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Winning sustainably does not mean skimping on payroll

It’s about minimizing your valleys

Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Royals owner John Sherman introduces Matt Quatraro as manager during a press conference at Kauffman Stadium.
Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Royals owner John Sherman introduces Matt Quatraro as manager during a press conference at Kauffman Stadium.
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Recent Kansas City Royals history has been elation or misery, with very little in between. The franchise won the 2015 World Series and won the 2014 American League Pennant. But since 2018, the Royals have been the definitive worst team in Major League Baseball.

When majority owner John Sherman fired Dayton Moore, the architect of those World Series teams from almost a decade ago, he stated that it was not only important for the Royals to win. Sherman wanted the Royals to avoid huge valleys of losing, stating (emphasis mine):

“The objective is to return to form, to compete for a championship on behalf of our great fans, to be playing meaningful baseball at this time of year. Our objective that can compete consistently and on a sustainable basis.”

Winning sustainably in baseball is hard. It requires a unified organization, decisive leadership, and a fair share of luck. There are a few specific tactics that are evidence of a sustainable approach: sustainable winners tend to avoid signing free agents to expensive long-term contracts, trade their own good players when they still have trade value, identify underrated gems in other organizations as acquisition targets, and don’t overpay to keep homegrown players beyond their best by dates.

But there’s one thing that isn’t a necessity for sustainable winning: skimping on payroll. It’s hard not to look at the playoffs and see two teams take two drastically different approaches. The Seattle Mariners did increase their payroll from last year to this year, but were content to sit at a below average payroll with an Opening Day figure of about $137 million. The Texas Rangers, on the other hand, had the 15th ranked payroll last year. They aggressively added payroll and began 2023 with the ninth highest payroll in the league at about $196 million.

Both teams are in win now mode. You can probably guess which one made the playoffs.

Look, the Tampa Bay Rays are evidence that you do not need a ridiculous payroll to win consistently. However, I worry that teams are taking the wrong lessons from the Rays. Winning sustainably does not mean skimping on payroll. That’s a reductive approach to the sustainable approach. And, in fact, one could argue the opposite: winning sustainably means that a team should actively avoid skimping on payroll, because purposely running a lower payroll is leaving wins on the table.

Running a sustainable winner has much more to do with a willingness to capitalize on trade value than it does trying to avoid spending money and throwing your hands in the air and saying, “hey, you know what, we’re doing a favor for you fans” like Mariners president of baseball ops Jerry DiPoto did recently.

There is something to be said that the exact Rays model is better in theory than in practice. They are still seeking for their first World Series victory, and they can’t get anyone to attend their games despite winning so much. How much of that is due to the fact that Rays roster gets shaken up so much? It’s impossible to tell, but it’s probably a factor in some regard.

Still—sustainable winning is better for all parties. Fans are usually more interested, the team gets more money, and it yields better results on the long end. Sustainability just shouldn’t be used as an excuse for not spending on the team. You can do both.