Many people far too often mistakenly equate payroll to winning in Major League Baseball.
Yes, a higher payroll allows teams more leeway to make mistakes or cover up for injuries and/or bad trades and signings, but year after year we see more and more examples of why how teams spend is much more important than how much they spend.
Again, HOW teams spend money is exponentially more important than HOW MUCH they spend.
Now, of course payroll matters to some degree. It certainly isn't irrelevant. If you and I both enter a cooking contest and your grocery budget is $500 to my $150, it'll be a lot easier for you to buy the ingredients you want. But the difference in budget doesn't prevent me from cooking creatively. In many ways the tighter budget might help me hone in on the most important ingredients.
Several low- to mid-payroll teams have been cooking a lot of creative dishes lately. The Tampa Bay Rays have finished above .500 every year since 2008 while spending $100-150 million less than teams in their own division. The Oakland Athletics had a movie made about their creative cooking in the early 2000's, and they're doing it again in 2014. The St. Louis Cardinals are never among the top seven or eight spenders in baseball, yet they average 91 wins per season since 2000.
On the flip side, teams like the Chicago White Sox, Philadelphia Phillies, New York Mets and Chicago Cubs have often spent well over $100 million on losing teams in recent years. The Mets and Cubs finally scaled back in recent years.
Below is a look at how MLB teams stack up in 2014 - payrolls relative to projected win totals (the team icons represent a few interesting case studies):
From a competition standpoint, Major League Baseball doesn't have many incentives to implement a salary cap. Over the last 25 years we have seen 15 different World Series winners. Over that same stretch the NBA and its salary cap have produced eight different champions. The NFL and its salary cap have produced 14 different Super Bowl winners. The English Premiere League (and First Division, prior to 1992) has produced just seven winners in 25 years. Only the NHL (15 winners in 25 years) can match MLB's parity.
The above graphic shows a small correlation between payroll and wins, as expected, but it also highlights the importance of how teams spend as opposed to how much.
As long as the Twins continue to spend between $85 and $110 million - the range they've been in since Target Field opened in 2010, which has ranked the franchise anywhere between 9th and 24th among MLB team payrolls - their eventual blueprint for success (assuming the Twins will have success again at some point...) will look nothing like what the Dodgers, Red Sox, Yankees and Angels are doing. Minneapolis/St. Paul is the 15th largest media market, and the Twin Cities area has one of the lowest cable/satellite subscriber rates in baseball. Splashing around at the poker table against teams with more chips - the multi-billion dollar TV deal teams - is not how you fix a mid-market franchise.
While the Twins certainly aren't the bottom-feeding payroll team they were 12 years ago during the last revival, they are decidedly mid-market. That's the reality.
The Twins at one time were masters at turning a small budget into a division championships, but they clearly aren't anymore. The good news is the franchise needs not look any further than some of the other mid-market (and low-market) teams for a success blueprint - specifically the Cardinals, Braves and A's, who have all competed at a high level for years against the top spenders in baseball.
All three franchises follow some these main macro-principles:
• Supplement a strong inner-core of good prospects with impactful free agents and trade targets (in recent years this includes Scott Kazmir, Jeff Samardzija, Yoenis Cespedes, Carlos Beltran, Ervin Santana, Justin Upton and others).
• They aren't afraid to cut bait on players or part ways at peak value as opposed to waiting until it's too late (see: Brian McCann, Albert Pujols, David Freese, Dan Haren, etc.).
• They aren't afraid to use platoons in situations where there isn't a clear-cut, top-notch, every-day player at a position. Trevor Plouffe, for instance, is a career .275/.341/.475 hitter against left-handed pitching. Maybe his role going forward is as a part-time player. The A's plucked Brandon Moss off the scrap heap a few years ago because he was a left-handed hitter who mashed right-handed pitching. He has gone on to hit 74 home runs over the past three seasons.
• The Cardinals lean toward groundball-heavy starting pitching. The A's look to limit walks.
• They generally don't handicap themselves with bad contracts, although the B.J. Upton contract in Atlanta might be an exception.
The Twins are working on a few of these steps. They'll obviously never be accused of trying to outbid the Dodgers and Yankees for a free agent, and they have cultivated one of the best farm systems in baseball. But the climb is still steep.
In the meantime, people need to stop citing payroll as the main hindrance to the Twins' return to relevance.