MAJORS’ LOWEST PAYROLL HEADED TO PLAYOFFS

By Murray Chass

September 16, 2012

This will not be the first season in which player payrolls will not determine the makeup of the post-season population, but it continues the trend of recent years and could become the clearest example yet of the uprising of the poor and the downtrodden franchises, or put in a different perspective, conclusive evidence that money no longer dictates the post-season races. What it also could mean is that architects of lower revenue teams have done a better job of building winners than their wealthier brethren.Oakland Wins 225

Entering Sunday’s games, 18 teams either led division or wild-card standings or were fewer than five games from the leaders. Most notable among the missing: the Boston Red Sox, whose $166.6 million payroll ranks behind only the New York Yankees’ $220.7 million and the Philadelphia Phillies’ $168.9 million. The payrolls, which are based on Aug. 31 40-man rosters, were sent to the 30 clubs by the commissioner’s office last week.

With the Yankees struggling to shake off the Baltimore Orioles and stay ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League East and the Phillies a belated entrant in the National League wild-card race, it’s possible that they both could miss the playoffs, too, along with the lagging Anaheim Angels, who are fourth at $159.5 million, and the Detroit Tigers, fifth at $139 million, who can’t seem to overtake the Chicago White Sox in the A.L. Central.

The Tigers, before Sunday, were only a game behind the White Sox but 3½ games behind the Orioles, who until Saturday were tied with the Yankees for the division lead and for the second A.L. wild card. The White Sox are No. 11 in the payroll rankings at $103 million, putting them sixth among the post-season leaders in payroll. Ahead of them are the Yankees. No. 6 San Francisco $137 million; No. 7 Texas $132 million No. 8 Los Angeles $127.7 million and No. 9 St. Louis $114.5 million.

However, the contender to look at – gape would be more appropriate – is Oakland. The Athletics, who have led the A.L. wild-card standings the last nine days going into Sunday and had a 23-6 record since mid-August, have the lowest payroll in the majors, a few thousand short of $59 million. That amount is only a few million more than one-fourth of the Yankees’ payroll.

But Billy Beane, who has been through this sort of thing before, engages his magic mind and presto! the Athletics are in the race for the post-season. To be sure, Beane’s magic tricks don’t always work, but it seems the lower the payroll the better the team finishes.

In the four-year period 2000-2003, the A’s finished in first place three times and won the wild card once. Their payrolls were in the $30 millions the first three years and $50 million the fourth, ranking 25th, 26th, 28th and 23rd. In the next eight seasons, ending last year, their payrolls were more than $55 million each year, reaching the $60 millions and $70 millions five times and ranking as high as 17th and 18th once each and 21st twice. They finished in first place only once in that higher-paying period.

So here they are back at the bottom of the payroll standings and atop the wild-card standings. They could become the first team since Tampa Bay in 2008 to get to the post-season with a payroll under $60 million. The Rays that year made it all the way to the World Series, where they and their $51 million payroll lost to the Phillies and their $113 million payroll.

The Rays ranked 28th in payroll that year. The last time a team with the majors’ lowest payroll reached the post-season? Probably never, but records aren’t available to know for sure. My payroll records go back 20 years, and it didn’t happen in that time. Last year, however, the Rays went to the post-season as the A.L. wild card with a $45 million payroll, 29th in the majors, and only $403,270 higher than No. 30 Kansas City.

The Rays, who after a history of last-place finishes (9 in 10 years) went to the playoffs in three of the past four years, are back in contention this season. They are there with a $77 million payroll, 24th in the majors. The Orioles, ending a stretch of 14 consecutive losing seasons, are there, too, spending $87 million, 19th in the standings.

The combined payrolls of the Rays and the Orioles do not equal even 75 percent of the Yankees’ payroll. Throw in the A’s pay, and the three payrolls still fall a few million short of the Yankees.

But with the Yankees-Orioles-Rays race so tightly packed and the Athletics finishing strong, one of the four teams is not likely to get to the playoffs. It’s possible that the wealthier Yankees could wind up as the odd team out despite the 10-game lead they had in July.

That would be a stunning development, but it would really add an exclamation point to the change in the fortunes of the high-payroll teams. After Saturday’s games, the division and wild-card leaders ranked 1st, 6th, 7th, 8th (tied with) 9th, 11th, 15th, 16th, 19th, 20th and 30th. That group averages 13.35, virtually the same as last year’s average of 13.375, which is the highest in the 18-year wild-card era, meaning more lower-payroll teams are making the playoffs than ever before.

There are the Aug. 31 payrolls as distributed to the 30 clubs last week by the commissioner’s office:

Payroll Chart (2012-08-31)

NO TO MINNIE AND ROGER

Talk last week about the Houston Astros’ idea of bringing Roger Clemens back to pitch for them this season prompted recollection of the Chicago White Sox attempt to bring back Orestes (Minnie) Minoso, the outstanding Cuban outfielder, to play in the final week of the 1990 season so he could become the first major leaguer to play in six different decades.

Minoso, a fan favorite on the south side of Chicago, had retired in 1964, but the White Sox brought him back in 1976 at the age of 50 to play in three games as the designated hitter and again in 1980 to pinch-hit in two games.

They tried it again in 1990, when Minoso was 64, but Commissioner Fay Vincent, invoking “the best interests of baseball” clause, refused to let the White Sox pull off their stunt.

“I said it was silly, it didn’t make sense,” Vincent recalled on the telephone. “Randy Johnson was pitching. I can’t imagine Minoso being able to get out of the way of a Johnson fastball.” The hard-throwing left-hander was completing his first full major league season and had yet to corral his control.

“The White Sox were planning a big weekend, and Jerry went bonkers and screamed and yelled,” Vincent said, referring to White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, who would become one of the leaders of the owners group that pushed for Vincent’s resignation in 1992.

“After I left baseball Reinsdorf tried it again, but Don said no; he’d be taking another player’s place on the roster,” Vincent added, referring to union head Donald Fehr.

Roger Clemens Skeeters2 225Turning to the Clemens issue, Vincent said, “I think the tragedy here is Clemens’ lack of mental health. It reminds me that these guys, whatever their financial circumstances, they miss being center stage, going behind the curtain and not having a life. It’s a substantial problem.”

Taking the opposite approach, a regular reader of this column disagreed with what I wrote about Clemens’ desire to pitch again. He made these points:

(1) People are only reacting this way because they don’t like Clemens and this includes the Commissioner. If Tom Glavine at 50 could hit the velocity and spots that Clemens supposedly hit the last two weeks in those minor league games MLB would be welcoming him with open arms.

(2) Unless you believe Clemens would be worse than every pitcher in MLB or a September minor league call-up from a last place team, why shouldn’t he be allowed to pitch?

(3) Didn’t Jamie Moyer pitch this season at 49?  He didn’t retire five years ago, but he also didn’t pitch last year following surgery. But no one had a problem with him trying to pitch again.  Let’s be honest, if you had one game to win, who would you rather have on the mound this week, Jamie Moyer or Roger Clemens?

(4) The man never tested positive and was never convicted. Unless you want to put him on the permanently ineligible list he should have every right to pitch.

(5) Perhaps he is motivated by pushing off the HOF ballot but it is no one’s business what his motivation is. If he has the skill it shouldn’t matter. It’s the BBWAA’s responsibility to remind its voters in 5 years about what Clemens did.

(6) Clemens haters should be salivating for the possibility that he and his giant ego might go out and pitch and get shelled. How great would it be to see him walk off the field in the third or fourth inning with his head hung low and his ego deflated?

(7) A game he pitches this season would be sure to get the highest TV rating of the year (and certainly higher than the All-Star Game).

(8) And don’t try to invoke Minnie Minoso … a 64-year-old who “retired” 26 years earlier should not be raised in connection to Clemens who just threw eight scoreless innings and reached 88 mph while throwing curves and splitters – even if it was against a team in the independent league.

UNMASKING BAD DEVELOPMENT

Tim McCarver became my newest hero on a Fox telecast Saturday. He told of a game he watched earlier in the week in which Hanley Ramirez of the Dodgers had a 14-pitch at bat in a 0-0 game.

“He made an out on the 14th pitch,” McCarver, a former catcher, related, his incredulity showing, “but seven or eight players went to him to congratulate him. They were congratulating him for driving a pitcher’s pitch count up.”

Needless to say, but I will anyway, I share McCarver’s disbelief that pitch counts have become so prevalent in players’ thinking today that the number of pitches a batter sees from a pitcher is more important than what the batter does with the last pitch.

ANOTHER EYE-OPENER FROM BOBBY

Some readers have read enough of Bobby Valentine, and I don’t blame them for feeling that way, I was prepared to write no more about the embattled Boston manager this season, but as he has in his entire career, Valentine popped up with an incredible comment last week. The man just can’t help himself.

The inspiration for Valentine’s latest self-serving comment was a question a reporter asked him before a game last Friday: Is there a particular area of the last-place Red Sox that he would most like to improve?Bobby Valentine OK 225

There are lots of ways to answer that question, most of them safe and non-inflammatory. Almost any other manager would have chosen a different answer than the one Valentine gave.

“Are you kidding?” Valentine replied. “This is the weakest roster we’ve ever had in September in the history of baseball. It could use help everywhere.”

The manager might be right in his assessment, but expressing it publicly is highly questionable and won’t win any points for Valentine when the owners, the chief executive and the general manager gather after the season to discuss his future with them. Then again, maybe Valentine is more interested in being fired, given all the nonsense that has surrounded him this season. What’s that? He created much of the nonsense?

Maybe he should have given a different answer to the question, a more honest answer. Is there a particular area he thinks the Red Sox should improve? “Are you kidding?” he could have replied. “Yes, the manager.”

Comments? Please send email to comments@murraychass.com.