Jonah Freedman
Thursday April 9th, 2009

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: Spring training attendance was down by 7.7 percent on a per-game basis. Season-ticket sales figures vary from team to team, but there's no red flag just yet. Major League Baseball is expecting a seven percent decrease in attendance this season and is prepared to take the hit in terms of sponsorship, though we'll have to wait to see how the season plays out before that materializes.

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 USA Today's annual survey of baseball salaries. Of those 14 teams, 10 have slashed their payroll by $10 million or more. (The Associated Press' report differed slightly, saying that 16 teams cut payroll.)

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 CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett, the Bombers' 25-man payroll is $201.4 million, down around four percent from last season. The perennially big-spending Red Sox, Mets, Dodgers and Angels, all of whom have topped $100 million in payroll for the past several season, also have cut salary in attempts to reduce costs.

Before we continue to parse the findings of the survey, it's worth pointing out that USA Today's findings aren't exact. The study factors in deferred payments and averages out signing bonuses over the length of players' contracts. (For instance, it calculates that Manny Ramirez will earn $23.9 million this season; though in reality, the Dodgers will pay him only $10 million of that figure this year, and should he choose not to opt out at season's end, he'll earn the rest in deferred payments until 2012.) That said, these numbers are apples-to-apples across the majors, so they make for a good study of baseball dollars.

And still we're left with a majority 16 teams that actually have upped their payrolls. If we break this study down by division, some interesting trends surface. In divisions where there are clear frontrunners to win, some teams have made definite efforts to catch them by reinforcing their rosters despite the slow economy. For instance, even though the Rays are the defending American League champions, most pundits are picking the Yankees or Red Sox to win back the AL East. As such, Tampa Bay has upped its payroll to an all-time high $63.3 million (a 44 percent increase over last season) to keep up with the big boys. Similarly, Oakland is probably the only team with any shot of dethroning the Angels' stranglehold over the AL West. Accordingly the A's payroll this season is up 30 percent, to $62.3 million.

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 Ned Colletti when presented with this theory last month at L.A.'s new spring compound in Arizona. "I don't think anyone builds to win 85, 86 games. But I think there are a lot of clubs who are thinking, You know what, if we can start out and stay in it, we'll see where we're at later in the season."

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 John Moores to Jeff Moorad).

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?

Diamondbacks GM Josh Byrnes hopes so. The team he built for this season should be a prime contender for the division crown, and stronger than the one that coughed up first place last September after spending 153 straight days there. But Arizona is a cost-conscious and statistics-minded organization, so a spending spree was out of the question -- especially considering that the Phoenix metropolitan area is shaking out to be one of the hardest-hit by the burst of the real-estate bubble.

"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 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 Jon Garland to the rotation and Felipe Lopez at second base, while multiyear extensions to Dan Haren, Chris Snyder and Chris Young kick in this season. All told, the team's moves were bang for the buck, adding only $7.3 million to the payroll.

Meanwhile, the Giants could figure into the race as well, thanks to the similarly low-priced additions of pitchers Randy Johnson, Jeremy Affeldt and Bobby Howry. Their payroll is up about $6 million, or around eight percent, to $82.6 million (including their one misstep, an inflated $8 million in '09 for shortstop Edgar Renteria). With those moves and an improving crop of young hitters, San Francisco is a lock to improve on its 72 wins of last season, and could keep up with the Dodgers and D-backs.

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.

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