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Monday, January 27, 2014
Payroll and wins: The top 15

By David Schoenfield

The second part of our look at wins and payrolls over the past five seasons. Here's Part 1.

15. Chicago White Sox: 394 wins, $543.5 million (10th)

The White Sox will be picking third in the draft in June, only the second time they will be drafting in the top 10 since taking Alex Fernandez fourth overall in 1990. (That pick capped a terrific four-year run of top-10 picks that pushed the White Sox back into prominence in the early '90s: Jack McDowell, Robin Ventura, Frank Thomas and Fernandez.) Since then, the White Sox have been consistently successful although rarely dominant outside of their 2005 World Series year. The club finally collapsed to a 63-99 record in 2013, the franchise's worst since 1970. As you can see from the 10th overall total in payroll, the White Sox aren't big, big spenders, but neither are they to be confused with the penny pinchers.

14. Milwaukee Brewers: 410 wins, $441.1 million (16th)

I think 2014 and 2015 are crucial years for the long-term health of the Brewers. The playoff appearance in 2008 and division title in 2011 helped bring the fans back to Miller Park. In 2002 and 2003, the second and third years at the new park, attendance fell under 2 million as the Brewers were in the midst of a long stretch of losing seasons. It climbed over 3 million in 2008, 2009 and 2011 but fell back to 2.5 million in 2013. The fans have shown they will support a winner with great enthusiasm. And if the fans keep coming, you can keep the payroll in the middle of the pack despite playing in MLB's smallest metro market.

13. Oakland Athletics: 420 wins, $302.6 million (27th)

Yes, the A's have actually outspent the Marlins, Padres and Pirates over the past five years. The amazing part about Oakland's division titles the past two seasons is that, unlike other small-market clubs, it did so without benefiting from high draft picks; the A's haven't drafted higher than 10th since selecting Barry Zito ninth overall in 1999. A small payroll and no high draft picks make it nearly impossible to build a winner, but Billy Beane has figured out a way, thanks to great trades and finding the right guys from the scrap heap. Payroll, between $52 million and $67 million the past five years, is estimated to rise to $78 million for 2014 (thank you, $26 million in new national TV money).

12. Los Angeles Angels: 430 wins, $665.5 million (4th)

The Angels have spent more than twice as much as the A's in five years -- and won a grand total of 10 more games. They haven't made the playoffs since 2009. And those payrolls aren't going to get lower any time soon. Albert Pujols' salary goes up $7 million this season. Josh Hamilton's will go up $8 million in 2015 and another $7 million in 2016. They get one more year of Mike Trout in his pre-arbitration years, so they'll have to start paying him as well. Jerry DiPoto's job won't be getting any easier, that's for sure.

11. Los Angeles Dodgers: 435 wins (tie), $644.4 million (5th)

Not cracking our top 10: the Cubs, Mets, White Sox, Angels and Dodgers. It's not all about market size. The Dodgers were at about $217 million on Opening Day last year and project a similar total this year, barring one more free-agent signing (like Bronson Arroyo). Even with that $200 million-plus payroll, this is still a team with questions at second base (Is Cuban Alex Guerrero any good?), third base (Juan Uribe played well last year but was injured and horrible the previous two years), center field (Matt Kemp is a liability defensively and hasn't been healthy) and the back end of the rotation (counting on Josh Beckett or Chad Billingsley to return from an injury). That's a lot of potential issues for a team that many will have as a World Series favorite.

10. Cincinnati Reds: 435 wins (tie), $425.3 million (18th)

With 90 or more wins in three of the past four years, the Reds have developed into a consistent contender. With a rotation featuring Homer Bailey, Mat Latos, Johnny Cueto, Tony Cingrani and Mike Leake, they should be contenders once again. But you also wonder if the window is closing on this group of Reds. There is little offensive support behind Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, and Bailey is a free agent after the season. You also worry about a Todd Helton-like situation developing with Votto, where one player eats up such a large percentage of team payroll. Votto is still a relative bargain -- $12 million and $14 million the next two years -- but he is due $20 million in 2016 and $25 million in 2018. For the Reds to remain a factor in upcoming years, they need Cingrani and speedster Billy Hamilton to develop into front-line players while making little in salary.

9. San Francisco Giants: 436 wins, $565.5 million (9th)

You can't argue against two World Series titles in five years. In 2013, the Giants fell under .500 for the first time since 2008 even though the payroll skied to a franchise-high $136 million, $40 million more than the 2010 champs. The Giants could be anything in 2014. They could win 95 games and another championship with GM Brian Sabean once again having the last laugh on the sabermetricians or they could go 70-92 and hit rock bottom when Tim Lincecum and his $18 million salary get sent to the bullpen in June.

8. Boston Red Sox: 440 wins, $783.6 million (2nd)

CEO Larry Lucchino is strutting around like a proud peacock these days, so it's easy to forget that just about everything went right for the Red Sox in 2013. Hey, when you win a World Series, it usually does. But it was an up-and-down five years for the Red Sox, with just two playoff appearances. We'll see if the Red Sox get the same production in 2014 from Mike Napoli, John Lackey, David Ortiz, Jake Peavy, Ryan Dempster and Shane Victorino -- all 30-somethings making at least $13 million.

7. Detroit Tigers: 443 wins, $638.3 million (6th)

The Tigers are going for their fourth straight American League Central crown, during which time their payroll has increased from $107 million in 2011 to an estimated $161 million in 2014. Winning can be expensive, and the Tigers will be paying six players at least $14 million -- Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Ian Kinsler, Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer and Torii Hunter. Individually, none of the contracts are terrible, but it does add up. The Tigers were far more dominant in 2013 than the previous two seasons (although they won more games in 2011). Tinkering wasn't necessarily in order, but GM Dave Dombrowski decided to rebuild the infield defense and trade starter Doug Fister. We'll see how it works out -- and if new manager Brad Ausmus can help deliver the only thing that's eluded the Tigers during this stretch of excellence.

6. Philadelphia Phillies: 446 wins, $748.9 million (3rd)

It was a nice run.

5. St. Louis Cardinals: 452 wins, $520.4 million (11th)

To a certain extent, the Cardinals' "dominance" of recent years has been overstated. They have made the playoffs in four of five seasons, but I would describe only the 2013 team as a great team. The others won the more pedestrian figures of 88, 90, 86 and 91 games. And while the National League Central was much improved in 2013 with the rise of the Pirates and subtraction of the Astros to the AL West, the Cardinals have enjoyed the fruits of what has mostly been a mediocre division in recent years. That said, the Cardinals are clearly an organization that does just about everything right without simply buying premium free agents, and the scary thing is it's a team with more young talent on the way.

4. Tampa Bay Rays: 453 wins, $303.8 million (26th)

Keep David Price. That's all.

3. Atlanta Braves: 456 wins, $455.1 million (14th)

Note that the three teams immediately ahead of St. Louis have all won a few more games over the past five years while also spending less on payroll. The Cardinals aren't the only team winning without spending like the Yankees or Red Sox. The other three just haven't gotten hot or caught the right breaks in the postseason. Braves' payrolls have remained stagnant for a decade -- an estimated $91 million in 2014, the same as 2004 and less than the $106 million the club spent in 2003. Different owners (Liberty Media bought the club in 2007), but still. The Braves have a poor local TV contract, yes, but attendance has remained stable for a decade -- although below the figures of the late '90s, prompting the Braves to announce plans for a new ballpark in suburban Cobb County. Will a new park ultimately give the Braves more payroll flexibility? They better hope so, as they'll eventually have to figure out how to sign young guys like Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Craig Kimbrel and Andrelton Simmons.

2. Texas Rangers: 457 wins, $471.2 million (12th)

If you're keeping track, that's four of the top five clubs in wins that weren't in the top 10 in payroll over the past five seasons. In the Rangers' case, that will change in the upcoming five-year period. They were a young team with a $64 million payroll when they reached the World Series in 2010. This year, they should be around $130 million. Their big local cable deal kicks in next season, which means they'll always be players on the free-agent market, such as this winter when they signed Shin-Soo Choo.

1. New York Yankees: 475 wins, $1.06 billion (1st)

Still No. 1 -- and after spending more than $450 million on free agents this winter, they're determined once again to show that money is no object in trying to stay there. While they won 85 games in 2013, the Yankees missed the playoffs and were outscored for the first time since 1992. It's a team that had to spend the money because without doing so it was going to be a miserable summer in the Bronx.