Bargain Bin: The 10 Cheapest Teams of the Last 10 Years

Hanley Ramirez was the highest-paid player on the ninth-cheapest team. (via Dirk Hansen)

Hanley Ramirez was the highest-paid player on the ninth-cheapest team. (via Dirk Hansen)

Is it even possible to buy a championship anymore? Last year’s World Series champions, the San Francisco Giants, had the third-highest player payroll in the majors, at $178.2 million. That’s a pretty huge investment in a team. But also: the New York Yankees spent $234.4 million on their team last year—the second-largest payroll in the league, and in a wholly different tax bracket than the Giants—and they sat at home in October while the Kansas City Royals ($98.8  million, 18th in the league) and Oakland A’s ($95.9 million, 21st) played on, having handily defeated the Yankees in the Wild Card race.

What does money mean in the major leagues when even the very cheapest teams can—and do—outperform their more luxuriously bankrolled opponents? Last year’s Houston Astros ($53.7 million payroll) and Miami Marlins ($51 million) had payrolls significantly smaller than even the third-cheapest San Diego Padres ($67.5 million). The Marlins finished with 77 wins—even after sustaining a season-ending injury to wunderkind Jose Fernandez—right in line with the 79-win New York Mets, who spent $99.4 million on their team, and the 76-win Cincinnati Reds, who spent $116 million. The Astros won only  70 games—but their AL rival Boston Red Sox won just one more game than that while spending $157.5 million, and their division-rival Texas Rangers finished with an AL-worst 67 wins despite spending $137.6 million.

Last season wasn’t the first that a bargain-basement team outperformed other teams flush with mega-millionaires. After adjusting teams’ Opening Day salaries for inflation (to 2015 dollars), I found the 10 cheapest teams of the last 10 full seasons (2005-2014). These 10 bargain-basement residents won an average of 72.6 games per season. That’s not an excellent mark. But it’s not nearly as bad as I would have thought, either: six or seven teams finish with fewer wins than that each season. For a decade now, spending less than any other team in the majors is far from a guarantee that you will win less than any other team in the majors.

It had to be intimidating for these cheapest of teams, really. Full of minimum-salary dudes whose financial futures were far from guaranteed, on a daily basis they had to face player after player after player who had eight or nine digits comfortably saved up in the bank. And, in the end, these teams didn’t do so poorly. Really, their performance puts an onus on all the teams that do actually finish with a win total in the 60s despite spending something like league average on their players. What’s going on in those organizations?

Here they are, the 10 cheapest teams of the last 10 years. Get ready to spend some time in Florida:

10. 2006 Tampa Bay Devil Rays: 61-101

  • Actual salary: $35.4 million/ Translated salary: $42.24 million
  • Highest-paid player: Aubrey Huff / $6.91 million
  • Players over $1 million: nine
  • Best position player: Carl Crawford / 4.7 WAR / $2.62 million
  • Best Pitcher: Scott Kazmir / 3.7 WAR / $0.37 million

As much as Joe Maddon and Andrew Friedman seemed like overnight successes, this was their first year leading the Rays—excuse me, Devil Rays—and the results were oh so modest. Friedman’s first move, and his biggest move of the winter, was signing Rocco Baldelli to a six-year extension. Oops! What’s not surprising, though, is that the last three years of the deal were all team options, which Tampa Bay would decline after Baldelli’s unfortunately frequent health concerns. (Wonderfully, Baldelli is now the Rays’ first-base coach.)

 Aside from that, though, plenty of seeds were sown for the Rays’ eventual streak of six straight winning seasons (2008-13). Kazmir, Crawford, B.J. Upton, Jason Hammel and James Shields were all kept within the organization for another year of development. Huff’s bloated contract would be traded at the deadline for Ben Zobrist. In June, the team drafted Alex Cobb, Desmond Jennings and Evan Longoria. This is about as productive as a 61-win season could ever be.

9. 2009 Florida Marlins: 87-75

  • Actual salary: $36.8 million / Translated salary: $41.1 million
  • Highest-paid player: Hanley Ramirez / $5.5 million
  • Players over $1 million: 10
  • Best position player: Ramirez / 7.1 WAR
  • Best pitcher: Josh Johnson / 5.5 WAR / $1.4 million

The more things change, the more things stay the same: Jeffrey Loria is repeatedly responsible for many of the least expensive teams in recent memory. If Giancarlo Stanton has any questions about how his ultra-extension with the team will work out, maybe he should look to Ramirez’s past for hints. This was the first year of a six-year/$70 million extension for Ramirez that ended just last fall. It was a few years before the Marlins traded him to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the middle of the 2012 season, when Hanley’s annual salary jumped from $11 million to $15 million. Back here in 2009, though, the Marlins got the league’s ninth-most WAR from a player earning a very modest $5.5 million.

But hey, this was a good team! Things were a little top-heavy: behind Johnson (5.5 WAR) and Ricky Nolasco (4.0 WAR), the team’s most productive pitcher was reliever Kiko Calero, with 1.5 WAR in just 60 innings. Chris Coghlan earned MVP votes (!), finishing second on the team in hitting WAR with a bold .321/.390/.460 slash line. I have no idea how they got to 87 wins but, shoot, they did it.

8. 2010 San Diego Padres: 90-72

  • Actual salary: $37.7 million / Translated salary: $40.99 million
  • Highest-paid player: Chris Young (pitcher) / $6.37 million
  • Players over $1 million: nine
  • Best position player: Adrian Gonzalez / 4.5 WAR / $4.87 million
  • Best Pitcher: Mat Latos / 4.0 WAR / $0.4 million

There’s a very interesting chapter in Alternate Baseball History that develops if Jed Hoyer decides to stay with this team in San Diego instead of reuniting with ol’ pal Theo Epstein in Chicago. In this, the first of his two seasons in San Diego, Hoyer put together a team that fell a single game short of the playoffs on an absolute shoestring budget. (Hoyer also traded away Corey Kluber in exchange for Ryan Ludwick at the trade deadline, so maybe his full tenure with the Padres wouldn’t have been quite this grand.)

This team had an absolutely dominant bullpen, with seven pitchers throwing at least 30 innings with FIPs under 3: Heath Bell, Mike Adams, Luke Gregerson, Joe Thatcher, Ryan Webb, Tim Stauffer and Ernesto Frieri. Of all those dudes, only the closer Bell ($4 million) was earning above $1 million. Since 35-year-old David Eckstein was third on this team in plate appearances, it would appear that this team got its victories by earning them on the margins in areas like its bullpen.

7. 2011 Kansas City Royals: 71-91

  • Actual salary: $38.1M / Translated salary: $40.82
  • Highest-paid player: Joakim Soria / $4 million
  • Players over $1 million: 12
  • Best position player: Alex Gordon / 6.6 WAR / $1.4 million
  • Best pitcher: Felipe Paulino / 2.5 WAR / $0.79 million

In the most dramatic step of Dayton Moore’s glacially paced The Process, all veteran placeholders were removed the previous offseason to make way for the Royals’ vaunted (and cheap) prospects to take their cuts in the majors. The team’s payroll was nearly slashed in half from the previous year’s $74.9 million total, about as dramatic a shake-up as is possible in just one offseason.

Over the winter, Zack Greinke (due to earn $13.5 million in 2011) and Yuniesky Betancourt ($4.3 million) were traded for eventual World Series starters (and then-minimum-wage earners) Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain. Gil Meche retired instead of earning his $12.4 million salary for the season. David DeJesus was traded to the A’s instead of having his $6 million club option for 2011 exercised or bought out. Starting with the previous year’s trade deadline, veterans Jose Guillen, Brian Bannister, Kyle Farnsworth, Rick Ankiel, Jason Kendall and Willie Bloomquist were all shown their way out of town.

And in came the youth! Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez, Danny Duffy, Tim Collins and Aaron Crow all made their debuts this year. That’s a lot of eventual World Series contestants.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

6. 2005 Tampa Bay Devil Rays: 67-95

  • Actual salary: $29.6 million / Translated salary: $36.52 million
  • Highest-paid player: Huff / $4.91 million
  • Players over $1 million: eight
  • Best position player: Crawford / 4.8 WAR / $0.37 million
  • Best pitcher: Kazmir / 3.8 WAR / $0.31 million

Under the stewardship of Lou Piniella and Chuck LaMar, this was the last year that the Devil Rays spent in the dark ages, before the arrivals of Maddon and Friedman. Unlike the 2006 Devil Rays, discussed above, this was just a plain ol’ cheap, bad team. For instance: Doug Waechter and his 5.10 FIP (5.62 ERA) had a secure grip on the fourth-starter’s spot for the entire season. The bottom would have really fallen out below this squad—a la the 55-win 2002 Devil Rays—if they had not received such exceptional performances from young guns Crawford and Kazmir.

Before we credit the old regime for assembling some exciting young talent, though, consider that the team was drafting in the top five picks of the first round and selecting talents like Jeff Niemann, Delmon Young, Dewon Brazelton Josh Hamilton. Stopped clocks are right twice a day, in other words.

5. 2007 Florida Marlins: 71-91

  • Actual salary: $30.5 million / Translated salary: $35.4 million
  • Highest-paid player: Miguel Cabrera / $7.5 million
  • Players over $1 million: four
  • Best position player: Ramirez / 5.3 WAR / $0.4 million
  • Best pitcher: Sergio Mitre / 2.3 WAR / $0.38 million

It’s hard to think of a more quintessentially Marlins team. Okay, actually, it’s not—you’ll see a few Marlins teams that are even more Marlin-y down below. This team, though, certainly looked like it had the young core of a perennial contender: Ramirez, Cabrera, Johnson, Nolasco and Anibal Sanchez, all 24-and-under. It’s hard to imagine a core this great getting away from any team other than the doggone Marlins.

Also only 25 at the time, with a ceiling as high as the sky and 16.2 career WAR under his belt before this season started was  Dontrelle Willis. Oh Dontrelle, how we miss you. This would be the last season that Willis would throw 100 major league innings — plus he was fifth on the whole team in wRC+.

4. 2007 Tampa Bay Devil Rays: 66-96

  • Actual salary: $24.1 million / Translated Salary: $28 million
  • Highest-paid player: Crawford / $4.12 million
  • Players over $1 million: six
  • Best position player: Carlos Pena / 5.5 WAR / $0.8 million
  • Best Pitcher: Kazmir / 5.1 WAR / $0.42 million

This isn’t the only year this is the case, but in 2007, Florida’s two teams barely combined to create the salary of a single mid-market team. In Tampa, this was the last year that the team was called the Devil Rays and it was also the last time they weren’t the coolest doggone team around, what with their storming into the 2008 World Series the next year.

In case you forget why that 2008 team was so surprising, things were still pretty rowdy with this 2007 version. Breakout contenders do not, for instance, tend to have players like Elijah Dukes taking hundreds of plate appearance. They tend to not have 5.53 staff ERAs. But, doggone it, that’s what happened. By 2008 Opening Day the Rays’ payroll nearly doubled, up to $43.7 million, with the team paying (comparatively) big bucks for Troy Percival and Cliff Floyd in free agency.

3. 2013 Houston Astros: 51-111

  • Actual salary: $26.1 million / Translated salary: $26.69 million
  • Highest-paid player: Carlos Pena / $2.9 million
  • Players over $1 million: four
  • Best position player: Jason Castro / 4.3 WAR / $0.49 million
  • Best pitcher: Bud Norris / 1.9 WAR

As Dave Cameron mentioned in a recent edition of FanGraphs Audio, television revenue has been increasingly lucrative for all teams, meaning that baseball’s lower class has been able to significantly increase salary while the upper class is already bumped up against the ceiling of luxury tax. The point: It has been a long, long time since we saw a team as cheap as these Astros, and it’s hard to imagine a team being this cheap at any point in the future.

With the gift of hindsight, it’s clearer to see that Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow spent pretty much his first whole year at the helm of the Astros slashing salary. On Opening Day of 2012, the Astros had a payroll of $60.7 million—meaning they cut their payroll by more than half in the next 12 months. Most of it came at the 2012 trade deadline, when Luhnow sent away Carlos Lee (earning $19 million that season), Brett Myers ($12 million), Wandy Rodriguez ($10.5 million), Brandon Lyon ($5.5 million) and J.A. Happ ($2.35 million)— the five most expensive players on the team.

That just about left the Astros with their scorched-earth roster at the start of 2013. The highest-paid player on the team was actually Norris, earning $3 million in his first year of arbitration—which is probably exactly what earned him his midseason trade to the Baltimore Orioles that July. That Norris still provided the most value of anybody on the pitching staff despite being with the team for only half a season should illustrate quite a bit about how this team did.

2. 2008 Florida Marlins: 84-77

  • Actual salary: $21.8 million / Translated salary: $24.37 million
  • Highest-paid player: Kevin Gregg / $2.5 million
  • Players over $1 million: four
  • Best position player: Ramirez / 7.1 WAR / $0.43 million
  • Best pitcher: Nolasco / 3.9 WAR / $0.39 million

1. 2006 Florida Marlins: 78-84

  • Actual salary: $14.1 million / Translated salary: $17.7 million
  • Highest-paid player: Dontrelle Willis: $4.35 million
  • Players over $1 million: two
  • Best position player: Cabrera / 6.4 WAR / $0.47 million
  • Best pitcher: Willis / 2.7 WAR

So there it is: the 2006-2009 Marlins were an era of unprecedented modern cheapness, with each of the four teams over that time span appearing on this unflattering list. What’s, fascinating, though, is that the team won an average of 80 games a year over this stretch of time. The Marlins also never had a season as bad as 2012, when they went 69-93 with a team in which they invested $101.3 million. While $101.3 million is hardly a significant sum for a team in baseball’s overall landscape, for the Marlins it was a significant cost: their second-largest Opening Day salary in team history is this season, at $69 million.

What’s also fascinating is that the 2006 Marlins were significantly cheaper than even the second-least expensive team, the 2008 Marlins. Following their 83-79 season in 2005, the Marlins had a fire sale of epic proportions that probably still goes a long way in defining their threadbare reputation. In retrospect, the fire sale makes nothing but good sense: after winning the 2003 World Series, the 2004 and 2005 Marlins both finished at the middling 83-win mark while their payroll went up, from $45 million in 2003 to $60.4 million in 2005.

So, in the offseason between 2005 and 2006, the Marlins went on a cost-cutting bender. A.J. Burnett, Juan Encarnacion, Todd Jones and Alex Gonzalez were allowed to leave in free agency. Carlos Delgado, Paul Lo Duca and Luis Castillo were traded away in separate deals that brought back minimal returns (although, in retrospect, the Marlins missed a diamond in the rough in Yusmeiro Petit). The Marlins didn’t miss on every trade, though: sending away Juan Pierre brought back  Nolasco; and sending away Mike Lowell, Josh Beckett and Guillermo Mota—a huge package—brought back perhaps even greater returns in Hanley Ramirez and Anibal Sanchez.

All the movement left the cupboard pretty darn bare, though. Aside from Willis and his $4.35 million contract, the only other player earning seven figures for the Marlins was Brian Moehler, at $1.5 million. Actually, only three other players on the roster were making above this year’s minimum salary of $507,500: Wes Helms, Miguel Olivo and Matt Herges.

This same season, the Yankees had five players who individually were out-earning the entire Marlins clubhouse: Randy Johnson ($15.6 million), Mike Mussina ($19 million), Jason Giambi ($20.4 million), Derek Jeter ($20.6 million), and Alex Rodriguez ($21.6 million). The Marlins and the Yankees actually met in interleague play that year. Even though the Yankees took the series, the Marlins still won a game when Sanchez and the bullpen shut out the Bronx Bombers. As I’ve heard it said: you can’t predict baseball.

References & Resources


Miles Wray contributes sports commentary to McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Ploughshares, The Classical and Hardwood Paroxysm. Follow him on Twitter @mileswray or email him here.
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Wildcard09
Guest
Wildcard09

This is just more proof I think that they need to get rid of baseball in Florida, hockey too honestly. The state has never, and will never care about these teams. And until they get into real markets that start supporting them, they’re never going to have near the revenue that other franchises do.

Paul G.
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Paul G.

Perhaps but really it is still too early to tell. Tampa has an ugly stadium in a bad location that they currently cannot escape. The Marlins have made a great effort in giving their fan base the finger on every possible occasion. If Tampa fails with a better stadium, or if the Marlins get a decent owner and some good teams and fail, then you have an argument. Of course, where to send them would be complicated. Per prior articles there is not really any especially good relocation candidates. I sense that MLB would rather keep them in Florida than… Read more »

Wildcard09
Guest
Wildcard09

Yeah, I agree that there really isn’t anywhere else to put them, and I know it is still early, however the state really is terrible at supporting all sports in general. The hockey teams have never gotten any fan support. The dolphins have never drawn good numbers, and the Bucs haven’t had good attendance since they won the Super Bowl. The Jaguars never have had good numbers. The team that’s had the best support there is the Heat, and even that’s only recently while they’ve been good, not to mention it’s a lot easier to fill an NBA arena. Even… Read more »

C
Guest
C

Maybe Raleigh would be a good destination. The NHL Hurricanes draw almost as many fans per game for hockey as the Rays do for baseball. The minor league Durham Bulls draw more than half that, and suburb Cary NC is the home of the USABaseball national training complex….
It’s a sports crazy area, viz Duke-UNC-NCSU….

Aelfinn
Guest

I agree that the Marlins are an organization that desperately needs and ownership change and/or move. The new stadium makes the latter unlikely for a while unfortunately. It’s not even because they are penny-pinchers, but the fact no one comes to the games and the organization doesn’t care about winning, only running a profitable business. They’d make more money if they moved to a baseball hungry city and put just a little more effort into winning. About the Rays, I don’t know about Tampa being viable. And I really wish it could be figured out without building a new stadium… Read more »

Wildcard09
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Wildcard09

That’s exactly the problem, the fans never will come. Like I said above, I go to the Trop multiple times a year, and I really don’t get what everyone thinks is so bad about it. Sure, it’s a little old, but so are a lot of ballparks. And everyone says it’s in a horrible location, and it is, that horrible location is Tampa-St. Pete, FL. There’s no good spot in that dump of a city to put a stadium, it’s probably in one of the better choices around.

JCougar
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JCougar

I agree…there’s nothing wrong with the Trop. People who don’t live there during the summer have no idea why a dome/indoor stadium is a must. It’s just too hot to sit through a baseball game even at night in Florida. I used to go to minor league (FSL) games at night, and it was unbearable for anyone but the avid baseball enthusiast in search of dollar beers. When I lived there, it had good food and a great beer selection. It was clean and nice inside. It irks me all the hate the Trop gets from outsiders. The Miami Marlins… Read more »

brad
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brad

Fun article, but to credit the pre-Friedman Tampa regime with good picks for those players at the end of entry 6 seems very questionable. Delmon Young, for example, was first overall in 03, with a career fWAR of -1.3, giving the Rays 0.8 WAR over two early seasons. It wasn’t a very good draft, and admittedly Young was a top flight prospect all the way up until he busted horribly in the bigs, but still, in the 1st round that year alone you had Adam Jones, Richie Weeks, Carlos Quentin, and Nick Markakis. Not world beaters, but definitely better players.