In the tight NL West, a few dollars could make a world of difference
By now it has been drilled into our heads so many times that baseball is going to feel the brunt of the slow economy that it almost makes you want to shove your Thunderstix and foam tomahawks under your mattress, right next to your beer money.
And the proof is out there, even if it is, for now, scant:
On Monday, though, we got our first piece of real evidence on how the recession may affect baseball -- at least as of the beginning of the season. Fourteen of the 30 major-league teams have lower Opening Day payrolls than last year, according to
That's certainly a statement, though it's no reason for your team to file Chapter 11 just yet. Even the Yankees have shed payroll: Despite committing $423.5 million over the offseason to
Before we continue to parse the findings of the survey, it's worth pointing out that
And still we're left with a majority 16 teams that actually have
But it's far more interesting to see what teams are doing in divisions that are up for grabs. Most specifically, the NL West. Last season it took a mere 84 victories to win baseball's weakest division. And even though the Dodgers re-signed Ramirez there's no evidence to suggest that their win total will be drastically higher this year, especially given their suddenly un-Dodgerlike shortcomings in the pitching department.
That means it's probably not going to take a nine-figure payroll to compete in the NL West this season. The numbers seem to indicate that the division's GMs kept this in mind going into this past offseason and, given the economic climate, figured that they might not need to ratchet up their payroll if all it's going to take to stay competitive is 85 wins.
"I think that's accurate," said Dodgers GM
The Dodgers are the only team of last season's three National League division winners to reduce its payroll (down 15 percent, to $100.4 million). The teams chasing L.A. in the NL West all made only modest increases in spending to stay in the race (except San Diego, which is in near-liquidation mode to facilitate the transfer of ownership from
The result is three teams -- San Francisco, Colorado and Arizona -- with similar payrolls, all of whom are spending in the neighborhood of just eight to 11 percent more than they did last season. The Giants and the Diamondbacks in particular have done well to plug some of their shortcomings. The big question remains, though: Will those small tweaks, without big spending, translate into a few more wins and a spot in a playoff race to determine who is the least mediocre?
"You can predict what your team needs, whether 90 wins is a magic number, whether run differential's the magic number or you just need different parts in your team," Byrnes told SI.com last month, when explaining how he went about shaping this year's roster. "We probably don't get too precise on our goals. We do know that this group, if all goes well, should certainly be in the mix."
Arizona didn't make an overwhelming amount of changes, but most of the increase in payroll was due to the additions of
Meanwhile, the Giants could figure into the race as well, thanks to the similarly low-priced additions of pitchers
With two, perhaps three teams looking like they can keep pace with the Dodgers thanks to slight payroll tweaks, the NL West could shake out as the most highly-contested race in baseball. If 85 wins is the magic number, that's certainly an attainable goal.
"This division has always been close," said Colletti. "No one wins 95 or 100 games, but it's always played pretty competitively. I don't see any team that's going to be superior."
Then again, that was the case last summer before Ramirez fell into the Dodgers' laps at no cost to them, and L.A. proceeded to ride its new marquee star into the NLCS. As Colletti is quick to point out, if it becomes clear that a team may have to spend a little more to stay in the race, and that they're not as hurt by the slow economy as the season progresses, they might start looking to add an impact player by the trading deadline. That will up the stakes, and then we'll learn something completely new: what effect the economy will have on a pennant race.