If the Orioles had to lose, it was nice that it was to the Kansas City Royals, who swept the O’s in the American League Championship Series and made it look easy. And maybe the best part of the Royals’ success is that they did it with astute talent evaluation and not a big checkbook.
The Kansas City payroll of around $90 million was just the 18th highest in major league baseball in 2014, four notches below the Orioles, at $105 million. And what about the highest payrolls in baseball? Well, money can’t buy happiness (although I understand you can rent it for a while) and it can’t buy a World Series trophy, either.
Only two of the top five payrolls in baseball even made it to the playoffs, and both the Los Angeles Dodgers and Detroit Tigers were bounced in the first round. The other three — the New York Yankees, the Phillies and the Boston Red Sox — didn’t make it to the postseason and the Red Sox and Phillies finished dead last in their divisions. Together, the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies, with a combined payroll of $541 million, finished a combined 60 games out of first place.
Even teams that had success didn’t get everything they paid for, especially the Los Angeles Angels and the Detroit Tigers. In the last few years, the Angels have thrown a ton of money at free agents like first baseman Albert Pujols (who earned around $23 million in 2014), outfielder Josh Hamilton ($17 million) and pitcher Jered Weaver ($16 million). That’s why they have baseball’s highest payroll, about $241 million. That high-priced talent was good enough to win 98 games in 2014, the most in the majors, and to win the division by a whopping 10 games over Oakland. But then the Angels got swept by the Royals, whose playoff starting staff of Jeremy Guthrie, Jason Vargas, Jamie Shields and Yordano Venture made a combined $28.5 million.
Another American League team, the Tigers, tried to win a championship the same way the Phillies did a few years ago, by putting together a starting pitching staff for the ages, which, of course, costs a lot of money. It’s a painful memory for Phillies fans to recall 2011 and the crushing disappointment it became. The Phillies starting pitchers to begin the 2011 season included two Cy Young Award winners (Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay), a World Series MVP (Cole Hamels) and a two-time 20-game winner and NLCS MVP (Roy Oswalt).
That was universally considered the best staff in baseball at the time and probably one of the best of all time. And we all know how that turned out – after winning 102 games in the regular season the Phillies were a 3-1 favorite to win the World Series, and then they got whacked by the St. Louis Cardinals in the first round of the playoffs.
Well, when the Tigers traded with Tampa Bay for David Price this season, it added another ace to an already winning hand. Detroit won 90 games and went into the playoffs with a star-studded rotation of Price (around $14 million in 2014), former Blue Rock Anibal Sanchez ($15 million), Max Scherzer ($15 million) and Justin Verlander ($20 million). That starting staff cost the Tigers $64 million this season, and then they were swept by a team that had a starting rotation of Bud Norris ($5 million), Wei-Yin Chen ($4 million) and Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez (both of whom made about $500,000 in 2014).
So, a staff that earned about $64 million lost to a staff that earned about $10 million. And that’s why it’s so easy to pull for the Royals. Not only have their fans suffered for a long time – this is the Royals’ first playoff appearance since 1985 – they also have the best team that brains can build, not the best team that money can buy.