High MLB payrolls didn’t guarantee success in first half of season

High MLB payrolls didn't guarantee success in first half of season

As the second half of the Major League Baseball season begins, three of the six stingiest teams are in firm playoff position.

The Cincinnati Reds lead the National League Central. The Tampa Bay Rays lead the American League East. The Baltimore Orioles trail them by two games for the division lead and have a strong hold on the first AL wild-card spot. The payrolls of the Reds, Rays and Orioles combine to roughly $237 million.

Meanwhile, as games resume Friday night, three of the six biggest spenders are not in playoff position.

Steve Cohen’s creaky New York Mets, the puzzlingly underachieving San Diego Padres and the seemingly cursed Los Angeles Angels are all at least five or more games out of wild-card contention. The Mets and Padres both have payrolls well above $237 million. The Angels, at $217 million, could almost grab the whole check for the rosters of the Reds, Rays and Orioles, too.

Taken at face value, those numbers seem to suggest that the defining problem of the past 30-plus years of labor negotiations — payroll disparity between large- and small-market teams — may not be as prohibitive of meaningful parity after all. Spending has not guaranteed success for the Mets and Padres. This year, low payrolls have not doomed the Reds or Rays or Orioles — or even the Miami Marlins or Arizona Diamondbacks, both of whom have payrolls in baseball’s bottom third — to irrelevance.

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But when asked about that trend during this week’s all-star festivities in Seattle, neither MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred nor players union head Tony Clark seemed willing to take them at face value.

“I’ll say this as a bit of a personal reflection: I remember being on a team that won 100 games and folks were talking a month in about the struggles of that team and how badly that season started. And yet we ended up winning the division and winning it by a pretty good margin,” Clark said. “ … I say all that to say this: There’s still a lot of season left. I mentioned earlier the cream often rises to the top.”

Clark’s players union has long argued against a salary cap as a means of salary suppression. But he did not take the opportunity to use this season as proof that MLB doesn’t need one for the small-market teams to compete. The former all-star’s message was clear: The sample size is small. The standings now will not hold until late September.

Indeed, a surface-level look at recent history suggests the thriftiest teams have not exactly been marching toward baseball dominance. Last year, only one team in MLB’s bottom six payrolls, the Cleveland Guardians, made the (newly expanded) playoffs. The Guardians lost in the division series to the New York Yankees. In 2021, only the Rays pulled it off. In 2019, the Rays and A’s both made the playoffs with bottom-six payrolls. Neither made it past the division series.

In fact, no team with a payroll in MLB’s bottom six has advanced to a league championship series after a full 162-game season in more than a decade. (The Rays made it to the World Series in 2020 after just 60 regular season games).

Winning for half a season requires bursts of exceptional talent. Winning over the long haul requires making trades to bring in necessary reinforcements, building organizational depth to sustain the rigors of a long second half and longer postseason. So unsurprisingly, Manfred was also not urging any kind of referendum.

“Look, I pay attention to what’s going on out there, but I do think it’s important to remember we’re talking about part of a season. I’m not quite sure as to how things are going to play out,” Manfred said. “One season, I’m not sure that it fundamentally alters that fans in certain markets feel that disparity remains an issue in terms of how competitive teams can be and how long teams in that type of market can keep their teams together.”

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But, Manfred added, he is “thrilled” to see teams such as the Reds and Orioles in contention.

“Does it wash away every concern I have?” Manfred said. “No. But it’s a great thing.”

Indeed, Elly de la Cruz and the upstart Reds have electrified Cincinnati, filling a ballpark that hadn’t seen regular crowds of 30,000-plus in years. From the time the Orioles called up Adley Rutschman last summer, they have revitalized Baltimore’s baseball fan base, offering a new generation of hope to a city that operated for much of the last half decade as if it were simply priced out of the American League East race before it even began. The Rays continue to be the exception to the payroll rule, competing annually, and no team in the American League has more wins.

But it is possible this year remains an outlier. Reds General Manager Nick Krall said recently that he hopes his team is buying at the trade deadline, increasing that payroll because it remains in position to win. The Orioles seem to have the prospect capital to make several big moves at the deadline, to reinforce their roster the way the behemoths to the north (the Yankees, for example) always seem to do. The Rays always seem to win a trade or two each summer. The question, perhaps, will be how much everyone else in their divisions chooses to spend to catch them.

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And those large-market disappointments still might catch fire, too. The Mets and Padres bought themselves one of the oldest rosters in the game. For the Mets, that age has shown itself so far. But they also bought themselves some of the best pitchers of the era, a veteran lineup that has underachieved and all the pieces of what they thought would be a winning team. Perhaps it will still become one; perhaps the spending still will pay off. The same may be true for the Padres, who seem to have far too much talent to struggle as they have, with their big investments failing to yield big results.

The Angels are the only team in the league’s top six payrolls that might not recover; they might have too many problems to patch with a few expensive deadline saviors. They might, as a result, decide that trading Shohei Ohtani four months before he becomes a free agent is the only way to guarantee any return on their investment in him — at least before some other team decides to invest what probably will be half a billion dollars in Ohtani moving forward. And in that pursuit, payroll disparity almost certainly will strike again.

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