In October, Major League Baseball likes to keep the focus on the teams striving to win the World Series.
Good luck with that this year.
With three teams that spent massive sums of money over the past year — the Mets, Padres, and Yankees ponied up $1.8 billion combined — missing the postseason, their absence is a story unto itself.
So is the presence of four playoff teams from the bottom third of payroll rankings.
There are other story lines swirling while the playoffs take place: the quiet formation of an owners “economic reform committee”; the guessing game on how many hundreds of millions it will take to land free agent Shohei Ohtani; the fact that attendance and viewership are up while the regional sports network model is broken; franchise relocation and stadium developments, with expansion on the horizon.
And we’re only 38 months away from the next collective bargaining agreement battle.
Success on the diamond can never be extracted from the game’s economic landscape.
With a lack of compelling data suggesting a strong and consistent correlation between payroll size and wins, the DNA of baseball economics insists that owners and players engage in a constant squabble over how and if rising salaries and revenue disparities influence performance.
“[The union] will say, ‘I don’t know what you’re complaining about, there are teams that lose 100 games every year, there are teams that win 100 games every year,’ ” said David Samson, president of the Marlins from 2002-17 and host of the “Nothing Personal with David Samson” podcast.
“But that’s not what owners are bargaining for. They want all 30 teams to be able to say when the season starts that they’ve got hope. They want to be able to say to their market, ‘We’ve got a chance.’
“And right now, with the revenue disparity, with the payroll disparity, it’s really hard for 30 teams to do that, and that hurts your local market.”
To subscribers of that view, that’s where the economic reform committee comes in.
A six-owner committee that includes the Red Sox’ John Henry (who also owns the Globe) is working with the commissioner’s office and without players to explore ideas on how to revise an economic system that the owners don’t especially love in a way that can be implemented in the next CBA.
Perhaps that results in innovative reforms in areas both players and owners understand as troublesome, such as service-time manipulation that keeps younger players from being paid salaries commensurate with their production.
Perhaps it also results in proposals that would trigger instant loathing from players, such as a move toward a salary cap.
Samson expects the committee to “have suggestions for the owners as they go forward into the next round of bargaining as to how to squeeze the upper and the lower so that payrolls are closer.
“But the interesting part about it is that the way to do that is with a salary cap and the union doesn’t want that, of course. The other way to do it is with a salary floor, and the owners don’t want to do that because floors come with tops and tops come with floors. You can’t have one without the other.”
Perhaps another reason for the committee’s existence is to offer commissioner Rob Manfred an avenue to keep owners aligned.
“If owners are fighting among themselves, it makes it very hard to fight together against the union,” said Samson. “And right now there are a lot of owners angry over what [Mets owner] Steve Cohen is doing and over what Peter Seidler is doing in San Diego.
“These owners are upset because those teams are losing a lot of money and their payrolls are so unreasonably high that it makes them look bad in their markets.
“This committee is beginning the process to get to a place where all the owners can be on the same side of all these issues, so then they can start bargaining with the union.”
Make no mistake, preparations for the next talks on a CBA — the current one expires at 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 1, 2026 — have begun on both sides. And that’s relevant to who made the playoffs this year and who’s trying to get back in next year and the next.
“The biggest problem is that not enough owners actually stick to a plan because it can be hard and you have to go through a lot of losing in order to get to winning,” said Samson.
“Owners do change their view of a plan because they all suffered tremendously, as I did, from ‘recency bias’ — where they remember what happened in the past season, and they either don’t want to feel that way again or they do want to feel that way again and they tell their GM, ‘make it change’ or ‘make it stay the same.’ ”
That the Mets, Padres, and Yankees fell on their competitive faces while the low- to lower-mid-spending Orioles, Rays, Diamondbacks, and Brewers made it to October gives the majority of owners who were aghast at the Mets’ and Padres’ spending a small measure of pleasure.
It’s still too early to say whether teams this winter — with Ohtani and an otherwise lackluster field — will rein in spending or wind up topping last year’s record $3.7 billion spent on free agents.
The rise in mega-contracts of 10 or more years — 15 and counting, ranging between Wander Franco’s $182 million and Mike Trout’s $425.5 million — scares some owners, while others reluctantly try to rationalize the length as the cost of business within an economic system where average annual salaries are used to determine payroll threshold taxes.
MLB revenue reached a record $10.4 billion in 2022, with franchise valuations rising 12 percent on average, according to Forbes. Further growth is expected this year, even with uncertainty about RSNs clouding the picture. Even in October, all these jaw-dropping dollar figures will keep popping up.
Nobody knows yet who’s going to win it all this year.
And nobody in baseball has a firm grasp on what it costs to win at all.
Michael Silverman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.