A caller to MASN's "NatsTalk" yesterday asked Mike Wallace and I to comment on the issue of money, specifically, the willingness of the Nationals to pay the going rate for major league free agents. She mentioned that she was motivated to ask based upon comments she'd read on a Nats online fan forum which seemed to suggest that many fans continue to believe that "the Lerners are cheap."
It's that age-old argument that claims the Nats are incapable of winning because their owners are satisfied to simply field a team and count the profits. It's an argument that holds water - if you're talking about the owners of Washington's expansion franchise in the 1960s. In the 21st century, it's utter nonsense.
Don't get me wrong here, of course there are costs involved in fielding a winner. It's just not the be-all, end-all means to an end. This year, the team with the highest payroll in the American League, the New York Yankees, won their division with a payroll of $202 million. It got them to the playoffs, but no further. The Phillies had the highest National League payroll - $173 million - and had the same result. The team with the 11th highest payroll - the St. Louis Cardinals - won it all, with a figure of $105 million. They beat the AL champion Texas Rangers, who got to the World Series with a $92 million payroll.
The Nationals' 2011 payroll was about $64 million, ranking them 22nd overall. They spent roughly $21 million less than the Orioles, who won 11 fewer games. The Nats spent $23 million more than Tampa Bay, which won the AL wild card.
Sure, there's a correlation between dollars spent and games won, but it's a rather inconsistent one. What creates this inconsistency is simple.
The only figures that are available are major league player payrolls, and therein lies the problem: you're only seeing part of the picture.
No club publishes the amount of money it spends on player development. The success the Tampa Bay Rays have enjoyed over the past five years is due almost entirely to player development. Their big league player payroll in 2011 was a mere $41 million, ranking them 29th out of 30 teams. It's a model that more teams are using, and while the Nationals don't subscribe to it entirely, it's clearly had an impact.
The Nationals would have loved to have signed free agent left-hander Mark Buehrle, but he cast his lot with Miami, now managed by his former White Sox skipper, Ozzie Guillen. The Nats didn't want anything longer than a three-year deal, and the Marlins offered four. Yet there have been fans who complained that they allowed themselves to be out bid by only $19 million. The ballclub also opted not to bid on Japanese free agent pitcher Yu Darvish. Indeed, at the end, only four teams bid on Darvish. It was general manager Mike Rizzo's call, and he determined that the up-front costs to negotiate with Darvish were prohibitive. It's completely understandable, since Japanese pitchers have a spotty record of success stateside, and it's not like he doesn't have a stable of young arms already. The Nats had scouted Darvish extensively, and I seriously doubt they would've allotted that many resources if they weren't serious about going after him.
Until Major League Baseball opens the books completely - not likely in my lifetime or yours - it's difficult to make an intelligent argument about money. Payroll figures alone are only part of the story. In the end, it's not what you spend, it how you spend it.