March 29, 1998 in Sports

Obviously, Big Money Does Best Teams With Biggest Payrolls Now Dominate The Standings

Mark Maske Washington Post
 

Baseball always has been the ultimate numbers sport.

Its statistics are analyzed and overanalyzed more than those in any other sport, and its players are defined by their numbers.

Hitters are judged by their batting averages and their home-run and RBI totals, and pitchers’ performances supposedly are summed up neatly by their earned-run averages. Number-crunching is every bit as prominent as scouting in the game’s front offices, and has yielded ever-more-complicated statistics such as hitters’ on-base percentages and relief pitchers’ holds.

In the late 1990s, however, the numbers that matter the most are those between the dollar sign and the decimal point.

If you had to predict a major-league team’s record based upon a single statistic, which should you choose? Team batting average? Team ERA? Nope. Just ask for its player payroll.

The gulf between the sport’s have and have-not franchises is wider than ever. In 1991, the Minnesota Twins won their second World Series title in a five-year span. Such small-market breakthroughs, though, are beginning to seem like ancient history. Nowadays in baseball, you have to spend big to win big.

“The discrepancy is larger today than it’s ever been,” Detroit Tigers general manager Randy Smith said during spring training. “I think I heard (former Twins general manager and current Chicago Cubs president) Andy MacPhail say it, and it’s true: You have to ride the wave. As a small-market team, you have a one- to two-year window of opportunity, and then you have to start over.

“I don’t think you have to spend $60 million or $70 million to win. But it’s clear that in order to get into the playoffs, you’re going to have to spend, and spend pretty big.”

Said Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig, baseball’s acting commissioner: “There’s no sense in deluding oneself. You could see this coming five to eight years ago. If anyone thinks this is an accident, they’re wrong. That’s what all of those labor problems were all about, to address the needs of the bottom 20 to 25 teams in terms of revenues. The game is not healthy if a large percentage of the teams are not capable of being competitive.”

Team owners fought among themselves and then with their players - resulting in the players’ nearly eight-month strike in 1994 and ‘95 - in part to attempt to level the competitive playing field between the large-market and small-market clubs. The labor agreement that resulted from that confrontation increased revenue-sharing and established a payroll tax designed to curb the richest clubs’ spending on players.

But in what could be an ominous sign for baseball’s next set of labor negotiations, Selig says more must be done.

“I think revenue-sharing will help,” he said. “Some other things will help. But we have miles to walk in this area… . We just need to improve the system. That’s something we’ll need to address in years to come… . One could make a convincing case that there’s just not enough cost restraint built into the system.”

No club had a winning record last season with a player payroll of less than $40 million.

The teams with last season’s top five payrolls - the New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles, Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves and Florida Marlins - qualified for the playoffs. The seven at the bottom of the payroll ladder - the Pirates, Tigers, Athletics, Expos, Brewers, Royals and Phillies - had losing records.

The Yankees’ 1997 payroll, at $68 million, was nearly $52 million higher than the Pirates’ payroll. As recently as ‘95, the top payroll was just under $59 million and the gap between the sport’s biggest and smallest spenders was about $40 million.

“I think it is getting tougher” for the small-market teams to break through, Expos general manager Jim Beattie said. “The difference between the large markets and the small markets is getting larger. We used to have half the payroll they did. We were at $20 million and they were at $40 million. Now we’re still at $20 million - or, in our case, down to $10 million - and they’re at $60 million or $70 million.”

The Orioles, Braves, Red Sox and Yankees will open the 1998 season with payrolls of more than $70 million. (The Montreal Expos, by contrast, have the lowest, $16,031,584.)

The Arizona Diamondbacks and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays perhaps will be the best expansion teams in baseball history. But they’ve paid for that distinction. The Diamondbacks open play with a payroll of approximately $43.5 million; the Devil Rays will be at about $39.8 million.

The Marlins bought a World Series team prior to last season, then sold a World Series team last winter. Wayne Huizenga’s $89 million free-agent spending spree didn’t produce success at the turnstiles, and the club’s off-season purge - general manager Dave Dombrowski was forced to trade pitchers Kevin Brown, Al Leiter and Robb Nen, outfielders Moises Alou and Devon White and first baseman Jeff Conine, among others - has reduced the Marlins’ payroll from $56 million last season to $40.9 million this year. And, with what manager Jim Leyland has left to mix and match into a pitching staff, they are the defending World Series champions in name only.

Payroll purges and garage sales have become commonplace in the ‘90s. Most big trades now are dictated by economics.

The Expos dealt the 1997 National League Cy Young Award winner, Pedro Martinez, over the winter because they couldn’t afford to keep him. Many baseball executives say that they expect the Seattle Mariners to hold on to pitcher Randy Johnson only as long as they’re in contention. If the Mariners falter, Johnson - who’s eligible for free agency next winter and seeking a contract extension worth about $11 million per year - likely will exit Seattle soon thereafter.

In Detroit, Smith is trying to follow the formula patented by the Orioles and the Indians: Put the building blocks into place then use the revenue generated by a new stadium to step up to the level of World Series contenders.

“I think we’re going to be able to push some people,” Smith said. “But realistically, I don’t really see us being a World Series force before we get into the new ballpark.”

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story:

WINNERS AND LOSERS

Washington Post

A comparison of team payrolls and records from 1995 through ‘97 produced this list:

You get what you pay for

The Atlanta Braves - with the third-highest payroll - had the second-best winning percentage in ‘95 and ‘96, the best in 1997, appeared in the playoffs all three years and won the world championship in 1995.

Honorable mention: New York Yankees (highest payroll, three playoffs and a World Series title).

You don’t get what you pay for

The Chicago White Sox had the fifth-highest payroll but never made the playoffs, and their winning percentage (.499) was only three points higher than the team with the lowest payroll, the Montreal Expos (.496).

Honorable mention: Cincinnati Reds.

Best bargain

The Los Angeles Dodgers’ payroll ranks 13th, but they had the fifth-best record (winning percentage) and two playoff appearances.

Honorable mention: Seattle Mariners (spent $55.6 million less than the Yankees and won just 13 fewer games).

Biggest jump

The Florida Marlins’ payroll inceased nearly $20 million between 1996 and 1997. The result: the fourth-best record and a world championship. That achieved, owner Wayne Huizenga proceded to dump 12 of the players on his World Series roster.

On the other hand …

The Pittsburgh Pirates, baseball’s lowest-paid team, cut their payroll by nearly $12 million between 1996 and ‘97. But they won six more games.

Honorable mention: Detroit Tigers (between 1996 and ‘97, their payroll decreased $5 million, but they won 26 more games).

Stop them before they spend again

Cleveland increased its payroll $14 million between 1995 and ‘96, and won one fewer game. They increased their payroll nearly $7 million for the ‘97 season and won 13 fewer games.

Honorable mention: Minnesota Twins (increased payroll $10 million between 1996 and ‘97, and lost 10 more games).

What’s their secret?

The Montreal Expos had the lowest total payroll, yet their winning percentage was nearly .500, better than 12 other teams: Toronto, St. Louis, San Francisco, Chicago Cubs, Philadelphia, N.Y. Mets, Kansas City, Minnesota, Oakland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh.

This sidebar appeared with the story: WINNERS AND LOSERS Washington Post A comparison of team payrolls and records from 1995 through ‘97 produced this list:

You get what you pay for The Atlanta Braves - with the third-highest payroll - had the second-best winning percentage in ‘95 and ‘96, the best in 1997, appeared in the playoffs all three years and won the world championship in 1995. Honorable mention: New York Yankees (highest payroll, three playoffs and a World Series title).

You don’t get what you pay for The Chicago White Sox had the fifth-highest payroll but never made the playoffs, and their winning percentage (.499) was only three points higher than the team with the lowest payroll, the Montreal Expos (.496). Honorable mention: Cincinnati Reds.

Best bargain The Los Angeles Dodgers’ payroll ranks 13th, but they had the fifth-best record (winning percentage) and two playoff appearances. Honorable mention: Seattle Mariners (spent $55.6 million less than the Yankees and won just 13 fewer games).

Biggest jump The Florida Marlins’ payroll inceased nearly $20 million between 1996 and 1997. The result: the fourth-best record and a world championship. That achieved, owner Wayne Huizenga proceded to dump 12 of the players on his World Series roster.

On the other hand … The Pittsburgh Pirates, baseball’s lowest-paid team, cut their payroll by nearly $12 million between 1996 and ‘97. But they won six more games. Honorable mention: Detroit Tigers (between 1996 and ‘97, their payroll decreased $5 million, but they won 26 more games).

Stop them before they spend again Cleveland increased its payroll $14 million between 1995 and ‘96, and won one fewer game. They increased their payroll nearly $7 million for the ‘97 season and won 13 fewer games. Honorable mention: Minnesota Twins (increased payroll $10 million between 1996 and ‘97, and lost 10 more games).

What’s their secret? The Montreal Expos had the lowest total payroll, yet their winning percentage was nearly .500, better than 12 other teams: Toronto, St. Louis, San Francisco, Chicago Cubs, Philadelphia, N.Y. Mets, Kansas City, Minnesota, Oakland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh.

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