Former New York Jets head coach Herm Edwards famously went on a press conference rant uttering the phrase “you play to win the game”. In Major League Baseball however, there’s an extra caveat to that statement, as it is often that teams pay to win the game.
With free agency in full swing, there are a number of teams making typical waves as big spenders, with other small market franchises just trying to put a single gift under the tree this year. This is a cycle that fans of these small market teams have grown accustomed to over the years, as the teams with the highest payroll, typically come out on top.
Pirates’ outfielder Bryan Reynolds has found himself in the middle of this holiday shopping offseason, as he has requested a trade from the club. The New York Yankees have expressed a lot of interest in adding Reynolds to bolster an already strong, well-paid roster. Pittsburgh is looking for a lofty return on the All-Star left fielder, making it very difficult to find a trade partner.
At this point, that is all just a rumor, but a strong one. Realistically, the Yankees can afford any outfielder they want at this point, while the Pirates should be happy that they are even in this conversation to begin with, as they are certainly not ahead in the race for a World Series.
The Yankees have not been the only team that has made a big splash in free agency this year, as the Mets have had a historic spree of signings, yielding what will be the highest payroll in baseball next year. The Mets have committed $806.1 million overall to nine free agents this offseason, with their total payroll this upcoming season hovering around $495 million.
The previous highest payroll in baseball was less than $350 million, and now with Steve Cohen and company at nearly half a billion, this is a lot to contend with for teams in the top 10, let alone what the bottom dwellers of the league are going to have to deal with.
The projected league average payroll in 2023 will be around $111 million, with the top ten highest spending teams over $150 million. The bottom five teams in the league won’t even break $50 million.
In the 2022 season, the final standings almost directly mirrored the top paid teams at the end of the season. Six of the top ten teams in baseball were also in the top ten for highest payroll, with Philadelphia being a close eleventh in standings and fourth in payroll. Five of the bottom ten teams also ranked near last for payroll.
Now obviously high payroll does not always guarantee high results. The Red Sox had the sixth highest payroll this past year and still finished middle of the road, while Seattle finished in the top ten with a below average payroll. Probably the most famous example of this was the 2002 Oakland Athletics team that relied heavily on analytics and briefly popularized “Moneyball”. The A’s would finish as the second best team in the MLB with the third lowest payroll.
With all of that being said, Steve Cohen may be ushering everyone into a new even more dramatic version of pay-to-win baseball. In an adapt or die sport, it’s only a matter of time before the rest of the league cannot keep up with the typical way of building a team. Cohen has been described as a dream come true for fans and a nightmare for other MLB owners.
Pay to win however, does not exactly fit into Pittsburgh’s vocabulary. The franchise certainly does not posses the same kind of power as either of the clubs in New York or other big market teams like Los Angeles, Chicago or even fellow state resident Philadelphia. The fact of the matter is that the Pirates are just not big spenders, and it has certainly cost them in the past.
The Pirates posted a North American sports record of 20 losing seasons starting in the early ‘90s after not being able to retain the young star players that they had, losing players like Bobby Bonilla and Barry Bonds to big market teams in free agency. In more recent memory, Pittsburgh has lost or traded away several talented players to bigger market teams who could afford a luxury like Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte or Gerrit Cole. Bryan Reynolds could become just the latest of this list of stars to move on from Pittsburgh and find another club willing to pay what he believes he is worth.
The way the league is structured heading into 2023 and high end teams being able to buy players seemingly at will like they’re stocks on Wallstreet will leave teams like Oakland, Kansas City and Pittsburgh in the dust, as clubs like the Mets, Yankees and Phillies enjoy the fruits of their “labor” and look to finish at the top of the league next year.