How MLB Teams Learn to Win on the Cheap

Some cash-strapped franchises have found success without spending big on free agents

J.J. Picollo didn’t need to consult preview publications or analytics websites to know that things weren’t going to be so great for the Royals in 2011 or ’12. The franchise had committed to playing some young talent, and that meant wins weren’t going to be plentiful. KC believed Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez and Eric Hosmer were going to be good — maybe even great — someday, but they needed time to develop, and that meant Kansas City fans would have to wait for their club to get good.

 

The Royals won just 71 games in ’11 and “improved” to 72 the following season. Things were going just the way management figured. It might have been tough to watch a club finish 20 games below .500, but when you’re playing in a smaller market and don’t have the luxury of getting out of roster trouble with a checkbook, patience becomes a valuable part of the culture. Picollo, Kansas City’s VP/assistant GM for player personnel, was then AGM for scouting and player development and understood that giving the young players (all three were in their early 20s) full seasons of at-bats would hurt the win total in the short term but protect the bottom line and perhaps build a bright future.

 

“We knew we would struggle those two years,” Picollo says. “It was time for us to get players to the major leagues, although 2011 happened to be a little early for them.”

 

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The strategy succeeded marvelously. Kansas City won 86 games in 2013 and then experienced a tremendous run that brought two straight World Series appearances (2014-15), including the title in ’15. Those teams had a good, young — and largely inexpensive — core of talent, including the aforementioned trio of position players, as well as a lights-out bullpen that didn’t cost a lot of money. The Royals had just the 17th-highest Opening Day payroll in the majors that championship season, proving that despite the excitement generated by big free agent contracts and hopes of success spawned by big salary totals, there is still plenty of room for success in baseball for franchises that need to exercise fiscal restraint. For every big-spending playoff team like the Dodgers, Yankees or Nationals, there is a collection of successful clubs in the bottom half of the money standings squeezing as many wins out of dollars spent as possible.

 

Last season, Oakland, Minnesota and Atlanta were all in the bottom half of the MLB salary list, and each club reached the postseason. Then there is Tampa Bay, which dropped a taut, five-game decision to Houston in the ALDS with a payroll that was $17 million smaller than the next-lowest club. Over the past dozen years, the Rays have excelled at building successful teams on the cheap, a practice necessitated by tiny attendance figures (in 2019, Tampa Bay drew just 1.18 million fans, ahead of only the execrable Marlins) and a TV deal that is well below that of competitors in larger markets. Still, despite the smaller cash flow, the Rays have finished above .500 eight times during that stretch and reached the playoffs five times.

 

“We embrace the challenge of the situation that we are in,” says James Click, who was recently hired as Houston's GM after previously serving as Tampa Bay’s VP of baseball operations. “We have a culture of innovation and a culture of vulnerability and necessity to learn. It means that we are a little freer and more emboldened to do things differently. If we do the same things as big-market teams, they’re able to do it with more investment behind it.

 

“For us, being innovative is the way to survive. We know the challenges and know that we have to innovate and challenge the status quo.”

 

MLB teams guard their internal strategies and protocols with the same vigor with which Coca-Cola protects its recipe. So, finding out the exact processes teams like Tampa Bay and Kansas City use to maximize their resources is impossible. However, a few similarities play out across the smaller-market teams, which must be far more precise with their methods than the teams capable of buying their way out of evaluation mistakes in the free agent market. Creativity is paramount, both when it comes to signing players and in terms of hiring front-office personnel. People working for those clubs can’t just open the Yankees’ management manual and follow along. They have to be able to craft unique solutions to problems that other franchises can address with fat wallets.

 

Taking calculated risks is another important component. When a team is going to make only one or two free agent acquisitions, they have to be targeted and capable of filling specific needs. And sometimes, that means adding players who have struggled with injury, played poorly in major league situations that don’t fit or have developed slowly. Sometimes, those moves fail spectacularly. But when they hit, they pay off nicely, since the salary requirements aren’t usually too high. Versatility plays a role. Finding flexible players is big, since they can provide the ability to play multiple positions and fill the roles of two or even three other roster members at a cost savings.

 

Building a winning culture helps. Picollo reports that five of the Royals’ seven farm teams played for championships in 2019, something that should help provide a positive clubhouse environment when the younger players reach Kansas City. It’s similar to what happened with Houston. While the Astros were floundering, their minor league squads were soaring. Not every franchise puts a premium on success at lower levels.

 

And then there is the cultivation of youth. Thanks to MLB rules that allow teams to hold on to their players for six-plus years before they can become free agents, clubs are able to build rosters that include several players hitting their primes — while still on cheap contracts. And thanks to the more rapid development of talent at youth and high school levels, those greener performers are more prepared for major league service now than at any other time in baseball’s history. In 2019, 33 of the players on All-Star rosters were 28 or younger, and 14 were 25 or younger. The National League’s lineup was the youngest in All-Star history, with an average age of 25.75 years.

 

“The economics of baseball and to a degree our market size dictate we have to do things a little different than other teams,” says Matt Forman, Cleveland’s assistant GM. “That’s not an excuse for not winning. We have to look at things more creatively than our big-market peers.

 

“The foundation for our success has been and will continue to depend on young players we acquire and develop. Our scouting and player development have to be our core competencies to make up for the differences in salary we have.”

 

••••

 

Back in the early 2000s, when the club was still named the Devil Rays, Tampa Bay had a couple seasons in which it averaged fewer than 14,000 fans per game. So last year’s 14,734 number was nearly 1,500 fans higher than the franchise’s low-water mark. It still wasn’t very good and hardly produced the kind of revenue necessary to thrive at the big-league level. This is by no means a new condition. The Rays haven’t averaged 20,000 fans per game since 2010, and they haven’t topped 24,000 since 1998, their debut season. Even though there are many smaller U.S. markets than Tampa-St. Petersburg, which ranks 12th in the majors, the combination of the lack of baseball tradition, a less-than-spectacular home field and a sunny climate that offers plenty of other distractions means the area has to be considered a “small market” in terms of being able to pay big money to players.

 

So, the Rays must be cutting-edge in their approach to playing the game. In 2018, they began experimenting with the concept of the “opener,” a pitcher who threw just one inning against the top of opponents’ orders. In 2019, Ryne Stanek opened 27 games for the team and pitched a total of 55.2 innings in 41 appearances. The Rays also shift more than just about any other MLB club, checking in at fourth overall in ’19 by shifting 37.2 percent of the time. The Rays have used four-man outfields often and even five-man configurations.

“Some of the strategies we’re using are unconventional,” Click says. “We do them to win as many games as possible.”

 

The Rays have to be careful about the types of players they sign because their roster has to be filled with adaptable performers. If someone is going to balk at playing all over the diamond — sometimes in one game — he probably won’t fit in the team’s culture.

 

“Our scouts have to know how players will react to all of that,” Click says. “We figure it out with quantitative analytics, but then we have our coaches explain it to players. Are they willing to do a dead sprint from third base to the left field corner before an at-bat? That exemplifies the harmony we have across the organization.”

 

Players can be willing to adapt, but they have to have the skills to handle the different roles they are asked to play. Playing left is a lot different than life on the hot corner. The numbers may call for a four-man outfield, but if the fourth player can’t handle fly balls, those calculations mean nothing. Last year, Whit Merrifield played five different positions — as well as DH — for the Royals while leading the majors in games, at-bats, hits (for the second straight year) and triples while making a modest (by baseball standards) $1,000,000 and earning his first All-Star berth. Talk about a perfect small-market player. Heck, just about all the big boys would love to have him, too. But Merrifield is signed through 2023 on a four-year, $16.25 million deal with a club option for a fifth year. That’s a bargain.

 

“We’ve got to get players who have versatility, because our depth is not as good as other teams,” Picollo says. “Whoever is swinging the bat best in Triple-A, and we bring him up, if he is an infielder, Whit Merrifield goes to the outfield. If he’s an outfielder, Whit goes to the infield.”

 

Versatility is important, but so is timing. For instance, Picollo says that after the Royals reached the 2014 World Series, management felt the team had two years left with Moustakas (then 26) and Hosmer (25) before KC would have to trade them. As it turned out, each played in 2017 for Kansas City, before Hosmer left in free agency for San Diego and Moustakas was traded midway through ’18. Perhaps the team held on to them a year too long, but it would have been upsetting to fans to let a pair of heroes go so close to their biggest moment with the club.

 

Meanwhile, the Braves are in a perfect position with their young players right now. Last year, Atlanta won 97 games and the NL East title with a starting lineup that included four key members — outfielders Ronald Acuna Jr. and Austin Riley, second baseman Ozzie Albies and shortstop Dansby Swanson — 25 or younger. Key starting pitchers Max Fried and Mike Soroka were 25 or under, too. Their lightweight salaries allowed the Braves to pay first baseman Freddie Freeman $21 million and third baseman Josh Donaldson $23 mil while still ending up 17th in the majors in total labor costs. Atlanta spent $90-plus million less than did the Cubs and ended up with 13 more wins.

 

But don’t expect GM Alex Anthopoulos to do a victory lap. From his point of view, the Braves’ success is not due to any specific design that resulted in the 2019 success, as well as a 2018 division title. To him, it’s as much good fortune that comes from some good drafting decisions and an organization capable of developing its young talent.

 

“I think we have a young team and a young roster with guys performing at high levels at early stages of their careers,” he says. “That’s a big part of it. Five years down the road, if they continue to progress in their careers, things could be different.

 

“These guys were here when I got here [in 2017]. This represents a great job by our scouting and development department.”

 

Like many teams, the Braves are trying to keep their costs within a reasonable limit. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t going to spend some money. They gave 36-year-old Cole Hamels a one-year, $18 million deal during the offseason and signed potential closer Will Smith to a three-year, $40 million contract. Outfielder Marcell Ozuna will replace some of Donaldson's lost power on a one-year, $18 million deal. Of course, with Donaldson’s salary off the books and starter Julio Teheran’s $11 million paycheck no longer a factor, the team could afford to do a little shopping.

 

“We didn’t sit there and say, ‘We want a 36-year-old Cole Hamels,’” Anthopoulos says. “We like Cole Hamels. Everybody wants to do the same thing. Everyone would like to have youth and make it as sustainable as possible.”

 

••••

 

Part of being in a market that does not allow for a top-10 salary structure mandates that teams make decisions based on longer-term time periods, rather than going year by year, plugging in players as needed, without much regard for price. For instance, Cleveland has a TV contract that pays it $40 million annually (although some might argue that the $230 million the club earned for selling SportsTime Ohio at the same time it inked the deal with Fox Sports Ohio should figure into the equation) and a 2019 attendance average of 22,008 — good for 21st in the league, despite year-long playoff contention. That doesn’t add up to a robust bottom line. So, Cleveland has to be extremely careful as it assembles a roster.

 

“One of the most challenging parts of this job is balancing the present and future in the competitive cycle,” Forman says. “We made a decision to balance these things, and that’s difficult. You have to make some tough decisions.”

 

Cleveland won 93 games last year and finished three games out of the Wild Card race behind teams with even lower payrolls. It did so with a lineup that included four players 25 or under and a pitching rotation that also emphasized relative youth. Late in the season, the Indians traded Trevor Bauer to Cincinnati for Yasiel Puig and prospects, in an attempt to get a return before Bauer is eligible for free agency in 2021. Then, in December, they traded starter Corey Kluber to Texas for Delino DeShields and heralded pitching prospect Emmanuel Chase. Kluber is due to become a free agent after 2021 (if the Rangers pick up his ’21 team option) and is owed $35 million over the next two seasons.

 

Neither deal was overly popular with fans, since both Bauer and Kluber had performed well for the Indians. But that’s the balance Forman is speaking about. “We have to talk about things a little differently than other teams do,” he says.

 

As the 2020 season dawns, there is no guarantee we will see another burst of small-market success like we did last year. But you can bet teams with lower payrolls and greater restrictions on what contracts they can offer players will continue to look for creative ways to succeed — and that Tampa Bay will continue to have successful seasons, even as they do so at dollar-store prices.

 

“We recognize we operate with a smaller margin for error than the average team,” Click says. “It changes the risk-reward equation. We have to change our decision making. How often can we keep up with our direct competitors? We don’t have the ability to fill in our mistakes as much as they do. It changes our priorities.”

 

— Written by Michael Bradley for Athlon's 2020 MLB Preview. At 224 pages, it's the largest on the newsstand and the most complete preview available today. Click here to get your copy.

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