The Indians and Rays Have a Lot in Common, Can the Tribe Duplicate Their Success?

Mark Warmuth

With the Tampa Bay Rays on the cusp of securing a World Series berth, we have seen many people saying if the Rays can do it with a very low payroll, then the Cleveland Indians can do the same, even after cutting the payroll the past couple of years.

This season, three of the five teams with the lowest payrolls (Rays, A’s, and Marlins) advanced to the post-season. But remember, this was a shortened 60 game schedule. Would the lack of spending show up in a full 162 game slate?

You would think one of the things that suffers for organizations who cannot (or will not) spend would be depth, and that wasn’t needed in 2020 with basically a two month season.

Therefore, we wanted to look at the past few seasons.

In 2019, the five lowest payrolls belonged to the Rays, Marlins, Pirates, Orioles, and White Sox. While Tampa Bay made the post-season, losing to Houston in the AL Division Series, the best record among the other four teams was the 72-89 mark by Chicago, who admittedly was at the end of a rebuilding phase.

They spent the following off-season opening up their wallets, and made the post-season in 2020.

In 2018, the five organizations spending the least on major league players were the A’s, White Sox, Rays, Pirates, and Brewers.

Oakland and Milwaukee made the playoffs, while Tampa Bay fell just short at 90-72. The Pirates actually finished over .500 that season, while the White Sox lost 100 games. Yes, it was a good year for teams not spending a lot.

The lowest five in payroll during the 2017 season were the Brewers, Rays, A’s, Padres, and Diamondbacks.

Only Arizona advanced to the playoffs with a 93-69 record. The Brewers were over the break even mark at 86-76, the only one of the four remaining teams to be above the .500 mark.

In 2016, the year the Indians went to the World Series, eventually losing in seven games to the Cubs, the low spenders were the Astros, Diamondbacks, Rays, Athletics, and Marlins.

Houston was above .500 at 84-78, but the other four squads were under .500, with the Marlins being the best of those teams at 79-82.

The last year we will check is 2015, and the five lowest payrolls that season belonged to Miami, Houston, Tampa Bay, Oakland, and the Indians.

The Astros, coming off the dismantling of their big league roster, made the Wild Card game, and the Tribe finished over .500 at 81-80, while the Rays were just under the break even mark.

Reviewing the last five full seasons, totaling 25 teams, only five made the playoffs with a bottom five payroll, while 10 teams finished over the .500 mark with minimal spending.

Only one team is on the list in every season, and that would be Tampa, and remarkably the worst season they had in that span was 68-94 in ’16, but every other year, they won 80 or more games.

Oakland appears three times, but they were rebuilding with their victory total increasing each year, going from 68 to 69, 75, 97 and 97.

No doubt the Rays have been successful winning with a low payroll, but they seem to be the only organization able to do it consistently.

Our point is it works for them, but it doesn’t appear any other team can compete consistently with a bottom five payroll. 

Either the payroll starts to increase because you have good players, and have to start to pay them, or you can be competitive for a year or two, but fall back because you can’t keep the good players.

We would be weary about trying a plan that seems to only work for one organization. What the Rays do is remarkable, they have a roster without really, any star players, but with a bunch of average to very good players.

Can that work for other teams? Logically, you would think it would, but the evidence shows no one else has been able to pull it off.

The Indians seem poised to try it going forward, or at least they are signaling to their fan base that they are. We have our doubts, though. We would stick with the tried and true methods of getting as many good players as possible, and keeping them.