In mid-May, the baseball season is far, far from over, but we’ve also logged enough games to have a sense of which teams are competitive and which teams are not. This season in particular there are several ball clubs that stand out because they are not competitive. Specifically, the Dodgers, the Angels and the Blue Jays are struggling to win, after entering the season with high expectations. The teams are 14-21, 14-22 and 14-24 respectively. Of the three, the Dodgers stand out as the most egregious failures. Only the Yankees will spend more this season. A team doesn’t take its payroll above $200 million to finish last. The Angels are only moderately better. Over the past two seasons they’ve added Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton at exorbitant cost only to watch them struggle. Of the three the Blue Jays aren’t quite as profligate spenders, but they too made some ill-advised, splashy moves this offseason only to watch them backfire.
The big surprise is that these mistakes have been made at all. At this juncture of the game, Baseball has already seen just about every financial mistake a team can make. The Alex Rodriguez contract should have been a warning not to sign Albert Pujols to a mega-mega-deal when he was clearly in decline. Jose Reyes‘ own history of injuries should have been a warning not to trade for him. The entire history of the players the Dodgers added should have been warning not make those moves. Despite this, these teams went ahead and made these moves anyway, confusing splashy moves for smart moves.
These kinds of stories should be all too familiar to Yankee fans. Throughout the entire Steinbrenner era the Yankees have led the way in both smart and dumb financial baseball moves. As a result, the team’s history should be a model for what other ball clubs should and should not do. Most recently, the teams from 2004 – 2008 serve as stark reminders that it takes more than just buckets of cash to put together a winning baseball team (it doesn’t hurt either, but it takes more). Granted, those teams were more successful than any of the above teams are likely to be this season, but they weren’t built to last. Even the 2009 Yankees, an unquestioned success, should serve as a caution about throwing around big paydays as though there are no consequences. Of the three major additions the Yankees made prior to that season, only CC Sabathia has been an definite success, while Mark Teixeira is no longer the player he was before joining the Yankees and A.J. Burnett is off the team. The big contracts got the Yankees a World Series (thank you very much) but they also showed that success is not guaranteed over the life of a contract, especially for aging players in the post-steroids game.
Meanwhile, there are small market clubs that consistently show the trick to being competitive is spending smartly, not more. Tampa Bay, Oakland and Baltimore are all examples. Not one of those teams has a payroll above $100 million and every one of them is at least a .500 ball club with the potential to compete down the stretch.
The Yankees themselves serve as another example. The Yankees have remained competitive these past few seasons despite the mammoth contracts that make up the teams bloated payroll. The Yankees will pay Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira almost as much money as the entire Houston and Miami ball clubs combined this season, and neither one has played a game. It’s safe to say those guys and their big contracts are not the reason the Yankees have succeeded this year. Instead, the Yankees are playing well because they have deep starting pitching, something they’ve drafted for many years, and have gotten surprising performance from veterans Vernon Wells and Travis Hafner, players who continue the team’s recent trend of being able to identify affordable, older talent that can beat expectations.
None of this is to say that it hurts to have money. It always helps, but the cash has to be spent wisely. The Derek Jeter and Miguel Cabrera contracts are excellent examples of money well spent. Players who represent more affordable, but equally smart investments for the Yankees over the past few seasons are Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher, players the Yankees picked up when their contracts were becoming too expensive for other teams, but not too costly for the Bombers. But the Yankees remain an example that money spent foolishly can become a curse quickly. Just ask the Blue Jays how they felt about Vernon Wells.
It takes more than money to put together a winning team in today’s MLB. Money will always give a team an advantage, but it in no way guarantees victory. There are teams that consistently win without money, just as there are teams that consistently win with money (I blog about one of them). The true recipe is using resources wisely. This model has been shown to work again and again. Despite that, many of the wealthiest teams don’t follow that model. This season there are three prime examples of teams confusing big name spending for smart spending, and not a one has a winning record to show for it. One day all the teams with the capacity to spend big will understand that it takes more than that to put together a winning team, but that day has not yet come. If anything, the Angels who went from over paying for Albert Pujols to over paying for Josh Hamilton are a reminder that some clubs will never learn.