When clubs bust open their piggybank for player payroll it is
almost always done based on where they are in the cycle.
Let’s cut to the chase: Not every club in Major League Baseball can be the Yankees. In other words, expecting your club to spend like they won the lottery year in and year out is unrealistic. Either they don’t have the sustainable revenue streams to keep it up, or, the club’s ownership isn’t willing to sink high percentages of their revenues back into player payroll every single year; some times, they look to make more profits.
The other aspect as to why clubs make moves in some years, and not in others has to do with how the roster is developing. There’s an art to being able to see how your prospects are developing, having your revenues be strong, and having the key free agent players you need to fill holes on roster be available in the FA cycle. That isn't going to occur every single year, so expecting your team to be a player in the free agent sweepstakes every single year isn't realistic, either.
A good example might be the Seattle Mariners this off-season. Revenues have been strong for the club since moving into Safeco Field, but with a string of losing years, attendance has dropped, and with that, revenues have waned. In a move to right the situation, the club fired GM Bill Bavasi and brought in former Brewers scouting director, Jack Zduriencik, and he has quickly undone some of the poor deals that Bavasi made since coming onboard.
Zduriencik, with backing from president Chuck Armstrong and ownership, have been highly active this off-season. To credit the Mariners, they’ve pulled off a savvy move in a blockbuster trade (the Cliff Lee deal), spent in free agency (Chone Figgins), and picked the Cubs pocket (trading Carlos Silva for Milton Bradley).
This is the “cycle game”; a point where a club can see that they are out of “rebuilding” and believe they are on the cusp of making a playoff run. Standing back and looking at where you are in the cycle will determine how aggressive the club will spend and trade.
When you think about it, this makes perfect sense. Throwing money at free agents when you don’t have the parts to support those players is flushing cash down the toilet. Rarely does one or two signings change the course of a poor team. As mentioned, nearly every club can’t be the Yankees where you can spend lavishly in the free agency to plug multiple holes. You have to pick and choose when you can do so.
Since there is a lot of talk about “the good old days” – the days when many believe there was better parity in the league – here’s some player salary figures to chew on:
- When the Toronto Blue Jays won back-to-back World Series, they had the highest player payroll in AL East, and in all of MLB for one of those years. In ’92, they had the third highest Opening Day payroll in the league ($43,663,666), behind only the Dodgers ($43,788,166), and Mets ($44,352,002). The Yankees, at that time, ranked 6th in the league ($35,966,834), while the Red Sox ranked 4th ($42,203,584). In ‘93 the Jays had the highest Opening Day player payroll in the league ($45,747,666). Who was second? The Reds ($42,851,167), followed by the Yankees ($41,305,000), and the Royals ($40,102,666).
- The last years that the Baltimore Orioles were in the playoffs was 1996-’97. In ‘96, the club had the second highest player payroll in all of the league ($48,726,832) behind only the Yankees ($52,189,370). In ’97, it was the same (Orioles 2nd with $54,871,399 behind only the Yankees at $59,148,877).
- When the Royals won the World Series in 1985, they had the 9th highest payroll in all of MLB, highest in the AL Central, and fourth highest in all of the AL ($11,754,512).
- Most recently in the “cycle game” the Tigers posted the 5th highest Opening Day payroll in the league this past season ($115,085,145), while being 3rd in 2008 ($137,685,196). By comparison, in 2005 they were ranked 15th, and a decade ago, were ranked 22nd.
What Changed From Now to Then?
Picking and choosing when to spend is a large part of the equation, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t say there has been some fundamental changes in the way money flows in and out of coffers. Back “in the day” local revenues were almost all tied to the gate, and local television was just that, “local”. Now, there are massive revenues pulled in from regional sports networks, especially for big market clubs such as the Yankees and the Red Sox. There is more centralized funds to go around via lucrative national television deals on multiple platforms (cable and satellite are new players) compared to almost all being over-the-air deals in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Finally, revenue-sharing and the wild card have allowed mid-to-small revenue making clubs to pull back from making a splash via total player payroll spending, realizing that they can get their foot in the door to the playoffs without having to win the pennant. And, of course, with steady revenues from centralized sources, owners have lived more comfortably; there’s less stress on “we have to win, or we’ll bleed red” than in years past.
All that said, owners, for the most part, want to win. Profit? Yes, but if owners wanted to make money, they wouldn’t be involved in MLB. There’s better fish to fry out there in other sectors besides sports where there’s better predictability. With that owners will always be wanting to say that they were the ones that brought a World Series Championship to the club. Many times that includes a good helping of “bought” a World Series Championship. As history shows, before the advent of the wild card (and even since that) as the Nirvana song goes, you have to pay to play.
Maury Brown is the Founder and President of the Business of Sports Network, which includes The Biz of Baseball, The Biz of Football, The Biz of Basketball and The Biz of Hockey. He is available for hire or freelance. Brown's full bio is here. He looks forward to your comments via email and can be contacted through the Business of Sports Network.
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