While unprecedented sums of money are flowing through the game, the value of it to baseball teams — at least to their ultimate success or failure — appears to be less significant than ever.
The 2015 Dodgers became the first team to spend more than $300 million on player salaries. Yet that incredible mountain of cash — more than $100 million more than any team except the Yankees has ever spent on payroll — ultimately netted little but disappointment for a team that fell on Thursday in the decisive Game 5 of the National League Division Series to the Mets. Bill Plaschke of the L.A. Times writes that a $300 million payroll wasn’t enough to buy success for the Dodgers.
Yet the Dodgers are far from isolated in seeing huge commitments that netted unimpressive returns. According to this USA Today list of salary commitments (which doesn’t include elements such as the tens of millions of dollars spent by the Dodgers to subsidize players whom they traded elsewhere or certain elements of luxury tax payroll calculations), the Yankees and Dodgers were the only two of the top seven payrolls that reached the postseason at all; among the top 11 payrolls, just three teams (Yankees, Dodgers, Rangers) made the postseason.
The Dodgers and Yankees didn’t spend those sorts of sums with the thought that a first-round exit from the postseason represented a fulfilling outcome. That said, given the history of teams with immense payrolls, a first-round exit shouldn’t come as a shock for a team with a fat wallet.
In baseball history, there have been 14 teams that had payrolls of $200 million or more — with the Yankees (11 straight years) and Dodgers (3 straight years) comprising all of them. Of those, just one — the 2009 Yankees — has won the World Series. The number of titles produced by $200 million teams, then, falls short of the number of teams to hit such payroll heights while missing the playoffs altogether (3: The 2008, 2013, and 2014 Yankees).
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Of course, the Red Sox easily could have produced a fifth team to miss the postseason with a $200 million payroll, but their struggles permitted them to retreat from that anticipated plateau with salary dumps of players such as Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino and the removal from the 40-man roster of Justin Masterson and Allen Craig.
The question, of course, is why. The best answer may be supplied by that 2009 Yankees team that won the World Series.
Why do teams get into a place where their payrolls are so high? Because they’re typically paying players who have put in several years of big league service time to arrive at a point where they’d be free agent eligible — a time when they’ll be paid more than at any other point in their careers based on their past performances despite the likelihood of diminishing future returns. An enormous payroll, then, is often an indicator of a team loaded with players who either have begun or are close to beginning their declines.
That 2009 Yankees team won because it complemented a group of high-priced veterans — Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, and Andy Pettitte among them — with an ensemble of incredibly expensive free agents (CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, A.J. Burnett). That group coalesced in impressive fashion for a year, but the subsequent years witnessed a steady decline of once-elite players whose contracts soon became iceberg-sized obstacles.
Increasingly, the value of money in baseball is that it permits teams to retain top homegrown talents through their prime years (while buying out the early years of free agency) or signing elite amateur talent well before their primes (hence the Sox’ $31.5 million in Yoan Moncada). While huge operating revenues such as those experienced by the Dodgers and Yankees and Red Sox permit teams to play in the free agent market, the benefits of the long-term payoff of that freedom haven’t been apparent for teams that forged megapayrolls.