The Red Sox won the AL East with the best record in baseball, 97-65, going on to win the AL pennant and the World Series against the Cardinals, who had an identical record of 97-65. The Sox went from last place in 2012 to first in 2013, and received a lot of credit for helping the city heal after the Boston Marathon bombings.
Many sports media analysts praised Red Sox GM Ben Cherrington for his astute free agent signings. For example, Tyler Kepner of the New York Times wrote that “their opening day payroll, $154 million, was still more than $20 million lower than it was a year before.” Kepner calls the Red Sox signing Stephen Drew for one year and $9.5 million “a bargain.” Only one player on the Rays, David Price, earned more than $9.5 million in 2013. Evan Longoria earned $6 million and Ben Zobrist earned $5.5 million.
Cherrington deserves praise – his moves worked and the Red Sox won the Series. At the same time, however, uck certainly played a part in this success. Few observers expected Koji Uehara to become the most effective closer in baseball during the second half of the season, or Mike Carp, who hit .212 in 2012, to hit .296 with an .885 OPS against in 2013. However, if we’re praising Cherrington for his efficient and creative use of a $154 million payroll, how much praise do the Rays and Andrew Friedman deserve for winning 92 games with an opening day payroll around $57 million? The Red Sox spent $100 million more than the Rays to win 5 more games in the regular season – about $20 million per game. Was that $20 million per game worth it for the Red Sox? Definitely yes! Major league baseball doesn’t award championships to the team that spent its money most efficiently, they award championships to the teams that win the most games and win the last game of the World Series.
Team payroll doesn’t always translate into success. The Yankees, with the highest payroll in the game, saddled with outrageously high salaries for fading stars like Alex Rodriguez, didn’t make the playoffs. Actual baseball is not like Strat-O-Matic or other table games, where a player’s performance is determined entirely by their past statistics. In the real world, players can improve if they work on their game (are you listening, Wil Myers?), and other players can get hurt or lose their effectiveness otherwise. Creating a 25-man roster is not an exact science, and paying the big name free agents so often fails. You have to give teams like the Red Sox credit for not just spending money, but spending it well. Yet in 2013, the Tampa Bay Rays contended for the pennant and reached the ALDS despite the third lowest payroll in baseball, and that is almost incomprehensible when comparing it to how teams like the Red Sox and Yankees have found their success.
Given the team’s attendance and lack of a big TV market, perhaps the Rays will never match the Red Sox payroll. Still, Rays fans wonder wistfully what their team could do with a $154 million dollar payroll in 2014. With that much money they could keep David Price and re-sign James Loney. They could sign a free agent catcher with punch and perhaps add a slugging left fielder and a designated hitter. What would the Rays give for even one of those big-name free agents? Given the Rays’ track record developing talent and signing productive free agents you have to wonder how many pennants the team would have won if they could sustain a payroll at the Red Sox level, or even the Cardinals “relatively modest” $102 million. When you compare the payroll levels of the two World Series teams with the Rays, it makes their sustained success over the last five years even more remarkable. The Red Sox found their formula for success and the Cardinals have found as well. The Rays, though, have overcome more than anyone to contend year after year, and the impressiveness of that cannot be understated.