By Jon Heyman
September 28, 2009

The biggest-market, biggest-spending Yankees just wrapped up the AL East crown and appear to be a threat to steamroll teams in October. The Red Sox, the Yankees' only slightly poorer rivals to the north, are in such fine overall shape that they showed only marginal interest in a series in which two wins would have guaranteed a playoff spot, and one would have prevented a Yankees divisional clinch.

It's been that kind of sunny season for almost all of baseball's biggest spenders. The Haves are just kicking the Have-Nots all over the diamonds.

It makes sense, of course, but it usually doesn't happen quite this way. Money doesn't buy everything. But this year it almost seems to be good for a free pass to the playoffs. As things stand now, an unprecedented six potential playoff teams are among baseball's top eight spenders. Never has payroll been such a determinative factor in making the playoffs as this season, and that's especially true if the Tigers hold off the feisty, small-market Twins in the AL Central.

Consider that:

• The Yankees, with baseball's highest payroll at $202 million (figures used here are Opening Day payrolls adjusted for acquisitions), are baseball's best team.

• Teams with payrolls No. 4 through 8 are all playoff-bound as of right now: the No. 4 Red Sox ($127 million), No. 5 Tigers ($119 million), No. 6 Angels ($116 million), No. 7 Phillies ($115 million) and No. 8 Dodgers ($103 million).

• The only teams currently in playoff position that aren't among baseball's eight biggest spenders are the Cardinals and Rockies, who rank 13th and 18th in player payroll, respectively. The Braves, who with a $99 million payroll rank 10th, still have an outside chance to overtake the Rockies, particularly with four more games remaining against the Nationals disgrace. If the Braves do make it, it will only turn this season even further into "The Year of the Big Spender." Although the Twins, who rank a lowly 24th in spending at $68 million, still have hope of overtaking the Tigers, which would make it a slightly less lopsided payroll scoreboard.

• The only teams in the top eight of payroll that won't be in the playoffs are baseball's two most disappointing teams, the Cubs (who are second at $136 million) and the Mets (third at $135 million).

The effect of money on team performance, of course, has been noticed by everyone in and around baseball. But no one seems especially worried about it. "I'm fairly satisfied this year is an aberration," baseball commissioner Bud Selig said by phone. "I still think the basic tenets we have in place will lead to the best competitive balance we've ever had."

Luxury taxes and revenue sharing have helped balance the playing field for a decade and a half, and Selig readily points to the fact that half the teams have made the postseason within the last half decade.

A couple owners have mentioned the issue of payroll imbalance in recent interviews, but there's been nothing that points to any strong movement toward a salary cap or anything as drastic as that. MLB probably knows the strong union would never go for a cap. And since baseball has had slightly better balance than football or basketball in recent years, a cap probably isn't necessary, anyway.

"There is (no movement) afoot. I've heard from no one on this issue," Selig said. "We'll look at a lot of things (when the contract expires). But I'm very comfortable where we are."

Here is my list of the teams who used their money best ...

1. St. Louis Cardinals, $95 million. Their payroll jumped a few million with the midsummer pickups of Matt Holliday and Mark DeRosa, but they have proved well worth it, as well. There's very little wasted money here (Khalil Greene's $6.5 million is an exception), from the top Albert Pujols ($14.4 million) on down.

2. New York Yankees, $202 million. Sure, they spent a king's ransom. But their roster is filled with kings. Alex Rodriguez ($33 million), Derek Jeter ($21.6 million), Mark Teixeira ($20.65 million), CC Sabathia ($15.3 million), Mariano Rivera ($15 million) and Jorge Posada ($13.1 million) all earned their pay, and A.J. Burnett ($16.5 million) could be primed to do so in the playoffs based on recent performances. Nick Swisher ($5.4 million) has been an absolute steal by Yankees standards.

3. Colorado Rockies, $75 million. Only Todd Helton's $16.6 million salary seems oddly high (though Garrett Atkins' $7 million salary is no bargain). Everyone else looks like a good deal, including Brad Hawpe ($5.5 million), Troy Tulowitzki ($1 million) and Ubaldo Jimenez ($750,000). Virtual steals include Ian Stewart ($404,000), Seth Smith ($403,000) and Franklin Morales ($402,000). The icing is that the Cubs basically paid for half of Jason Marquis $9.8 million salary by taking the since-released Luis Vizcaino.

4. Los Angeles Angels, $116 million. Their talented and balanced team produced another title at reasonable cost. They tried to sign Teixeira and Sabathia with offers of at least $20 million annually, but as of now only a trio of outfielders Torii Hunter ($18.4 million), Vladimir Guerrero ($15 million) and Gary Matthews Jr. ($10.4 million) are over the $10 million mark. How about this for a cost-effective infield? Third baseman Chone Figgins ($5.8 million), SS Erick Aybar ($460,000), 2B Howie Kendrick ($465,000) and 1B Kendry Morales ($1.1 million).

5. Boston Red Sox, $127 million. Other than a couple players (possibly J.D. Drew, $14 million), a case could be made that everyone now on their roster is worthy of their salary. They've drafted well, and locked up a number of young stars. How's Dustin Pedroia at $1.75 million or Jon Lester at $1 million?

6. Los Angeles Dodgers, $103 million. A couple summer pickups just barely nudged them into the top eight, supplanting the hopelessly mediocre Astros. Manny Ramirez ($23.8 million), Jason Schmidt ($15.2 million) and Hiroki Kuroda ($12.4 million) are the only ones over $10 million. Randy Wolf ($4.9 million) and Orlando Hudson ($3.4 million) were bargain pickups last winter. Matt Kemp, Chad Billingsley, James Loney and Clayton Kershaw all make in the mid-$400,000s, which still couldn't buy much in L.A.

7. Texas Rangers, $68 million. A lot of very good young players should make them a force for years. How about Scott Feldman for $435,000? Or Nelson Cruz for $408,000?

8. Philadelphia Phillies, $115 million. The World Champions deserve credit for spending big following their championship. But their roster is still full of good deals, including Chase Utley ($11.2 million), Raul Ibanez ($7.1 million), Cliff Lee ($6 million), Cole Hamels ($4.3 million) and J.A. Happ ($450,000).

9. Florida Marlins, $36 million. They make about what A-Rod makes. A vast majority of the team makes six figures and their highest paid player, Hanley Ramirez, is a steal at $5.5 million; he'd be worth four or five times that to a major market team. Superb job by their execs.

10T. Minnesota Twins, $68 million. They lost Johan Santana and Hunter but maintained a nice team on a tight budget. Justin Morneau ($11.6 million), Joe Nathan ($11.2 million) and Joe Mauer ($10.5 million) are the eight-figure players, all of whom are worthy. Nobody in the rotation even makes a mil, except the just-acquired Carl Pavano.

10T. Detroit Tigers, $119 million. They've got a few high salaries (Magglio Ordonez at $18.9 million, for example), but they also have a formidable team. As evidenced by their liberal draft strategy, they are always willing to pay for untested talent. Rick Porcello's a great deal, even with him being close to the highest-paid rookie ever ($2.1 million).

1. Mets, $136 million. Injuries have decimated them (they led the league with $35 million wasted dollars at last count). Even so, yikes. Luis Castillo ($6.25 million) can hit for average and reach base, but this is a $1 million player, at best. Even when he's healthy, Oliver Perez isn't worth $12 million.

2. Cubs, $135 million. They'll finish above .500, but they have more bloated eight-figure salaries than anyone. Alfonso Soriano at $17 million is a joke, though not a happy one. Kosuke Fukudome ($12.5 million) is a fourth outfielder. Milton Bradley ($7 million) is worth that much only to go away.

3. Cleveland Indians, $81 million.Travis Hafner ($11.5 million), Jake Westbrook ($10 million) and Kerry Wood ($10 million) are the eight-figure players. They pared down by trading Victor Martinez and Lee, but those guys are actually good.

4. Houston Astros, $102 million. Almost half of that is wrapped up in Carlos Lee, Miguel Tejada and Lance Berkman, so the roster is just a tad top heavy. Kaz Matsui at $5.5 million looks like a misprint, but unfortunately no.

5. Washington Nationals, $60 million. They are trying to recover from ex-GM Jim Bowden's infatuation with ex-Reds and outfielders who can't catch. The payroll isn't crazy, but considering the lack of wins and revenue it isn't good.

There have been rumors the Washington Nationals have interest in hiring Buck Showalter. But two people with Nationals ties dispute whispers that there has been significant contact between Showalter and new full-time Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, who overlapped with Showalter in Arizona. One person with Nationals ties said any contact was likely limited to Showalter congratulating Rizzo regarding his appointment, and another Nats person said he believed Rizzo and Showalter had not been in regular contact for several years.

That doesn't necessarily mean Showalter couldn't become a candidate for the Nationals, who are more likely than not to replace interim manager Jim Riggleman and hire a full-time manager this winter. But it sure seems that nothing's truly going on that should lead anyone to think Showalter is a front-runner for the job.

Showalter does make some sense to manage a rebuilding team. However, he gained a rep for being overbearing, especially in Arizona, and GMs these days are looking for managers who are easier to manage. In other words, at the very least these rumors appear to be far ahead of the story.

Bobby Valentine, another veteran manager who's available (his contract with Chiba Lotte is expiring) and has had success with rebuilding situations in the U.S. and Japan, probably makes more sense than Showalter for Washington.

CC Sabathia offered his sympathy and support for his former manager, Eric Wedge, who looks like he's headed for a firing in Cleveland. Sabathia said he likes Wedge very much, but added, "It's tough with the guys he's got now." One obvious favorite to replace Wedge would be Boston pitching coach John Farrell, but reported that he has a contract with the Red Sox that stipulates he can't leave to manage until after 2010. Sometimes those clauses can be negotiated away.

Ken Macha emerged from his meeting with GM Doug Melvin and told Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that he expects to remain manager. Macha will return as a lame duck, though, which makes the situation slightly unusual but far from unique.

• The Padres are a rare team known to have some interest in troubled outfielder Milton Bradley. Texas was the one place Bradley thrived most, but sources indicate that's a long shot now. The idea of importing Bradley at a time the team's for sale makes little sense.

Pat Burrell hasn't fit in like expected in Tampa Bay, and the Chicago Tribune speculated on a Bradley-for-Burrell deal, which doesn't sound unreasonable. Except that Burrell isn't much of a National League player at this point. (These are the very issues that caused the Phillies to decide to let Burrell go by the end of last year.)

• Mark DeRosa is appealing to a lot of teams as a versatile late bloomer with power. The Mets could use such a player, and perhaps the Cubs would like a re-do on their 2008-09 winter decisions. DeRosa is among the free agents not covered on my recent list of 20-plus prominent free agents. Some others are Nick Johnson, Adam LaRoche and Joel Pineiro. Some guesses for their deals: DeRosa, three years, $24 million; Johnson, two years, $16 million; LaRoche, three years, $25 million; Pineiro, two years, $15 million.

Jermaine Dye is likely to be another free agent outfielder, as the likelihood is that the White Sox will decline the $12 million mutual option on his contract. Dye has slumped in the second half, batting .175 this month after batting .189 in August.

Aroldis Chapman, the Cuban left-hander who defected and last week filed for free agency, has been considered one of the three top young pitchers not in the majors, along with Yu Darvish and Stephen Strasburg. One GM ranked Chapman third best of the three, saying he still has issues with control and may wind up a reliever. But since Chapman will be a free agent, look for him to best Strasburg's $15.075 million contract.

Hideki Matsui's first choice is to stay in the Bronx, people close to him say. The Yankees' inclination has been to reluctantly let him leave since the DH spot may be needed more by Posada and other veterans in coming years.

David Wright publicly admitted to flinching since coming back from being beaned by Matt Cain, and he has indeed slumped since returning. He's hit .220 since returning with 32 strikeouts in 24 games. Manager Jerry Manuel suggested Wright should not have made that admission. But the real issue is the flinching, not the talking about it.

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