A sterling factoid brilliantly illustrating the current state of baseball affairs is this little nugget culled from the madness rampant in the turbulent American League East: Over the last five seasons (2008-2012), during which the New York Yankees and Tampa Rays have been slugging it out year after year, the Yankees have won a grand total of 21 more games than the Rays. But it has cost them in player salaries alone a tidy $560 million more than what the Rays expended in payroll those years. In other words, each of those 21 wins accounting for the precise difference between the two clubs over five full seasons cost New York roughly $26.7 million, or more than this season’s entire payroll for the Houston Astros.
You turn this over in your mind again and again and it becomes more and more staggering.
For sure, the Yankees did achieve a little more by spending so much more. They made the playoffs one more time and won a World Series, their only one in the last dozen seasons, it is worth noting. In that span, Tampa also reached a World Series where they lost to the Phillies, another opponent that yearns to pay players much too much.
But here's the question. Was that margin of difference in the overall accomplishments of the Rays and Yanks over that five-year span worth well more than one half of a billion bucks?
That the erstwhile Bombers excel at parlaying greater expenditures into even greater profits is axiomatic. But is there no limit? Look at it another way. That $560 million differential was greater than the total payroll of nearly three quarters of all the other teams in baseball during that same span.
All of which is another glittering example of the Yankees' consistently wanton and sometimes preposterous spending excesses stretching back over the last couple of generations, with roots placed way back in the good old days. For the Bronx Bombers, it's a matter of style, an element of their personality that got absurdly out of control as the millennium loomed, then became a deep malaise from which they now suffer acutely while simultaneously striving to mend their ridiculous ways.
But it's also a glittering example of the masterful way the intensely prudent Rays have been owned and operated. No team in either league has done it better in recent years.
Stunning in its contrast, this is a classic struggle between two determined philosophies, each largely shaped by circumstance and necessity. Until recently there was little doubt about which philosophy was likely to prevail. It was all about “the money.” If you had it, your advantage was huge, and if you didn't, your resentment was greater. It was the heyday of the spendthrifts, a situation not as “evil” as some impertinently branded it – amidst traces of their own hypocrisy – but hardly ideal.
To be sure, the occasional small-market pushover would rear dramatically as the Rays did in '08 and the Marlins did earlier over in the NL. For years, the Minnesota Twins stayed in the hunt mainly with mirrors, and with his clever wiles, Billy Beane made himself a contemporary legend by keeping the Oakland A's competitive with a shoestring budget and a bag of tricks. It's been gallant and Beane deserves most of the credit he gets. But he's never really come close to winning anything. For years, the have-nots got little sympathy.
Which brings us to the oddball season of 2013 when topsy-turvy is in and conventional wisdom is out as the old order changeth. Suddenly, the burdens of goofy spending are being recognized while the virtues of thrift are being glorified. It's such a remarkable twist.
Consider the current readings as we approach this season's halfway mark.
The off-season's two heaviest spenders – both happily from Los Angeles – are around 10 games off the top, 10 under .500, and flirting with ruin. Toronto, right behind them in this winter's money wars, has lately awakened but remains in the cellar. Those mightiest spenders of all time, from the Bronx, are gradually and painfully losing a gutsy struggle to stay afloat with castoffs. Boasting the NL's 2nd highest payroll, the Phillies sputter. With the NL's 3rd highest, the Giants struggle. Of baseball's top 10 payrolls, only two currently lead a division; Detroit's and Boston's.
Interestingly, precisely half of MLB's 30 teams have payrolls of less than $100 million and about 10 of them are termed “small-market teams,” although I have trouble considering the likes of Miami, San Diego, or even Seattle to be genuine “small-markets” other than in terms of competence.
In this season of cool upheaval, nine of them so far appear to be well on the rise and two – the A's and Diamondbacks – lead divisions dominated by big-bucks behemoths. Billy Beane continues to weave his legerdemain. Does this mean we can soon delight in the Pirates meeting the Padres and the A's jousting the Rays to determine who graces a World Series? Maybe not, but currently all four are decided contenders while the Dodgers, Phils, Angels, and Blue Jays are not; at least not yet. How can you not like that?
Vaguely, there's the notion the Red Sox have greatly pared their payroll and gone low-budget. But that’s far from the case. With a 2013 payroll of $154,630,500, your town team is second only to you-know-who in the AL while leading the Tigers by six million and the much-maligned Angels by sixteen.
The divine intervention of the baseball gods combined with the Dodgers' sheer stupidity to shed $58 million from the Red Sox books just last summer. But like all true compulsive shoppers, Boston swiftly loaded right back up with feverish glee.
Apparently, the perception persists that the depths of talent of the new-look Red Sox is not commensurate with such a hefty payroll. To which Boston, obviously, can point to the standings. But will that last? Many are doubtful. Whatever the case, the Red Sox remain piggy-spenders.
As do, quite certainly, their ancient adversaries. Despite frantic efforts the last two years to retrench, the Yankees now have a higher payroll than they bore when they launched their alleged austerity program. To their monumental frustration, they have an $11 million lead over the Dodgers in the dubious race for MLB spending honors. A swift retrenching is impossible for them because those hideous long-term deals they've so smartly chained themselves to only swell as time goes by, even as the holders of them relentlessly diminish. It's Baseball's ultimate paradox.
Injuries – as all the world knows – have croaked them, and also made a joke of their historic payroll. Currently, they have talent they are paying $100,078,475 languishing on the disabled list. That's more than the total payroll being carried by 15 other teams this season. And none of their sidelined players is close to getting liberated from the DL. As ironies go, this one is truly monumental.
There are those who argue it's unfair or unlucky for a team to lose high priced-stars to injury. But it's only inevitable. The problem with all obscene contracts is that players don't land them until they are well into their prime, so they invariably pay off when the players are steep into their decline.
Admirable though he was as a player, Derek Jeter's ultimate meltdown was perfectly logical. On the other hand, the fiasco of the bone-headed A-Rod was quite another matter. But you also have to expect that stuff like that will happen.
As never before, such perils are being recognized and factored into the planning of every team. Good luck to Robbie Cano as he plots a historic contract on the epic scales of an A-Rod deal. Methinks that day's over. And good-riddance, says I.