As the Twins lurch toward 2014, a big question that has been on fans’ minds is this: how much is the team willing to spend?
Perhaps a better question, though, is this: how much does a team’s payroll matter in baseball these days?
The answer to that question, as so often is the case, depends on how you approach it.
We’re down to the final four teams in the playoffs — 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 nine in payroll.
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 in 2013. Last year, five teams ranked 16th or lower in payroll made it. But of course none of them made the league championship series either year.
What conclusions can we draw from those examples? In general, this: A team can compete, win 90 games and make it to the postseason — particularly with the extra wild card added — by spending wisely and thriftily. But in the playoffs, a matchup of a small payroll team vs. a big spender tends to favor the high payroll team — particularly if their money is wisely invested in pitching.
In ALDS Game 5s in consecutive seasons between the Tigers and A’s. Justin Verlander, making $20 million in each of 2012 and 2013, shut down Oakland both times. The A’s were 29th in payroll last year and 27th this year. Verlander is out of their price range, but he isn’t for the Tigers, No. 5 in payroll each of the past two seasons.
The Twins of 2014 would love to be the Indians of 2013. From 2009-2012, Cleveland lost 90 games three times, including 94 in 2012. But smart acquisitions and improved performances added up to a 24-victory leap and a playoff berth in 2013, even though the Indians had a payroll of around $80 million.
But is being like Cleveland — which made it to the postseason but was bounced right away in the one-game wild-card playoff — the typical ceiling for a mid-to-low payroll team? It is when you consider 12 of the last 18 World Series winners have had payrolls in the top 10.
So if the Twins do ever get back to the postseason — even as soon as 2014, to the surprise of many — think of it this way: Payroll matters a little during the regular season. It can matter a lot in the playoffs.