Most fans understand that payroll is paramount when a major league general manager is building a team. That said; it’s not just total dollars obligated that comes into play.
Two clubs can spend approximately the same amount on players, yet be on completely different trajectories. An organization’s payroll structure — how it distributes the money across the roster and contract lengths — matters too.
To validate this point, I performed a salary review for each AL West team.
As you’ll see, I listed their projected 2018 payroll based on salary data pulled from the Baseball Prospectus compensation page. Please note the numbers you’ll see are projections — financial obligations fluctuate throughout the year.
You’ll also find tables illustrating each club’s five highest players. Information included; 2018 salary, percentage of payroll consumed by each salary, the last year of financial obligation, whether the player has a no-trade clause.
Let’s start with the team with the highest projected payroll.
Los Angeles Angels — $164.3 million
Two years ago, $66 million going to three players — Josh Hamilton, C.J. Wilson, and Jered Weaver weighed down the Angels’ payroll. Each either struggled greatly or didn’t even play. Moreover, a fading Albert Pujols accounted for another $25 million.
Since then, the Halos have turned a corner with only Pujols remaining. Because of his team’s newfound financial flexibility, general manager Billy Eppler secured veterans capable of helping Los Angeles contend in 2018.
After trading for Justin Upton last August, Eppler signed the 30-year-old to a five-year/$106 million extension during the offseason. He followed that up by acquiring infielders Zack Cozart and Ian Kinsler. The duo will earn a combined $23.7 million this year.
Not only did the Angels add established players this offseason, the club pulled off a baseball and financial coup by winning the rights to Japanese phenom Shohei Ohtani. The 23-year-old could be an impact player this year, while earning the major league minimum.
After this season, four players earning a combined $32.3 million could walk as free agents. They are Kinsler, Garrett Richards, Jim Johnson, Luis Valbuena. Going into next offseason — or even this summer — Eppler could reinvest that money to make his club more competitive.
Winning with their current squad is clearly the priority for the Angels. Especially with perennial MVP candidate Mike Trout, shortstop Andrelton Simmons, and Cozart eligible for free agency after 2020.
Still, the club must spend more wisely than it has previously to achieve their desired outcome of winning the World Series.
Seattle Mariners — $154.7 million
It’s easy to see why the Mariners have avoided large financial obligations in recent years.
Over 60-percent of Seattle’s payroll is tied up in five players. All are over 30-years-old with most having limited trade value due to age, diminished performance, and/or an exorbitant contract.
The Mariners’ two most expensive players — Felix Hernandez and Robinson Cano account for 33-percent of the club’s 2018 payroll. King Felix’s on-field value has been trending downwards for three seasons, although his deal does end in 2019.
Cano is under contract through the 2023 season when he’ll be 40-years-old.
On a positive note, the Nelson Cruz contract signed before the 2015 season is one of the best free agent acquisitions in franchise history.
The Mariners’ top-heavy payroll structure has limited general manager Jerry Dipoto from adding significant major league pieces since his arrival in September 2015.
Gordon is under team control through his age-33 season at an annual average value (AAV) of $13 million. Last June, the Mariners signed Segura to a five-year extension putting his AAV at $14.3 million for the next six seasons.
Last summer, Dipoto shrewdly acquired Mike Leake from the St. Louis Cardinals for a low-level minor leaguer. Sweetening the deal, the Redbirds will be sending the Mariners $17 million to help pay Leake between now and 2020.
Still, the Mariners are hamstrung by budgetary considerations. This offseason, the club appeared unwilling or unable to make the financial commitment required to land the top-shelf starting pitcher they desperately need.
Compounding matters for Seattle, a relatively barren farm system — especially at the upper levels — that can’t be used to land a premium rotation arm.
If the Mariners wanted to flip the switch and sell this July, they would have options. Cruz, Leake, and Seager don’t have trade protection although each would net varying levels of value.
Moving Diaz would be unpopular. But the 23-year-old could potentially bring back a significant haul, assuming he’s performing at a high level.
I’m not suggesting Seattle will or should hold a fire sale this July. But a large financial commitment to a small number of thirty-somethings appears to be stalling efforts to add quality veterans.
It’s plausible the team is a wild card contender, as they were last summer, and Dipoto chooses to upgrade his roster.
Houston Astros — $151.9 million
At nearly $152 million, Houston has a payroll comparable to the Angels and Mariners. However, the reigning World Series champions have a lower percentage of money committed to their five highest paid players than any team in the division.
In fact, only six Astros are making over $11 million this year. One of them isn’t 2018 AL MVP Jose Altuve, who is a relative bargain at $6 million.
Having a payroll that’s not top-heavy gives general manager Jeff Luhnow the fiscal flexibility to systematically add less recognizable, but valuable free agents — Josh Reddick, Joe Smith, Charlie Morton, Yuli Gurriel, and Hector Rondon are examples.
As Dipoto did with the Cardinals, Luhnow convinced two trade partners to help pay the salary of players he acquired.
The Detroit Tigers are paying the Astros $8 million in each of the next two years, decreasing Houston’s obligation to Justin Verlander to $20 million annually. Similarly, the New York Yankees are contributing $5.5 million towards the salary Brian McCann receives this year.
Certainly, a bountiful minor league system helps the Astros to efficiently allocate funds and win.
Homegrown talent includes Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers, George Springer, and Dallas Keuchel. This group has already earned a Cy Young award, plus league and World Series MVP honors.
With McCann, Keuchel, and Morton pending free agents after the season, Houston will have the flexibility to grow their payroll as their young stars become more expensive.
More importantly the Astros are in a position to acquire talent during the season, if needed. Just as they did with Verlander last year.
Texas Rangers — $125.7 million
Even though the permanently inactive Prince Fielder is still on their ledger for $9 million this year, the Rangers’ payroll is substantially lower than in years past.
Still, Texas didn’t go on a spending spree this winter. In fact, financial obligations could decrease even more during this season, depending on general manager Jon Daniel’s approach.
You see, the Rangers aren’t projected contenders and appear poised to begin a rebuilding phase. If that turns out to be true and the club falls out of serious contention, Daniels could flip veterans for prospects.
Three of the team’s best-compensated players have expiring contracts after the 2018 season and could be candidates to move on. Specifically; Cole Hamels, Adrian Beltre, Matt Moore. Moreover pending free agent reliever Jake Diekman could draw interest from buyers.
Others who may garner interest are players with limited financial obligations after this coming season. Pitchers Doug Fister and Martin Perez, plus catcher Robinson Chirinos are examples. Naturally, these individuals must deliver on the field to have trade value.
The Darvish deal netted prospect Willie Calhoun from the Los Angeles Dodgers. Calhoun projects to be the Rangers’ primary left fielder this year.
The Rangers’ farm system was highly productive for many years yielding major league talent and prospects Daniels could use in deals.
It may be time for the club to accelerate replenishment this summer.
Oakland Athletics — $50.7 million
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the low-revenue Athletics have the smallest payroll, or that none of the club’s highest paid players is a signed to a long-term deal. More than likely, Oakland will do this year what it does whenever they are out of contention — trade pending free agents.
As you review the following table, it’s worth noting recently released Brandon Moss and his $4 million salary remains on the Athletics’ books. Additionally, Stephen Piscotty will earn $1.3 million this season. However, his pay increases to $7.3 million next year. That would make him the second highest paid player on the 2018 team.
Assuming general manager David Forst follows his organization’s standard playbook, any of their top-five players could be wearing new uniforms by August — even if they’re under team control through next year. Last July, Forst traded Sonny Gray for a haul of prospects despite the fact the club owned his rights for two more seasons.
It certainly must frustrate Oakland fans to see their favorite players routinely leaving via trade; during the season no less. But the organization appears to be building a solid base thanks to those deals.
Over the last two summers, Forst has acquired major league contributors Blake Treinen, Jharel Cotton, Frankie Montas, and Boog Powell. Moreover, half of his top-10 prospects arrived via in-season deals. Specifically; Grant Holmes, Jesus Luzardo, Dustin Fowler, James Kaprielian, and Jorge Mateo.
Will the Athletics ever spend the big dollars? Probably not, but their youthful foundation may propel them ahead of their high-spending competition.