In many ways, the Chicago and Cleveland clubs about to begin this year’s World Series are similar teams. We know about the lengthy championship droughts each share, as well as their general, respective histories of futility. More specific to this season, one finds that both teams traded for relief aces from the New York Yankees, both won their divisions handily, and both advanced to the Series in relatively easy fashion. Each of the clubs is located in the middle part of the country, and each of them have relied on a collection of young, homegrown players.
So there’s a lot in common between the two teams. But there’s also one major advantage which Chicago possesses over their counterparts in Cleveland: money. While both teams feature younger players who’ve assumed major roles, the Cubs have gone out and made major fortifications through free agency while Cleveland has had to complement the core of their roster through the free-agent bargain bin.
Both teams have some dead money on their payrolls. Michael Bourn, Chris Johnson, and Nick Swisher remain on the books for Cleveland; Edwin Jackson still received money from Chicago. For Cleveland, though, those expenditures amount to roughly one-fifth of payroll compared to under 10% for the Cubs. Regarding the active World Series rosters, the Cubs are paying $147 million in salaries this year, an average of nearly $6 million per player. Cleveland, meanwhile, has invested only about $59 million in 2016 salaries, an average of $2.4 million per player. Only three Cleveland players — Jason Kipnis, Mike Napoli, and Carlos Santana — earn more than the average Cub, and Santana’s $8.45 million salary, Cleveland’s highest, would rank seventh among Chicago players. The graph below depicts the salaries for the active rosters of the two teams, with salary data from Cot’s Contracts.
Where a player was making above the major-league minimum and traded midseason, only the portion of the salary that was actually paid by the team was included. This applied to Aroldis Chapman, Coco Crisp, and Andrew Miller. Both teams feature a lot of homegrown talent, but when the Cubs needed to make a push for contention, they were able to sign Jason Heyward, John Lackey, Jon Lester, and Ben Zobrist to big contracts. Cleveland, partially hamstrung due to Zobrist-size deals for Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, signed Mike Napoli and Rajai Davis to fortify the roster.
Due to the team’s different financial realities, the disparity between the two teams’ total payroll this season is one of the biggest in the 21st century. Here’s the payroll information by season since 2000, separated by league.
Thanks mainly to the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, this is only the third time in the last 17 years that a National League team has exerted a significant financial advantage among World Series opponents. Among teams that have possessed a payroll advantage of $10 million or greater, the World Series record is 9-4. The team with the larger payroll has gone 10-6 and won eight of the last 10 World Series championships. When the margin has been greater than $50 million, the team with the larger payroll is 5-1, with the Marlins’ victory over the Yankees in 2003 representing the lone defeat.
The Cubs’ $88 million payroll edge over Cleveland is the third largest in history. The team with the higher payroll is listed first in the graph below.
Only the Marlins-Yankees in 2003 and Red Sox-Rockies in 2007 had bigger payroll gaps between World Series opponents. Salaries in baseball have risen over the years and money in 2003 or 2007 is not the same as money spent this season. To put these gaps in better context, we can adjust them to 2016 based on total player salaries. When we make that adjustment, this year’s series moves down a few notches.
In today’s money, the gap between the 2003 Marlins and 2003 Yankees is as large as this past season’s Yankees payroll. Adjusting for inflation, the 2009 World Series between the Yankees and the Philadelphia Phillies has a nine-figure gap — this despite Philadelphia’s $138 million payroll ranking sixth in all of Major League Baseball that season. The Yankees’ $220 million payroll back in 2009 was just so massive relative to the rest of the league, that such a gap still existed. The Yankees still sport a roughly $220 million payroll, and though surely nobody sheds a tear for those in the Bronx, that money doesn’t quite buy what it once did.
This year’s series very much resembles the two on either side of this year’s in the graph above. Philadelphia and San Francisco had homegrown teams, but supported those teams with high salaries to push them to contention, not unlike the Cubs this year. The Royals and and Rays also had homegrown talent, but without the same type of support from the outside. Their window to contend was smaller as a result, and Tampa has struggled to return to the postseason in the high-salaried AL East, while the Royals came back and won in 2015 but failed to make the playoffs this year and will have a tough time next year, as well. It’s too early to ensure the same fate for Cleveland, but it certainly appears that the Cubs are set up better for the long haul.
Without adjusting for inflation, the Cubs’ payroll of $184.5 million is the second highest (to the 2009 Yankees) among World Series clubs this century, while Cleveland’s is fairly close to the middle of the pack. When we adjust for inflation, we see a slightly different story, as the graph below illustrates.
In what should come as no surprise, the top seven slots are occupied by the Yankees and Red Sox. The Cubs’ salary might be higher in terms of dollars than many of those teams’ payrolls, but compared to the old Red Sox and Yankees clubs, Chicago is a bit behind. The team fits right in with San Francisco’ 2012 team, the Rangers of 2011 and the 2004 Cardinals. They’ve invested a lot of money in the year’s ball club, and thus far, it has paid dividends.
The bottom spot above is occupied by the Rays by a pretty healthy margin, but next to them is Cleveland. In the last 17 seasons, only the Rays have had a lower adjusted payroll than this year’s Cleveland team. Given that one-fifth of this year’s payroll was essentially off limits even before the season started, what Cleveland has done is quite the accomplishment. The two teams in this year’s World Series have a lot of similarities, but those similarities do not extend to the wallet.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.