To the surprise of no one, the Los Angeles Dodgers ($265 million) and New York Yankees ($225 million) wound up with the two largest payrolls in Major League Baseball in 2017- just as they had each of the last five seasons. Or, perhaps there are some surprised about the Yankees as the constant refrain of how they are rebuilding was uttered throughout the postseason. Thankfully, the Houston Astros were able to send them home by defeating the Yankees despite facing two elimination games during the ALCS.
In recent years, MLB has been blessed with a World Series featuring many different teams from many different market sizes. The Kansas City Royals winning the AL pennant twice and the World Series once demonstrate a lower payroll team does have an opportunity. The Cleveland Indians competitiveness the last two seasons has continued the overall theme that the random variance of a small sample size in October gives hope to teams that can compete within their division.
A looming threat for MLB though will continue in future seasons as a Dodgers versus Yankees World Series would highlight the true discrepancy between the haves and the have nots. The Dodgers had $48 million in dead money1 , $23 million on the disable list, and another $40 million between Andre Either and Adrian Gonzalez sitting at the end of their bench. All told, the $111 million in “unused” payroll well-exceeded anything the Indians have put together in total team payroll before the 2016 season.2
There is a growing desire in the media to utilize this information to paint a narrative that money was not a major factor in helping the Dodgers to a World Series- to claim this appearance has not been “bought.” It is worth noting here the Dodgers make $332 million each season through their cable television deal. The Yankees own the YES! Network so financials are not disclosed, but it is suspected they make even more per year given the popularity of the team and the bigger coverage area of the YES! market. Meanwhile, smaller market teams such as the Indians bank $40 million in their cable deals, which is only a fraction of their payrolls.
Looking forward to some Very Bad Takes about payrolls. Clearly, LA ueled by Gonzalez ($22m), Crawford (22), Kazmir (18), Ethier (17.5)…
— Mike Petriello (@mike_petriello) October 20, 2017
CBS Sport’s Jonah Keri does well to walk through many of the details on the Dodgers roster creation though he glosses over the advantages the money comes from in order to highlight the importance of still spending the money wisely- alongside receiving some good fortune on some players hitting who were not expected to do so. Please do read the full article, but his thesis can be summed up as follows:
If the Dodgers win four more games to win that elusive World Series, we might hear lamenting that only big-money teams can win it all; the yelling could be twice as loud if the Dodgers end up facing the massive-payroll Yankees. But the savviest teams won’t see the enduring lesson of the 2017 season as outspend everyone. Whether those rivals push $200 million or $80 million with their own bucket of contracts, they’ll seize on a much more useful takeaway: Sweat the small details. Because when the stakes are highest, those small details can make a huge difference.
The point is well taken. The Dodgers taking on $250 million in contracts from the Boston Red Sox because they had a fascination of acquiring Adrian Gonzalez in 2012 was not an intelligent move and is the main reason they have so much of their payroll not contributing. If the Dodgers had continued making such moves, then they would not be a dominant force in baseball. The team has incorporated small market ingenuity in both the player development and data analytic departments and coupled it with the big market payroll.
However, the Dodgers will continue to have opportunities a small market team cannot. Stars developed in the system can be signed to $35 million per year contracts such as the one Clayton Kershaw holds. Teams like the Indians can sign a Scott Kazmir to a flier contract in the hopes he can rebound his career. If he is successful, then a team like the Dodgers will swoop in and offer him $17 million per year. Should Kazmir find himself on the disabled list, a team like the Dodgers can go to the trade market and acquire Yu Darvish. They can give a 37 year old Rich Hill $50 million over three seasons to fill out the backend of their rotation. Oh, and they can spend more than anyone on Cuban-import Yasiel Puig alongside most every other international signee they desire to stock their farm system with enough prospects to out bid teams on the trade market too. As such, a team like the Indians can hope to hold a contention window open a few seasons, while a team like the Dodgers knows they will be in the postseason most every year.
The Dodgers- and, yes, the Yankees- deserve the praise and acclaim they are afforded. They have built fantastic baseball teams and amazing farm systems built within the construct of the MLB system. They have incorporated large-scale data analytics to help determine the best bets of players continuing future success along with finer detail approaches and strategies used for in-game strategy. Just don’t fall for the narrative that these teams are not buying championships.