The MLB’s Checkbook Champions

Greg Kaufmann ’19
EE Contributor

The Boston Red Sox have the highest payroll in Major League Baseball.

As October approaches, the MLB playoff hunt thickens, and champagne bottles pop as the league’s most deserving teams punch their tickets to the postseason. To achieve this feat, each contending team has a talent-filled roster with some of the league’s highest paid stars, thus creating massive team payrolls for contenders that are well over the league’s median. The correlation between the league’s top clubs and the highest payrolls is extremely strong, and it begs the question: Is a high payroll in the MLB worth it? And how can low-budget, small-market teams compete with the deep pockets of teams like New York, Boston and Los Angeles?

Frankly, it’s worth it to pay the big bucks, as according to Sportrac.com, nine out of the league’s fifteen teams above the $141 million median salary are teams in the playoff hunt. Undoubtedly, winning does not come without a price. The impact of high salaries on the team’s success is clear, as the league’s best team, a 103 win and 47 loss Boston Red Sox team, boasts both the league’s most impressive record and highest payroll, at $228,333,860. With this salary, the Red Sox have made a statement about the justification of paying anything to win. The Red Sox have splashed on expensive free agents in order to capitalize on a talented, young core of players before they too demand outrageous salaries. Other top performing and top payroll teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers, Houston Astros, and New York Yankees, to go along with the Sox, are not hard to find. The MLB’s group of winners is also the group with the deepest pockets.

With top payroll teams dominating the standings and having the most success, few small-market teams can compete. According to Spotrac.com, only three teams currently in the 2018 playoff hunt are under the league’s $141 million dollar median payroll, with the Oakland Athletics at $80,315,288, the Atlanta Braves at $130,080,653, and the Milwaukee Brewers at $107,132,016 to round out the MLB’s group of outliers. These teams are finding cheap success, as their rosters are filled with the best young talent and some of the league’s greatest potential stars. For example, the Braves’ rookie Ronald Acuña Jr. and the Brewers’ young stud Christian Yelich are each respectively destined for huge contracts at some points in their careers. Luckily, these teams are harnessing that talent before needing to open their checkbooks.

Consequently, payrolls around the league play a huge role in team success, and the new trend this season in Major League Baseball is that without the ability to sign and retain stars, thus adding to your payroll, you will not be able to compete or win. The outdated model of sabermetrics, in which general managers build teams primarily around statistics and data, spending only on low- salary players that fit the teams statististical needs in an attempt to build winning clubs while keeping payrolls low, has expired. This puts immense pressure on owners, front office officials, and team strategies to build rosters by primarily acquiring expensive super stars to bolster lineups, and only signing cheap statistically strong players to fill small holes in already-expensive, winning clubs. This new money-first league norm has forced teams to spend more in the hopes of creating revenue through winning, while moving away from a predominantly sabermetrics-focused league format. This leaves team success, revenue, and profit almost entirely in the hands of the checkbook and the team’s payroll.

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