MLB Teams Best Positioned to Take on Salary at Deadline

At last year’s the trade deadline, the Texas Rangers made a deal for Cole Hamels despite a 50-52 record that placed them three games back in the wild card race, with four teams in front of them — and seven games back in the division, with two teams ahead of them. The club ultimately finished the season 38-22, winning the division in the process. The addition of Hamels was certainly integral to their success.

That said, the trade wasn’t necessarily made with just 2015 in mind; in the process, the Rangers were able to move Matt Harrison’s contract and retain Cole Hamels through either 2018 or 2019 (for which latter year the club holds an option). Hamels hasn’t been at his best this year — his 2.93 ERA obscures uncharacteristically weak fielding-independent numbers — but the Rangers have continued winning this season, having produced a 53-32 record and a 7.5-game lead on the Houston Astros.

The Rangers leveraged some payroll flexibility into the acquisition of a player likely to help them in the present and future. A look at the current state of future payroll commitments could help determine which teams are best positioned to take on money at this year’s deadline.

While the traditional would-be free agents are always popular trade targets, there are quite a few players who could be moved in the next month who are owed money beyond this season. Ryan Braun has $76 million remaining on his contract after this year. Andrew Miller will earn $18 million through the 2018 season. Carlos Gonzalez has $20 million coming to him next year while Jay Bruce has a reasonable option and Jonathan Lucroy has a ridiculously team-friendly option. While teams have more money to spend than ever before, they still operate on budgets, and looking at future commitments is a start in determining how much money a team has to spend.

The graph below shows every team’s commitments for the 2017 season, per Cot’s Contracts. Only guaranteed money is included, which means options and potential arbitration salaries are left out for the time being.


That the Los Angeles Dodgers possess the greatest committed payroll shouldn’t come as a surprise. A bunch of the usual suspects are at or near the top, with Detroit still trying to go all-in on the free-agent route. The Royals, who upped their salaries this season, have already made a decent amount of commitments for next season, as well. At the other end of the spectrum, we see the Astros, who have less than $20 million designated for salaries next year. Given their success last season, and their ability to contend now, the Astros appear well-positioned to make a move for the future, either now or in the offseason. The team is drawing nearly 4,000 more fans per game than they did last year, and with their television contract squared away, the team looks well prepared to return to their status as a bigger-market team as they were a decade ago.

Similarly, the Philadelphia Phillies seem poised to exercise some financial muscle when the team feels they’re prepared to contend. After their hot start to the season, the team played closer to expectations, going 8-28 over a stretch that was then followed by eight victories over nine games. The result: a 40-46 record on the season. Better than expectations, probably, but not worthy of a pennant chase. While Philadelphia and Houston could easily increase their spending, most of the rest of the franchises at the bottom end are smaller-market teams whose payrolls are likely to remain low. By comparing the commitments above to salaries at the beginning of this year, we can get a better understanding of how much money each team has coming off the books.

The chart below shows 2016 Opening Day payroll, minus 2017 salary commitments. Again, the numbers still only include guaranteed salaries without options or arbitration salaries.


Despite the large number of commitments in 2017 for teams like the Yankees, Dodgers and Angels, those teams might still have the most money with which to play given their already large payrolls this season. The bad news for some of these teams is the prospect of an incredibly weak free-agent class that lacks a marquee starter now that Stephen Strasburg is off the board and is generally weak on the position-player side as well, with Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick, Jose Bautista highlighting the list of available players. If some of those teams want to get better for this season or next, making a trade might be their best bet.

The aspects of the payroll not reflected in the chart above are team options and arbitration-eligible players. It might look like the Yankees have $100 million to spend to reach this year’s payroll figure, but CC Sabathia has a vesting option that looks reachable at this point. Adding another $20 million reduces spending power. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are due to get raises through the arbitration process, which affects their respective clubs’ abilities to spend. The arbitration increases affect all teams, but can affect the smaller markets more as those teams are more likely to rely on cost-controlled players currently in the arbitration process.

I went through each team’s arbitration-eligible players and team options that had a decent chance of being exercised to get a slightly more accurate view of the money available to teams as they plan for next year. Keep in mind, when I doled out the options and the arbitration salaries, I did so quite liberally. Many players won’t be offered a contract for next year if the team feels the cost is too high. At this point in the season, it’s a bit early to make many of those determinations, so the numbers reflected below have considerable wiggle room for teams who want to clear more payroll at the end of the year.

The chart below shows 2016 Opening Day payroll minus 2017 commitments and 2017 potential commitments from options and arbitration.


The numbers come down quite a bit for all teams, but Philadelphia comes out on top due to the youth present on their roster. Given the relatively few dollars committed to the current team, it will be interesting to see just how much the Phillies are willing to spend to get back in contention in short order. The Astros are already in contention and should have money to spend. The Blue Jays might have to replace Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion at the end of the season so the loss of production might outweigh the money coming off the books. Tampa Bay’s negative number is a reflection of all the young players they have, and it will be interesting to see who they might move, like Jake Odorizzi or Matt Moore, to keep their spending at an already low level. Most teams have some room to maneuver, but it should come as no surprise that the teams with the biggest markets will have the biggest capacity to keep on spending.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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7 years ago

The Giants must not fit into the “every team” category…

7 years ago
Reply to  thestatbook

They are excluded because ownership doesn’t care about payroll in guaranteed even-year championship seasons.