, the series four and winning it all three times while doing it for about 60% of what the Yankees are spending. Drop down to the bottom at number ten and look at the Cardinals: for just over half the money New York spends they have been to the postseason almost as many times (14 to 11), the World Series more (4 to 3) and won it all twice as much (2 to 1).

So, who got more bang for their buck? Is it worth it to make the playoffs without proceeding to the final series? Are the playoffs enough of a goal? To most, I believe they think that is good enough. Once there, chance can and often does take over so who knows? But the flipside is that by putting the best team on paper (green paper!) on the field does not mean you are guaranteed to make it through unscathed to the series. But it certainly can help.

Spend it like you own it

The Yankees, Red Sox, and Dodgers spend money like they do because they are big market teams. They each have hired players at high prices, often outbidding other lesser market teams along the way and they have done well. Not all teams pay the same, or even close. When St Louis is $90,000,000 behind New York but does as well getting to the postseason, well that says something doesn't it? Not that they haven't spent money on free agents, just that they seem to be more efficient at what they do spend for whom. And who they have drafted has done well for the most part. So, while they do spend they do it in a calculated way that augments who they already have coming up through the ranks. They also seem to draft well enough that they can trade away excess parts and receive more in return than most teams, which makes the team that much stronger.

One team that really surprised me on this first ten was the Angels. I never realized they spent that much money. The Phillies had several years where they were paying a lot for Ryan Howard, more than he was able to realistically deliver a good return to them for, which drove their average numbers higher. Injuries hurt his ability and in the end he faded away. The Mets, Cubs, and Tigers went through a stretch of good productive years where they played well and paid better but not quite good enough to be really competitive for the series. The Cubs are being called cheap by some fans right now due to their not spending freely this off season, instead holding pat with who they have. Time will tell if the team they have will be good enough this year.

Postseason Appearances Top Ten (Eleven) Teams

Team
Average Payroll
Postseason Appearances
World Series Appearances
Championships
New York Yankees
$190,882,628
14
3
1
St Louis Cardinals
$100,016,598
11
4
2
Boston Red Sox
$144,928,950
10
4
4
Los Angeles Dodgers
$140,609,168
10
2
0
Atlanta Braves
$93,811,830
8
0
0
Oakland Athletics
$62,180,404
8
0
0
Los Angeles Angeles
$115,818,604
7
1
1
Chicago Cubs
$106,298,751
7
1
1
San Francisco Giants
$110,274,231
6
4
3
Arizona Diamondbacks
$76,199,122
6
1
1
Houston Astros
$74,892,895
6
1
1
Three teams tied at six postseason appearances with no championships: Detroit ($112,783,662), Minnesota ($75,211,306), Cleveland ($71,799,500). Cleveland and Detroit have made six also and have one WS appearance.

Who stands out to you?

Remember that song from Sesame Street? One of these things just doesn't belong here? Who stands out to you as an outlier? Simon Says...Oakland! Yes, Oakland with its low, low payroll due to meager resources jumps to the forefront with that payroll and its making the postseason eight times over eighteen years. Eight! With the 27th highest payroll out of the 30 teams they made the playoffs fairly often. More than Texas (11th) Chicago White Sox (13th) Detroit (6th), New York Mets (8th) and Philadelphia (5th). They even made it more than Washington with six years of wunderkind Bryce Harper! So, is Billie Beane that much smarter and effective than the rest of the league? Is Moneyball, his "creation" the way to go?

Looking at it this way, it appears as though he is that much smarter and one can form a team for pennies on the dollar, comparatively speaking. They may have not made it to the series (yet) but they are in the mix often enough to warrant comparison to the Boston's and Yankee's of the league. Well done Billy!

One team I feel for in not getting to the postseason is Seattle. With the 12th highest payroll over the past 18 years, they have made but one solitary postseason appearance during this span. One. They have spent on par with St Louis, a mere $3,000,000 less annually, yet haven't gotten any return on their investments.

But...

But if you want to give yourself the best chance to win, you can spend more to give yourself more opportunity. So where do the lower market teams get the money to compete?

Revenue Sharing. Each team pays in a certain percentage of their revenue then the total is divided equally between all the MLB teams. That means teams like the Marlins, with low revenue can give a pittance and receive a king's ransom. An example of this is the 2006 - 2007 seasons where the Marlins actually received in excess of $60,000,000 in revenue sharing but their actual payroll was some $45,000,000! Where did the rest of the money go?

Into the owners pockets. And that is a problem which needs to rectify itself posthaste. Some team owners refuse to spend money on their teams, relegating said team to perpetual darkness and losing while they continue to reap the benefits of revenue sharing. To me, that just is not right.

To wit, revenue sharing should be accompanied by a minimum team payroll. This would force teams to spend on these free agents, supplying jobs for those who deserve them. And in theory, paying more for better players should give a team a better chance than playing lesser players just because they do not make as much money. While I applaud Billy Beane and the teams who make due with less, I also believe Billy would jump at the chance to have more payroll to spend on players. Who knows, with a bit more money to spend he might make it to the World Series and win the last game of the year for a change. Heaven knows he deserves that chance after the way he has revolutionized baseball.

In conclusion...

Money is a pertinent part of winning in the MLB. Drafting well can only take you so far and picking through the trash bins that are the lower cost players is a chancy way at best of putting together a winning team. Spending for the best players available is a means to the end of the postseason when combined with thorough investigation of the players involved. By not spending willy-nilly on a player who used to be good, rather spending on the best young player available on the market would definitely improve a team's chance at winning the World Series. Perhaps even trading for a very good player (a la the Cardinals trading for Paul Goldschmidt) and then attempting to sign them to a contract which extends through their most productive years is the best way to go.

But, I also believe wholeheartedly that the younger players, those who are in servitude for the first six years of their playing life deserve far more than they are currently paid. By paying them at younger ages for their performance the team payroll would go up accordingly, taking some of that money that somehow seems to find its way into the owners profit pocket with it. And that would equalize the teams in MLB somewhat.

To that end, another thing I noticed while doing my research was that while both revenue and payroll has increased annually, the percent of revenue that is going to the players has actually decreased. In 2001, the total league payroll was $1.9 billion while revenue was $3.58 billion for a 54% payroll to revenue to payroll number. The next year it was a 55.4% number before beginning to move downward most years until in 2016 it hit a low point of 40.2% before rebounding slightly in 2017 to 43.7%. This means that with all the revenue sharing, TV contracts and other income, the owners are pocketing more and more of the profits. While that is their prerogative, they still should put a competitive team on the field each year to the best of their ability rather than "tanking" and lining their own pockets at the fan's expense.

So: spend more to get more; increasing spending can and will increase one's opportunity for postseason victories and by doing so baseball can continue on without any work stoppages which will seek to destroy our National Pastime. Owners and players need to get together and hammer this out as soon as possible, teams need to stop intentionally losing (tanking) and let's get the Spring started!

Play ball!

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Mr Archer

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      • Mr Archer profile imageAUTHOR

        Mr Archer 

        3 months ago from Missouri

        Salary cap and bottom! Both the players and the owners distribute greed equally and I am sick of it. It is a game! Play it and have fun. I know the owners need to run it like a business but still, they do not need to make billions a year off our (fans) backs. Whether through TV revenue or memorabilia revenue or just plain ol' paying through the nose for the joy of a game (($200 each for tickets, $15 for hot dogs and drinks) it has gotten out of hand.

      • Angel Guzman profile image

        Angel Guzman 

        3 months ago from Joliet, Illinois

        You can't dispute the money. I am strongly in favor of a salary cap in Major League Baseball. I am disgusted with the greed of the Ricketts (Chicago Cubs). The affordability of professional sports is declining at an alarming rate. If the Cubs or Red Sox are not in the playoffs I usually root for smaller market teams. Interesting article bud.

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