Payroll and wins: The past five years

January, 27, 2014
Jan 27
1:30
PM ET
Jayson Stark has a piece today looking back at the reign of commissioner Bud Selig. One of the important legacies of Selig's tenure has been revenue sharing -- as Jayson points out, nearly $400 million exchanged hands last season, helping some of the less affluent clubs compete with the big boys.

But we know not all teams are created equally in terms of payroll, a point further hammered home when the Yankees outbid the likes of the Astros and Diamondbacks for the services of pitcher Masahiro Tanaka. I thought I'd look back at the past five seasons and review each franchise. We'll rank them from last to first based on total wins -- but also list their total payrolls in that span. (All payroll information is taken from Cot's Baseball Contracts and are drawn from estimated Opening Day payrolls each season.)


30. Houston Astros: 312 wins, $359.5 million in payroll (23rd)

The Astros and Mets were the only teams not to have at least one winning season in our five-year study. The Astros' $26.1 million Opening Day payroll in 2013 was also the lowest in the past five years. They've gone through the worst three-year span -- 106, 107 and 111 losses -- since the expansion Mets lost 120, 111 and 109 games. Of course, the recent struggles are the result of general manager Jeff Luhnow's complete tearing down of the organization and basically starting over.

They'll have the No. 1 overall pick in the June draft for the third year in a row, helping to reload a now highly rated farm system. And the payroll, after stripped to the bare minimum in 2013, will increase to an estimated $48 million after signing Scott Feldman and trading for Dexter Fowler. But when will they start winning and how difficult will it be to win the fans back?

An aside here on competitive balance. Let's get this out of the way. You still hear a lot of fans arguing that a salary cap -- a hard cap, I presume, and not a luxury tax threshold -- would make things "more fair." I guess by "fair" they usually mean "so the Yankees and now the Dodgers can't sign all of the best free agents."

A salary cap, however, doesn't necessarily create more competitive balance. Just look at the NFL. In the past five NFL seasons, six teams never made the playoffs or had a winning record. Two others haven't made the playoffs. That doesn't even include the Detroit Lions, who have had one winning season and playoff appearance in 13 years.

Baseball's system may not be fair, but there isn't evidence that another system would create more parity.

29. Chicago Cubs: 356 wins, $629.3 million (7th)

The Cubs certainly win honors for most mismanaged franchise of the past half-decade, at least in terms of dollars spent per win. From 2009 to 2011, they had payrolls of at least $134 million and topped out at 83 wins in 2009 (after winning division titles in 2007 and 2008). Don't blame Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer completely for the past two years, as they inherited bloated contracts like the ones of Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Zambrano. The payroll this year should sit at about $78 million, with a slew of top-rated prospects -- Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, C.J. Edwards -- starting to arrive perhaps by the end of the season.

28. Seattle Mariners: 359 wins, $453.7 million (15th)

The Mariners have stumbled and bumbled their way through a decade's worth of bad, boring teams and awful free-agent signings like Carlos Silva and Chone Figgins. Despite owning five top-five picks since 2005 (Jeff Clement, Brandon Morrow, Dustin Ackley, Danny Hultzen, Mike Zunino) the Mariners' farm system has yielded little in the way of top-line talent since Felix Hernandez arrived in the big leagues. They signed Robinson Cano to the monster contract this offseason, but haven't done much else to provide him help other than to acquire Corey Hart and Logan Morrison, two guys with bad knees. The once fervent fan base has deteriorated and the entire city is wearing Russell Wilson and Richard Sherman jerseys. This is Jack Zduriencik's last gasp; a crushing exposé in the Seattle Times in December painted a picture of an organization without a clue.

27. Kansas City Royals: 361 wins, $329.7 million (25th)

They finally broke through in 2013 with their first winning season since 2003 and second since 1994. In 2011, the Royals had stripped the roster of veterans, and payroll was down to $38.2 million. As the young talent has started to mature, the payroll increased to $82 million in 2013 and looks to be another $10 million higher for 2014.

26. Pittsburgh Pirates: 364 wins, $248.5 million (30th)

After winning 94 games, Pirates fans are understandably frustrated at the club's offseason. While waiting for A.J. Burnett to retire or not retire, the Pirates have basically stood pat and done nothing. The future should be bright. Like the Astros and Cubs, they have a highly rated farm system oozing in talent. The advantage the Pirates have is the big league roster already includes an MVP in Andrew McCutchen and a potential future Cy Young Award winner in Gerrit Cole.

25. Miami Marlins: 370 wins, $294 million (28th)

The Marlins tried that whole fancy free-agent thing in 2012 and look what happened: 93 losses. Don't think we'll be seeing owner Jeffrey Loria going down that road again. The Marlins dropped from a $100 million payroll in 2012 to $50 million in 2013. Despite the influx of $26 million in additional national TV revenue for 2014, Miami's payroll may be even lower. Enjoy Jose Fernandez while you can, Marlins fans.

23. New York Mets: 374 wins (tie), $606.9 million (8th)

Matt Harvey's injury has allowed the Mets to sell 2014 as another rebuilding year, although they did sign free-agent outfielders Curtis Granderson and Chris Young and starter Bartolo Colon. The Mets have one playoff appearance in the past 13 years. I'm guessing it will be one in 14.

23. Cleveland Indians: 374 wins (tie), $338.5 million (24th)

Right now, the Indians' payroll sits right about where it was last season ($82 million), making you wonder if they're hedging on Ubaldo Jimenez not finding a suitor and returning to Cleveland. In 2001, the Indians' payroll was ... $93 million. That was the year after Larry Dolan bought the team and the Indians made the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years. Within three years, the payroll had been slashed to $34 million, attendance had fallen by 1.3 million and the Indians have been trying to build a consistent winner ever since. They won last year but the fans still haven't returned, as attendance was actually lower than the 94-loss team of 2012.

22. Minnesota Twins: 376 wins, $458.6 million (13th)

The Twins won six division titles from 2002 to 2010 -- a weak division in that era helped -- but fell apart overnight and have now lost 90-plus games three years in a row, despite three of the four highest payrolls in franchise history. Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano are two of the top-10 position players in the minors and could arrive sometime this season to help turn things around.

21. Baltimore Orioles: 377 wins, $404.1 million (20th)

Peter Angelos bought the Orioles for $173 million in 1993. For the first several years of his ownership, Camden Yards was packed, the Orioles were competitive (making the playoffs in 1996 and 1997) and they spent freely on payroll, topping $80 million in 1999 and 2000. But as the losing seasons mounted and attendance dwindled, the Orioles seemed unsure of what approach to take. They never committed to a rebuild, but also never committed more resources to payroll. The success of the past two seasons has brought more fans to the ballpark, although they're still well below the figures of the late '90s. Still, Angelos and his son John are reluctant to take a big plunge in free agency and increase payroll much beyond what the club was spending more than a decade ago. The Orioles are now valued at somewhere between $618 million (Forbes) and $1.1 billion (Bloomberg).

20. Colorado Rockies: 386 wins, $396.8 million (21st)

The Rockies made the playoffs in 2009, but have now suffered three straight losing seasons. Their payroll and attendance figures have remained about as consistent as any team in baseball in the past five years, which alludes to a business plan that the front office sticks to. Unfortunately, a solid business plan doesn't mean a solid team on the field. The big moves this offseason were taking chances on Justin Morneau and Brett Anderson and signing reliever Boone Logan to a three-year contract. Those three players likely will have little impact. General manager Dan O'Dowd has been in charge since 2000 and presided over four winning seasons in 14 years. Why does he still have a job?

18. Toronto Blue Jays: 388 wins (tie), $432.8 million (17th)

Hey, the Blue Jays tried to go big last year. While everything went right for the Red Sox, everything went wrong for the Blue Jays. Still, in the end, the Jays haven't made the playoffs now since winning the 1993 World Series. Only the Royals (1985) have gone longer without a postseason appearance.

18. San Diego Padres: 388 wins (tie), $251.3 million (29th)

Perhaps no team is ultimately limited by its geographic location more than the Padres -- blocked to the north by the Dodgers and Angels, to the west by the Pacific Ocean, to the east by a desert and to the south by Mexico. San Diego is still a bigger metro market than Tampa, St. Louis, Cincinnati or Cleveland, but even if they started winning, it's not like baseball fans in Pasadena are going to suddenly dump the Dodgers for the Padres. So the Padres are always operating within a tight budget, although that budget hasn't really grown in a decade.

You know what else has hurt the Padres? They've never really hit rock bottom. There is a potential long-term advantage to doing what the Astros have done -- sorry, I'll call it tanking, even if it was the smart thing to do. By getting those No. 1 picks, the Astros secured premium, sure-thing talent. The Padres have had five top-10 picks in the past decade, but only two in the top five. OK, they blew the first overall pick on Matt Bush in 2004, taking him over Justin Verlander. No excuse there, as Bush turned into the worst No. 1 pick ever. They took outfielder Donavan Tate third in 2009 in what proved to be a pretty weak draft and he hasn't developed. Until the Padres develop a hitter or two to build a lineup around, this team is going to stick to about a 76-86 record every season.

17. Arizona Diamondbacks: 391 wins, $367.2 million (22nd)

We've apparently entered the NL West portion of our rankings. They've finished 81-81 the past two years. Has any team ever finished .500 three years in a row? It doesn't appear so. The Padres won 81 games in 1982 and 1983 ... and then reached the World Series in 1984. So there you go, Diamondbacks fans.

16. Washington Nationals: 392 wins, $405.7 million (19th)

Case in point to my Astros/Padres argument: Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. The Indians came very close from 1979 to 1981, going 81-80, 79-81 and 52-51. The Nationals dropped from 98 to 86 wins, and those 86 wins resulted only after an 18-9 record in September. With the price of success has come an increased payroll: $92.5 million in 2012, $118.3 million last year and about $130 million this year.

Later today: The top 15 teams.

David Schoenfield | email

SweetSpot blogger

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