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RandBall: How much does payroll matter in baseball?

  • Blog Post by: Michael Rand
  • October 11, 2013 - 9:31 AM

We're down to the final four teams in baseball -- the Dodgers, Red Sox, Tigers and Cardinals. Three of them have payrolls among the top five in baseball. The other, St. Louis, is No. 11.

Last year, it was the Yankees, Giants, Cardinals and Tigers left standing. All of them were in the top 9.

But there were four teams who made it into the postseason this year with payrolls ranked No. 20 or lower -- all below $80 million, the approximate amount of the Twins' payroll this season.

Last year, five teams ranked 16th or lower in payroll made it.

So how much does payroll matter?

Well, those small sample sizes seem to suggest what is probably a greater truth: you can compete, win 90 games and make it to the postseason -- particularly with the extra wild card added -- by spending wisely and thriftily, but once you wind up going head to head against big spenders in the playoffs, your odds shrink because their margin for error grows.

The perfect example has come in ALDS Game 5s in consecutive seasons between the Tigers and A's. Justin Verlander, making $20 million in each of 2012 and 2013 and as much as $28 million in future seasons, shut down Oakland both times. The A's -- 29th in payroll last year and 27th this year -- have good pitching, but they can't afford to keep someone as dominant as Verlander. The Tigers, No. 5 in payroll each of the last two seasons, can. As a result, they have a better chance of moving on in a winner-takes-all series finale.

This is all a windup for a brief discussion of the Twins. Again, they spent about $80 million this past season. Logic says they might bump that up a little next season as they try to return to relevance. Could they make a surprising run to the postseason in 2014? Well, consider Cleveland.

The Indians lost 94 games in 2012, the third time in four seasons they had dropped at least 90 games.

But this year, starting pitchers Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez outperformed previous seasons and reclamation project Scott Kazmir was a major addition to the rotation. The offense didn’t do anything crazy, but pickups like Nick Swisher and Ryan Raburn took an offense that was 13th in runs scored in the AL in 2012 to 5th in 2013.

It added up to a 24-victory leap and a playoff berth, even though the Indians had a payroll of around $80 million, just like the Twins did this season.

The Twins will have money to spend in the offseason. They have more holes than Cleveland did, but some of fixing this team is a matter of how smart they are in spending it – and whether it can make them relevant or at least adequate in 2014.

But is being like Cleveland -- which made it to the postseason but was bounced right away in the one-game Wild Card playoff -- the end-game ceiling for a mid-to-low payroll team? That was generally the routine even during the Twins' glory days under Ron Gardenhire.

Well, 12 of the last 18 World Series winners have had payrolls in the top 10 of baseball, and it will be 13 of 19 after this year unless the Cardinals win. And 17 of the past 18 winners have had payrolls at least in the top half of baseball.

In a market where we pine for the good old days of the Glen Mason-coached Gophers and Flip Saunders-coached Timberwolves that we once lamented, being in the postseason beats the alternative. But if the Twins do ever get back there -- even as soon as 2014, to the surprise of many -- don't fool yourself. Payroll matters a little during the regular season. It matters a lot in the playoffs.

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