Teams Who Have Tightened the Belt

As an MLB team, it’s awful hard to reduce your payroll. All those long-term contracts you agreed to years ago come equipped with incremental annual raises, and then the free agent market inflates every year in the meantime. Cutting payroll can’t happen by accident: it’s a shift in organizational direction across all tiers of the operation.

Using data from Cot’s Contracts, only six MLB teams had 2014 Opening Day payrolls that were smaller than their 2013 Opening Day payrolls. And not all six of those teams reduced their payroll in dramatic fashion, either:

Team 2013 Payroll (in $M) 2014 Payroll % Decrease 2013/14 W/L Differential
St. Louis Cardinals 116.7 111.2 4.71 -7
New York Mets 93.6 84.9 9.29 +5
Miami Marlins 50.5 45.8 9.3 +15
Chicago Cubs 106.8 92.6 13.29 +7
New York Yankees 228.1 197.2 13.55 -1
Chicago White Sox 118.9 90 24.31 +10

Using Baseball-Reference’s 2015 Opening Day payroll estimates, ten teams — a full third of the league — have cut their payroll since 2014 Opening Day. For all the wheeling and dealing that went down this winter, that’s a lot of scrupulous saving and penny-pinching.

Of those ten teams, four of them ended up with such relatively small amounts of savings that I am unilaterally deeming their efforts not statistically dispositive for the purposes of this post:

Team 2014 Payroll (in $M) 2015 Payroll % Decrease
Cleveland Indians 85.4 85 0.46
Milwaukee Brewers 103.6 101.7 1.83
Oakland A’s 82.3 80.5 2.19
Tampa Bay Rays 76.8 74.6 2.86

Here are brief profiles of the remaining six belt-tighteners, listed by increasing proportion of savings:

Los Angeles Angels
2014: $154.5M / 2015: $145.9M / 5.9% Decrease

How They Did It: Howie Kendrick, due $9.5M this season, was traded straight-up for prospect Andrew Heaney. Cuban Roberto Baldoquin was the team’s biggest free agent investment, with an $8M signing bonus.

Will It Help?: The gap between the Angels and Dodgers on the ol’ second base projected depth chart is frightfully large. But if it’s really true that the deals left undone really can be the best deals, well: by restraining themselves in this winter’s free agency, the Angels made a lot of good deals.

Cincinnati Reds
2014: $114.1M / 2015: $106.9M / 6.3% Decrease

How They Did It: Mat Latos, who will earn $9.4M this season, his last in arbitration, has been replaced in the rotation with Anthony DeSclafani (rookie minimum).

Will It Help?: Although this is unlikely to help the 2015 Reds, these dollars (and potential future dollars invested in Latos) have been saved in anticipation of Mike Leake‘s and Johnny Cueto’s dual impending free agencies.

Toronto Blue Jays
2014: $137.1M / 2015: $127.3M / 7.1% decrease

How They Did It: Colby Rasmus ($7M in 2014) and Melky Cabrera $8M in 2014) were allowed to leave in free agency. Adam Lind ($7.5M in 2015) was traded for Marco Estrada ($3.9M). Russell Martin’s contract ($7M in 2015) is rather perilously backloaded ($15M in 2016, $20M annually from 2017-19), making this year’s savings something of a facade.

Will It Help?: If you’re looking for an early candidate to have an exciting winter of 2015-16, the Blue Jays are it. For 2016, the team has club options on Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, and R.A. Dickey (and Maicer Izturis). All of this offseason’s moves have given Toronto the flexibility to have a fork-in-the-road moment next winter: will they continue with their current core or shake the Etch-a-Sketch and start anew?

Atlanta Braves
2014: $112M / 2015: $96.5M / 13.8% decrease

How They Did It: The two most-expensive Braves of 2014 — that’s Justin Upton ($14.4M) and Ervin Santana ($14.1M) — are gone.

Will It Help?: I wouldn’t exactly be breaking news by saying that the signings of Nick Markakis ($11M in 2015) and Jonny Gomes ($4M in 2015) have disturbed the tea leaves when it comes to examining Atlanta’s future. The awkward percentage of payroll that the Braves cut reinforces the perception that they’re floating in no-man’s-land between the contending tinkerers (above) and those who are rebuilding with gusto (below).

Arizona Diamondbacks
2014: $112.3M / 2015: $89.8M / 20% decrease

How They Did It: Martin Prado ($11M in 2015) and Miguel Montero ($12M) were traded, as was eventual free agent Brandon McCarthy ($10.25M in 2014). J.J. Putz graduated to the front office, taking his $7M in 2014 salary with him. Arizona’s biggest free agency investment, Yasmany Thomas, will earn $5.5M next season.

Will It Help?: For a team that spent nearly $2M per win in 2014 ($112.3M in salary with 64 wins), cutting costs is a pretty durn good idea. The most expensive players presently on the Diamondbacks’ roster are the type of salary albatrosses that are tough to move on the trade market. Trevor Cahill ($12M), Aaron Hill ($12M), Bronson Arroyo ($9.5M), and Cody Ross ($9.5M) make up nearly half of Arizona’s payroll and are projected to contribute a swell 1.7 WAR (Steamer) or 2.1 WAR (ZiPS) between them. Awesome. Cahill, Arroyo, and Ross all have club options/buyouts for 2016, meaning that the Diamondbacks could actually responsibly spend during next winter’s free agency in lieu of the full-dismantle-style rebuild.

Philadelphia Phillies
2014: $177.7M / 2015: $139.3M / 21.6% decrease

How They Did It: After trades, the Phillies are paying $1M of Jimmy Rollins‘ $11M 2015 salary and “only” $4M of Marlon Byrd‘s $8M 2015 salary. A.J. Burnett’s $11.25M club option for 2015 was declined, as was Mike Adams‘ $6M club option. Kyle Kendrick ($7.67M in 2014) was allowed to leave in free agency. Roberto Hernandez ($4.5M in 2014) and Antonio Bastardo ($3.1M in 2015, his third year in arbitration) were traded.

Will It Help?: It’s been said before that turning around the fortunes of a baseball team is a task that takes about as long and looks about as graceful as turning around an aircraft carrier. Never does this look more true than when examining the Phillies’ current generation of blight. It seems like we are still waiting for the Phillies to make their most important moves, seeing as Cliff Lee, Jonathan Papelbon, and Cole Hamels all reside on the roster — presumably with suitcases already loaded up and the phone always handy. And still, no team has cut more payroll — whether you measure by proportion or by total sum — than Philadelphia. The Phillies haven’t had this low of an Opening Day payroll since 2011. Hopefully that factoid can briefly distract Phillies fans from the reality that the team is still Top-10 in overall payroll for a roster that is projected to finish, um, Top-30 among Major League teams.

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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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Angels’ reduction was further enhanced by trading Declining Skillset Josh Hamilton for Increasing da Party Josh Hamilton.