The 2014 World Series is tied at one game apiece as the Kansas City Royals head to San Francisco's AT&T Park for Game Three Friday night against the Giants. On paper, however, this Fall Classic is a mismatch, with one team spending almost $62 million more on its roster.
Major League Baseball lacks a salary cap, of course, the only one of the four primary North American professional sports leagues that doesn't have a level playing field. The Royals and their $100 million payroll are considered one of the "small-market" teams, while the Giants and their $162 million payroll are one of the big-city spenders.
Neither team won 90 games in the regular season, of course — or their respective divisions. Clearly, on a per-win basis, Kansas City spent its money more wisely, but San Francisco is one of many organizations that merely bludgeons its opponents with a superior payroll when possible.
Here's a quick look at which players were bargains and busts for each team in 2014.
Kansas City Bargains
The Royals have five players considered true "bargains": starting pitcher Yordano Ventura, relief pitcher Kelvin Herrera, outfielder Jarrod Dyson, catcher Salvador Pérez and outfielder Lorenzo Cain. Each is making $1.5 million or less this season, and each produced tremendous results for the Kansas City club this year — producing a combined 17.1 Wins Above Replacement (WAR).
For his $501,000 salary this season, Ventura delivered 14 wins, a 3.20 ERA and 3.2 WAR for the Royals. For $523k in salary, Herrera posted a 1.41 ERA in 70 innings and 2.8 WAR. Dyson contributed 2.8 WAR as well, as a part-time player who stole 36 bases and played stellar defense for his $530k salary.
Pérez hit 17 home runs, drove in 70 runs and played excellent defense as well to compile 3.3 WAR — all for $1.5 million. Meanwhile, Cain is another stellar defender, and he posted 5.0 WAR while stealing 28 bases and hitting .301 this year for just $546k.
As in any sport, the more production you can get from your cheaper players, the better your team will be.
San Francisco Bargains
It's hard to imagine a team with a $161.8 million payroll having any bargains, but they do exist on the Giants' roster: two of them, in fact.
Relief pitcher Jean Machi made just $505k this year, but he was an anchor in the bullpen — winning seven games, posting a 2.58 ERA and delivering 1.5 WAR. Shortstop Brandon Crawford made $560k and earned 3.2 WAR, behind his 10 HRs and 69 RBI.
(The Giants have 13 players on their roster who made $5 million or more this year, so bargains in this luxury rack were hard to find.)
Kansas City Busts
The Royals acquired outfielder/designated hitter Josh Willingham from the Minnesota Twins for a power boost down the stretch, and even though Kansas City didn't pay his entire $7 million salary this year, Willingham did little to justify his prorated paycheck. He generated just 0.1 WAR in 72 at-bats with Kansas City.
Reliever Luke Hochevar made $5.21 million for the Royals this season — and never pitched an inning, as he underwent Tommy John surgery before the season even started. That's a tough bill to swallow for a small-market team like the Royals.
San Francisco Busts
This is a more populated club than in Kansas City, that's for sure, and it doesn't feature any mid-season acquisitions. These were all contracts willingly doled out by General Manager Brian Sabean, who has a history of signing bad players to bad contracts (see Aaron Rowand, Barry Zito, Aubrey Huff, et al).
Starting pitcher Matt Cain — anchor of the rotation for the 2010 and 2012 World Series champions, for sure — made a whopping $20 million this season, while winning just two games and netting 0.1 WAR for the Giants. His season was shut down months ago due to injury.
Pitcher Tim Lincecum — former two-time Cy Young winner — made $17 million this year, and he was yanked from the rotation long before the team qualified for the playoffs. Lincecum delivered a 4.74 ERA and a negative WAR (-0.7) this year for that money.
Second baseman Marco Scutaro — the 2012 National League Championship Series MVP — made $6.67 million this year, while playing in just five games. Former closer Sergio Romo — the guy who finished off the 2012 World Series — made $5.5 million this season, while posting just a 0.3 WAR and a 3.72 ERA.
Conclusion: It's Good to Have Money to Spend
Clearly, you can absorb more disasters when you're a big-market team, making it "easier" to get to the postseason and win once you're there. This is why the Royals are the first small-payroll team to make the Fall Classic since 2008 — and they would be the first team in the bottom part of the league's payroll hierarchy to win it all since the 1997 Florida Marlins.
Bud Selig has left many legacies behind — good and bad — in his tenure as commissioner, but his ultimate failure may be allowing such payroll disparity to run rampant in his sport. It creates a reality for the rich teams that the poorer teams just can't attain that often, if ever.
The Giants can be reckless with their payroll, because they can afford to. The Royals cannot. While San Francisco is playing in its third World Series in the last five years, this is the Royals' first trip to the playoffs since 1985.
As Oscar-nominated actor Brad Pitt lamented in Moneyball, it's an unfair game — but hopefully Selig's successor can fix that problem, so America's pastime can become more... American.
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