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MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Pittsburgh Pirates
Bob Nutting - Owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates...and probable future Commissioner in a darkest timeline.
Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

“It’s Not My Money(ball)!” Part 3: The art of the financial tank

Or “Fun with charts” or “Debunking a lie about team payrolls.”

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For those of you keeping score:

And now...

Wait? Why isn’t this series canceled? Baseball is back! Must you rain on our parade?!?

First, now the series shifts from “why the owners are wrong to have caused the lockout” to “why the owners are still engaging in financial shenanigans in baseball.” If anything certain acts, which are still ongoing (screwing over the Minor Leaguers (Part 6), other bad behavior (Part 4), the attendance crisis (Part 5)) and are quite relevant.

Second, Major League Baseball’s return means that I can start focusing on Guide entries for Chicago and Pittsburgh, as well as release my travel schedule for the year.

Finally, this essay was prepped and ready to go since late last week. To quote a Simpsons bit that there is no clip for: I’m not as laid back as people think. Now, here’s the deal - you’re going to read this essay, sit there, and like it.

The Art of the Financial Tank

If we are going to talk about the art of the tank, we should hear the best version of it. (And mock the live-action Netflix remake of Cowboy Bebop as hard as humanly possible...poor John Cho, he tried so hard.)

Originally, I was going to write an essay about Bruce Meyer for Part 3 of this series. He’s worthy of an essay on his own for his contributions in labor law as to sports. But events have overtaken plans.

On February 10, Commissioner Rob Manfred said something, prior to the cancellation of games, that really stuck in my craw and caused a shift in today’s topic:

If one is going to lie, I personally feel that it is best to go with such an audacious lie that most will not dare to challenge you. I mean one would likely be an amoral narcissist at this point, especially depending on combover, skin tone, and how much of a putz one is, but I almost admire the commissioner for a half-second. Then that admiration gets enveloped in a figurative fireball of burning rage, shown below.

Yes, kind of like that. (Spoilers for The Expanse, I suppose - seriously, go read and/or watch The Expanse - I want an adaptation of the Laconia arc - don’t worry about what that is, just go watch The Expanse. While Eric hasn’t seen all the Star Wars movies, The Expanse would be a far better use of your time.)

With what Rob Manfred said in mind, I’m going to present you a couple of charts to use going forward that empirically and emphatically show that Rob Manfred is a bald-faced liar. And the kicker is that the commissioner doesn’t even need to lie, because in many fundamental ways, the owners have already won. Per Andy McCullough, The Athletic, March 8 (paywalled):

The owners have already won.

What is most maddening about this league-initiated standoff, now approaching its 100th day, with Major League Baseball planning to cancel another week of games if the MLBPA does not accept its latest proposal by Tuesday, is the scope of the stakes. This is a contest of wills between titans over table scraps. The lack of seismic change being debated represents triumph for management. Yet fans cannot watch games until either the union caves or the men who control the teams declare victory. Neither outcome looks imminent....

It would be one thing if the players were asking for free agency after four seasons and a $4 million minimum salary. Or free agency after five years and a $2 million salary. Or even a $1 million salary and an alteration to MLB’s revenue-sharing system. In order to stage a season, in order to present the product to the public, the union has opted to permit MLB’s status quo to remain intact. They only asked to make gains within that structure. Even that, to the owners, was unacceptable.

[emphasis added.]

But much like an abusive narcissist who cannot admit fault, we must endure gaslighting amid the ongoing charade that baseball is broke, which appears so fundamentally untrue, the fact that anyone can attempt to say so with a straight face is laughable. Admittedly, that’s probably why Rob Manfred was chuckling at the press conference where he announced that the first week of the season was “canceled,” which explains why the next, now-aborted, cancellation was done through an email.

As much fun as it would be to (figuratively) torch the commissioner’s credibility, which in this case would be moot as he already did it to himself, the focus of this essay will center on what got us to this point. While the owners have been claiming poverty, seemingly since time immemorial, based on the available numbers, this assertion is likely a bald-faced lie. If the owners want to prove otherwise: they should open their books and show their math. Currently, we only have glimpses of finances due in part to the Atlanta Braves being part of a public portfolio. For more detail on the Funny Money as to that ballclub or how the Dodgers might end up with Freddie Freeman when in a perfect world, that scenario shouldn’t be possible much less probable because he’d already be signed, please refer back to Part 2.5.

Right now, it’s best to remember that are quite a few owners that have taken to reenacting one of my favorite plays...but for real. And it’s starting to royally tick me off.

“You can make more money with a flop than a hit!” - it’s not supposed to be an instruction manual

Much like 1984, The Producers is not meant to serve as an instruction manual for financial skullduggery. The showstopper is literally called “Springtime for Hitler,” it’s satire, people! But there’s a myth that needs to be addressed because most of you have accepted it without question, to the point of being dogma and fact, when in reality, it’s not true at all.

The myth is that there are small markets and there are big markets and the payroll disparity is just a part of life and the Players need to get over that.

This essay is going to make two arguments:

  1. The payroll disparity between the teams is comical now, and it’s breaking the sport. Even if you judge things on a curve, the players are right - too many teams are doing their best Max Bialystock impersonation and are essentially conceding the season in January, wasting their fans’ time.
  2. While there are smaller markets, there are no small owners - these low payrolls are entirely artificial. Altogether, especially when you consider the financial information discussed in Parts 1 and 2.5, the Owners have decided to drive the sport into the ditch, imperiling the first two months of the season until pulling the sport out of the fire on March 10, 2022.

Courtesy of Forbes, who complied the numbers as to the Competitive Balance Tax (“CBT”) that Major League Baseball provided to the Associated Press at the end of last season. The additional calculations are my own. The below chart lists a team’s 2021 CBT amounts at the conclusion of the season, whether a team made the post-season, when that team was eliminated from title contention (whether in the regular season or the postseason), and how much of a difference the team’s payroll was to the CBT in dollars and percentage.

Two clear trends emerge, as shown below:

MLB Payrolls as of the last day in 2021.

Team Made Playoffs Date Eliminated Total Difference to CBT by Dollars Difference to CBT by Percentage
Team Made Playoffs Date Eliminated Total Difference to CBT by Dollars Difference to CBT by Percentage
CBT Threshold $210,000,000.00
Dodgers X October 23 $285,599,944.00 $75,599,944.00 36.00%
Padres September 25 $216,467,391.00 $6,467,391.00 3.08%
Phillies October 1 $209,370,501.00 -$629,499.00 -0.30%
Yankees X October 5 $208,418,540.00 -$1,581,460.00 -0.72%
Mets September 25 $207,728,776.00 -$2,271,224.00 -1.09%
Red Sox X October 23 $207,640,471.00 -$2,359,529.00 -1.12%
Astros X November 2 $206,641,209.00 -$3,358,791.00 -1.60%
Angels September 21 $198,984,916.00 -$11,015,084.00 -5.23%
Cardinals X October 6 $198,350,234.00 -$11,649,766.00 -5.55%
White Sox X October 12 $177,837,827.00 -$32,162,176.00 -15.32%
Nationals September 17 $174,582,117.00 -$35,417,883.00 -16.87%
Giants X October 14 $173,481,453.00 -$36,518,547.00 -17.39%
Braves X Champion $172,630,704.00 -$37,369,296.00 -17.79%
Blue Jays October 3 $166,054,167.00 -$43,945,833.00 -20.93%
Cubs September 21 $165,665,645.00 -$44,334,355.00 -21.11%
Twins September 14 $145,511,247.00 -$64,488,753.00 -30.71%
Reds September 28 $144,248,891.00 -$65,751,109.00 -31.31%
Brewers X October 12 $131,990,136.00 -$78,009,864.00 -37.15%
Rockies September 24 $117,210,393.00 -$92,789,607.00 -44.19%
Rangers September 1 $111,309,808.00 -$98,690,192.00 -47.00%
Diamondbacks September 1 $109,387,132.00 -$100,612,868.00 -47.91%
Royals September 16 $108,026,769.00 -$101,973,231.00 -48.56%
Tigers September 19 $103,879,667.00 -$106,120,333.00 -50.53%
Mariners October 3 $102,679,174.00 -$107,320,826.00 -51.11%
Athletics September 27 $102,225,663.00 -$107,774,337.00 -51.32%
Rays X October 12 $89,833,652.00 -$120,116,348.00 -57.22%
Marlins September 19 $82,332,229.00 -$127,667,771.00 -60.79%
Orioles August 28 $76,348,834.00 -$133,651,166.00 -63.64%
Guardians September 23 $62,212,834.00 -$147,787,166.00 -70.37%
Pirates September 5 $61,812,141.00 -$148,187,859.00 -70.57%
Total $4,518,462,465.00
Median $155,588,446.00 -$54,411,554.00 -25.91%
Mean $150,615,415.50 -$59,384,584.50 -28.28%
Courtesy, in part, of Forbes by way of the Associated Press and Major League Baseball. Michael Elizondo

Hands up if anyone had the Pittsburgh Pirates with the lowest overall payroll in the major leagues in 2021. Okay - stop lying!

Trend One: Most of the postseason contenders were in the Top-15 in payroll. (Not surprising.)

Trend Two: With three exceptions, most of the teams with payrolls at least 40 percent less than the CBT threshold were nowhere close to a playoff spot and arguably were in some form of rebuild (planned or not). The exceptions were the Rays (duh), the Athletics (in it until the last week of the regular season), and the Mariners (in it until the last day of the regular season). (Also, not surprising.)

The Bottom Five in team payroll include one obvious candidate and four candidates that do not immediately jump to mind but are not that surprising:

  • 26) Rays, 27) Marlins, 28) Orioles, 29) Indians (now Guardians), and 30) Pirates.

Granted, as is commonly known, the Dodgers ended up spending a king’s ransom in 2021 for the privilege of making Tyler Matzek look like the “second coming” of Mariano Rivera.

It still grinds my gears to this day. Why relive this night? Because I’m dishing out a lot of salt towards other teams in this piece, and I feel it’s appropriate to acknowledge the Dodgers’ place in this mess.

Fun with charts

Yes, some of that 2021 Dodgers’ payroll money was a sunk cost (see Bauer, Trevor), but again, the point is not to demonstrate that the Dodgers led the league in payroll (they do) or that every team should spend like the Dodgers (they don’t, nor should they). As you can see from the above chart, spending money is not necessarily a guarantee of playoff success.

I am not arguing that there is a one-to-one correlation between spending and winning, but there is a likely correlation between spending and being competitive for a championship/getting into the postseason. Otherwise, if there was a strong correlation between spending and winning it all, we would be toasting a successful title defense (we’re not) and marveling how the Phillies, Nationals, and Angels had successful campaigns (they did not). The Phillies’ bullpen failed them (yet again, The Gang realizes, too late, that Charlie shouldn’t be a reliever), the Nationals are rebuilding after their fluke championship window closed (thanks for the memories say Max Scherzer and Trea Turner), and the Angels...tire fire, perpetual tire fire - the Indianapolis Colts of baseball - constantly wasting generational talents. (The video essays on these topics are well worth your time and I briefly discuss their creator later, but for now, we press on.)

But generally, there is a trend in last year’s team payroll figures - spend more than the median amount (i.e. be in the top-15 in payroll) and your team is more likely than not to be in contention to play relevant baseball in September/October.

Admittedly, I had to look up the dates of all the eliminated teams all over the place, because there was not a centralized database for when a particular team bowed out of contention to become champion. However, when gathering all this information I did expect a couple of trends that did largely play out:

  1. The cheapest teams, apart from the Rays, likely bowed out of playoff contention early. (Mostly true.)
  2. The Dodgers likely dwarfed spending in the league and would look ridiculous compared to the last-place spender. (They did and it does.)
  3. The median amount of MLB team payrolls would not be an uncompetitive number. (It’s on the lower end of what I would consider competitive, but there’s wiggle room to add $20 million in payroll and still be in the hunt.)

Still, this measurement is not perfect because a team can be mathematically viable but realistically be eliminated. It’s the equivalent of hospice care for baseball teams: at some point, the end is coming, but until it does - sometimes all you can do is wait. (A remark which was a lot less sad when I first started writing this essay - still waters run deep.)

“But Michael,” you say. “Are you arguing that every Major League team should spend like the Dodgers/Yankees/Mets? Are you arguing that every team should figuratively make it rain like a trust fund child at a strip club on spring break in Miami?”

No, absolutely not. You’ll note that the median value of $155,588,446 is only about 75 percent of the 2021 CBT Threshold Value of $210 million in the above chart. In case, you’ve forgotten, the median is the figure that is the exact halfway point of a dataset, in that half the results are greater than the median and half are less. The median of a dataset is distinct from a mean or average, which is calculated by adding up all the data points and dividing by the total number of data points. I prefer to use the median in this situation because extreme results tend to skew means, but in this case, the median and the mean are fairly comparable enough so that it’s not really an issue.

In any event, apart from the team results, I don’t think any of the fans in the top 15 in payroll would complain about the quality of their teams, except the Angels because they are the Angels (they’ve wasted Mike Trout for this long and now they are wasting Shohei Ohtani, it’s not exactly news here.)

Just over $4.5 billion dollars was spent on player salaries in 2021, after factoring in luxury tax penalties, costs for released players, etc., which is still somehow a decrease to levels not seen since 2015. Also, as all the teams, apart from Atlanta, have their books closed*, so we have to rely on the figures released by baseball to the Associated Press as the only barometer of costs, even though parsing debt loads is an inexact science based on this limited information.

[*Author’s Note: Technically, there are two teams owned by publicly traded entities: Atlanta and Toronto. However, Canadian law does not have this disclosure requirement, hence the Blue Jays’ finances are a mystery and in Canadian dollars, which is a mild pain to convert into American dollars.]

But truthfully, four and a half billion dollars - human beings stink at conceptualizing numbers that big. I found a clip to help visualize one billion dollars, so we can just multiply this technique by four.

Addressing the counter-arguments

As stated above, even the median amount of $155.6 million is only about 75 percent of the 2021 CBT Threshold Value of $210 million, which is in itself remarkable. Remember, 15 teams are above this median amount, which is still competitive (and most of the playoff field in 2021) but the median amount leaves about $60 million in wiggle room to breach the 2021 CBT maximum. Or approximately two Trevor Bauers in 2021, if we use his contract as a unit of measurement. In a perfect world, the owners of the bottom 15 teams in payroll in 2021, assuming the CBT were to remain steady, would pay an extra $50 million in salary.

I can see two counter-arguments.

First, well, if I’m an owner of a baseball club, why on Earth should I use my own money to help baseball operations? I bought the damn thing and now by virtue of my ownership, I now have ownership of part of the literally only legal monopoly in the United States. The TV money, advertising, ticket prices, revenue sharing are a license to print money. You plebs should pay for my upgraded stadium and be thankful I don’t move this team to Las Vegas, even though that would require me to visit Las Vegas, which is generally awful. But the city does have a Nobu now, so I’ll live.

If the above paragraph is the owner’s true position, the unspoken truth that dare not be said, then there is not a counter for that argument. How can you shame someone who would truly be that shameless? When I first wrote this essay, it did not even occur to me that if I was in a position of owning a team, of course, I’d put some of my own funds in, because my first thought is “I want to win,” rather than “I want to make money” or in this case “I want to make money with other people’s money.

However, I can see the other counter-argument, which actually does have a counter based on math and reason:

Michael, baseball is not like the NFL where the national TV money funds the bulk of operations. It is an unreasonable expectation to expect every team to spend like the Dodgers, Mets, and Yankees. It is an unreasonable expectation to expect every team to spend every penny of their payroll just shy of the threshold.

Is this argument unreasonable? I don’t know, so let’s take a closer look at those bottom fifteen teams.

If the owners had a point as to their argument of financial strength and parity, one would imagine that the bottom fifteen would clump together and have comparable team payrolls, only separated because it’s a mathematical curve. Let’s also compare the CBT threshold itself to the median to see how much of a difference of a value difference it is.

And for fun, let’s also compare Atlanta’s payroll to the median amount, because a) they are the current champions, b) because their financial information is public (again see Part 2.5), and c) it’s my essay, and d) I’m curious.

And for even more fun, let’s also throw the Dodgers into the mix in this analysis, because a) this website is a Dodgers’ website, b) I think it will be funny, and c) comparing the financial might to this lowered amount will likely show a massive, almost comical, disparity from the top to the bottom.

And I was right, and by extension, the owners, like Bob Nutting (shocker) are wrong.

Values in Relation to the Median

Team Made Playoffs Date Eliminated Total Difference to Median by Dollars Difference to Median by Percentage
Team Made Playoffs Date Eliminated Total Difference to Median by Dollars Difference to Median by Percentage
CBT Threshold $210,000,000.00 $54,411,554.00 34.97%
Median $155,588,446.00 $0.00 0.00%
Dodgers X October 23 $285,599,944.00 $130,011,498.00 83.56%
Braves X Champion $172,630,704.00 $17,042,258.00 10.95%
Twins September 14 $145,511,247.00 -$10,077,199.00 -6.48%
Reds September 28 $144,248,891.00 -$11,339,555.00 -7.29%
Brewers X October 12 $131,990,136.00 -$23,598,310.00 -15.17%
Rockies September 24 $117,210,393.00 -$38,378,053.00 -24.67%
Rangers September 1 $111,309,808.00 -$44,278,638.00 -28.46%
Diamondbacks September 1 $109,387,132.00 -$46,201,314.00 -29.69%
Royals September 16 $108,026,769.00 -$47,561,677.00 -30.57%
Tigers September 19 $103,879,667.00 -$51,708,779.00 -33.23%
Mariners October 3 $102,679,174.00 -$52,909,272.00 -34.01%
Athletics September 27 $102,225,663.00 -$53,362,783.00 -34.30%
Rays X October 12 $89,833,652.00 -$65,754,794.00 -42.26%
Marlins September 19 $82,332,229.00 -$73,256,217.00 -47.08%
Orioles August 28 $76,348,834.00 -$79,239,612.00 -50.93%
Guardians September 23 $62,212,834.00 -$93,375,612.00 -60.01%
Pirates September 5 $61,812,141.00 -$93,776,305.00 -60.27%
Wow - the Pirates payroll looks somehow worse when you grade it on a curve. Michael Elizondo

Now, again, I am not arguing that paying equals winning. I suppose I am arguing that paying equals being competitive. I suppose if every bottom-15-team was three children in a trench coat, like the Rays, backed with analytics and card counting, this level of team payroll disparity would not be (as much of) an issue. That’s not to say that the Rays are a model franchise, but we’re not at Part 4 yet and discussing the Lilliputians’ Revenge, so I’ll leave that thread hanging for now. But as we all well know, some of the teams on this list have been almost-perennially bad at this point, in large part fueling the attendance crisis in the sport (Part 5).

Looking at the teams on this list, generally, it’s the who’s who of suffering baseball franchises ...and the Twins, which in some way is a tautology. (Win a playoff game, Twins, and the mockery will stop.) The Twins were supposed to be good and then had a cruddy year - it happens. The Reds were a sleeper pick for the second wild card until they got beat by the Cardinals. The Brewers won the NL Central.

The next teams are basically in some degree of tank/rebuild, as to how long, for some the stay would be quick, and for some, it’s like waiting for Godot (Editor’s note: not waiting for Goudeau). The Rockies are just bad, and yet they seem to think they are competitive - okay then, I don’t have time for delusional. The Rangers have been bad, but they spent a king’s ransom on Marcus Seimen, Corey Seager, likely Clayton Kershaw (sorry - but if it makes you feel better, it’s likely going to go as well as Willie Mays with the Mets or Chan Ho Park with the Rangers) to become a dark horse to be competitive in the AL West if everything goes right and Houston and Seattle have down years (at best). The Diamondbacks ...yeah, their tank/rebuild just started. The Royals - likely a few years away from relevance at best. The Tigers - they’ve been rebuilding since the wheels came off at the end of the 2010s, wandering the AL Central like the Israelites at this point. The Mariners were somehow competitive until the last possible moment while maintaining a minimum payroll - can they do it again? No idea. Maybe? (If any Mariners fans happen by, please feel free to educate us.) The Athletics have all but said they are going to be terrible for the next few years until they move to Las Vegas/allegedly blackmail, er exert political will on the city of Oakland into building Howard Terminal (see Part 4). The Rays are the Rays (see Part 4). The Marlins somehow lost value as a team this past year (shocker) and Derek Jeter bailed as an owner/shareholder. Trevor Rogers is pretty good though - it’ll be great to see him play for a contender in a couple of years.

The Orioles have been terrible for so long, I actually forgot they made the Wild Card game in 2016. The Guardians literally sold themselves for parts last year (looks at Francisco Lindor) and the Pirates...well...yeah...

Pirates baseball - catch the fever!

[Please note that being a fan of Pirates baseball is a non-communicable disease that can result in indigestion, irritability, constipation, diarrhea, loss of hair, loss of sight, and hysterical pregnancy. If symptoms of Pirates baseball linger for more than three hours, literally go do something else. If the symptoms still persist, please contact your local physician or a spiritual advisor of your choice. They likely cannot help you, but it’ll make you feel better. Note, listed symptoms do not apply if you are not a fan of Pirates baseball. But each city has its own unique symptoms. See: San Francisco: being insufferable and perpetual persecution complex.]

I love you, Pittsburgh, even if your regional style of pizza doesn’t make a lick of sense to me.

Can’t beat that view. PNC Park. June 8, 2021.
Michael Elizondo

More fun with charts

Ah, but you might be thinking of the myth to excuse the owners of the teams I have just mentioned:

Michael, there are rich teams and there are poor teams. It’s not fair to compare owners like Bob Nutting of the Pirates or John J. Fisher of the Athletics to Steve Cohen of the Mets or the Guggenheim Group of the Dodgers. There’s even a movie about this very point!

Want me to blow your mind? These payrolls are entirely artificial - there are small-market teams, but the owners could and should pay more. Again, I am not arguing that everyone needs to spend like the Dodgers/Mets/Yankees. But if you can’t field a roster that’s at least within $50 million dollars of the CBT threshold, then you likely aren’t trying and you are embracing your inner Max Bialystock. I’m saying that if you can’t spend like the Giants, the Blue Jays, the White Sox - what are you even doing?

Why? Because most, if not all of the MLB owners are billionaires to a man. But you don’t have to take my word for it, as the Los Angeles Times recently did some of my work for me compiling a list of all the owners, listing their net worth, what they bought their respective teams for and what the teams are currently valued. It’s great stuff from Mike DiGiovanna, on February 28.

I am going to present you portions of that data but put it in the same order as the first chart while listing the team payroll in 2021. I’m presenting the information this way so that you can see how the argument of “we’re not going to spend money I don’t have” is entirely artificial. Check it out as I had fun with the title.

The Hypocrisy Chart of Baseball

Team Total Owner Net Worth Purchase Price Year Purchased Current Franchise Valuation
Team Total Owner Net Worth Purchase Price Year Purchased Current Franchise Valuation
CBT Threshold $210,000,000
Dodgers $285,599,944 $3,400,000,000 $2,150,000,000 2012 $3,600,000,000
Padres $216,467,391 $3,000,000,000 $800,000,000 2012 $1,760,000,000
Phillies $209,370,501 $3,300,000,000 $30,000,000 1981 $2,100,000,000
Yankees $208,418,540 $3,800,000,000 $8,800,000 1973 $5,250,000,000
Mets $207,728,776 $16,000,000,000 $2,400,000,000 2020 $2,500,000,000
Red Sox $207,640,471 $2,600,000,000 $380,000,000 2002 $3,400,000,000
Astros $206,641,209 $1,300,000,000 $465,000,000 2011 $1,870,000,000
Angels $198,984,916 $3,300,000,000 $183,500,000 2003 $2,030,000,000
Cardinals $198,350,234 $4,000,000,000 $150,000,000 1995 $2,200,000,000
White Sox $177,837,827 $1,500,000,000 $20,000,000 1981 $1,690,000,000
Nationals $174,582,117 $4,500,000,000 $450,000,000 2006 $1,900,000,000
Giants $173,481,453 $4,400,000,000 $100,000,000 1993 $3,200,000,000
Braves $172,630,704 $6,600,000,000 $450,000,000 2007 $1,880,000,000
Blue Jays $166,054,167 $9,029,581,500 $165,000,000 2000 $1,680,000,000
Cubs $165,665,645 $1,800,000,000 $700,000,000 2009 $3,400,000,000
Twins $145,511,247 $3,800,000,000 $44,000,000 1984 $1,330,000,000
Reds $144,248,891 $400,000,000 $270,000,000 2006 $1,080,000,000
Brewers $131,990,136 $700,000,000 $223,000,000 2005 $1,200,000,000
Rockies $117,210,393 $700,000,000 $190,000,000 1993 $1,300,000,000
Rangers $111,309,808 $2,000,000,000 $593,000,000 2010 $1,790,000,000
Diamondbacks $109,387,132 $600,000,000 $238,000,000 2004 $1,320,000,000
Royals $108,026,769 $1,250,000,000 $1,000,000,000 2019 $1,060,000,000
Tigers $103,879,667 $3,800,000,000 $82,000,000 1992 $1,260,000,000
Mariners $102,679,174 $1,100,000,000 $1,200,000,000 2016 $1,630,000,000
Athletics $102,225,663 $2,200,000,000 $180,000,000 2005 $1,130,000,000
Rays $89,833,652 $800,000,000 $200,000,000 2004 $1,060,000,000
Marlins $82,332,229 $500,000,000 $1,200,000,000 2020 $990,000,000
Orioles $76,348,834 $2,000,000,000 $173,000,000 1993 $1,400,000,000
Guardians $62,212,834 $4,600,000,000 $323,000,000 2000 $1,160,000,000
Pirates $61,812,141 $1,100,000,000 $92,000,000 1996 $1,290,000,000
Bet you didn’t realize the vast majority of owners were rich beyond the dreams of avarice. Michael Elizondo

The caption is a quote from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Personally, it’s not the best Star Trek movie (I would entertain arguments for Wrath of Khan, Undiscovered Country, or First Contact), but it’s the most fun Star Trek movie. I used to work near Chinatown in San Francisco and I have fond memories of exploring various spots for lunch. I can’t help you if you didn’t laugh at any of the below clip.

“I can’t give you money that I don’t have.” - Debunking the lie of the current MLB era

Let’s wrap this essay up with some takeaways from this last chart.

  • First, my argument of a valuation bubble in Part 1 looks a lot more convincing.

When you see the financial health owners that most recently joined the ranks bought at the height of the market, and your name is not Steve Cohen, and compare it to their respective team payroll, there’s a stronger argument that I’m right. Dear god, $16 billion though?!? And yet he still got slapped on the wrist for insider trading. Fun fact, Bobby Axelrod from ‘Billions’ is, at worst, inspired by the exploits of Steve Cohen. That sentence is gross.

But for everyone else who joined recently the ownership ranks recently, it’s no wonder they are having trouble fielding a competitive roster. I’m specifically looking at the Marlins (who are currently the only team underwater in value based on the purchase price - at least that we know of) and Royals. For these two squads, if you are channeling your inner Frank McCourt and getting in over your head, no wonder you’d (likely) be screaming that you allegedly want to break the Players Association in order to keep costs down.

  • Second, there’s a financial storm brewing in Cincinnati.

As you may recall, the Reds are actively stating that they are cutting payroll. Per John Perrotto, Forbes, November 5, 2021:

While the Reds had no control over [Nick] Castellanos’ decision [to opt out of the final two years of his contract], it seems his leaving Cincinnati dovetails with the organization’s direction, especially taking into account comments general manager Nick Krall made following the [Tucker] Barnhart trade [to Detroit for a low-A ball minor leaguer].

“Having been drafted and developed by the Reds, our entire organization has a connection to (Barnhart) and our fans love him,” Krall said following the Barnhart trade. “But going into 2022, we must align our payroll to our resources and continue focusing on scouting and developing young talent from within our system.”

In other words, the Reds plan to get younger and cheaper.

Coming off the franchise’s first postseason appearance since 2013, the Reds opened the 2021 season with a $122-million payroll. That ranked 17th among the 30 major league teams.

[Emphasis added.]

GABP from the outside. September 17, 2021.
Michael Elizondo

Of course, the Reds have to get cheaper, they have been spending on a level akin to someone with three times the financial resources of their owner. As a result, that financial check is coming due soon. Cincinnati is a decent baseball town and their ballpark is alright. It’s not Pittsburgh, but under the right circumstances, yeah, I’d go back.

The financial pinch coming is the only way to explain why the Reds are entertaining trades for pieces that you would normally build around. Castellanos hasn’t said why he left, but I’d be shocked if he didn’t opt out because he was oblivious to the financial trends coming to a head in Cincinnati.

As such, the (Reds’) Emperor has no clothes and people (most notably, their fans /waves to the Reds’ community) are starting to notice. Moreover, their owner is one of the four owners who allegedly would have voted against any bump to the CBT threshold prior to the commissioner canceling the first week of the season. These owners’ position doesn’t make any sense because apart from Arte Moreno in Anaheim, none of these owners were spending anywhere close to the CBT threshold in 2021! Granted, the Reds were on the high-side of the bottom-15, which is likely to change if Reds’ owner Bob Castellini has his way in cutting costs.

Palette-cleanser shot from inside GABP on September 18, 2021.
Michael Elizondo
  • Third, some of the players are rich, but the owners are wealthy.

Based on everything we’ve seen so far, clearly this fight is one between the 1 percent and MLB’s 99 percent. The topic point is from an old bit of Chris Rock’s. He said that about the fact while Shaq was rich, the white man who signed Shaq’s check was wealthy. Rock also said that wealth is generational and that you can’t give it away, while you can stop being rich with a crazy summer and a drug habit.

  • Fourth, if not an outright storm, careful attention will likely need to be paid to the perpetual clown show that is the Miami Marlins.

Based on what we know, the team is currently underwater in value and they’ve lost a minority owner/stockholder in Derek Jeter. Whether that means that the Marlins are the equivalent of a subprime mortgage at the end of the bubble, overpriced, overextended, and ripe for financial calamity, or whether this financial snapshot is equivalent of taking a photograph at an inopportune time (say mid-sneeze), we’ll have to wait and see now things develop.

  • Finally, Bob Nutting leads the fake-Pauper’s Brigade.

I promised you guys a nickname for the cheapskate owners, and there it is. As I’ve shown, most of the owners of the bottom 15 teams are billionaires and as such, there’s no reason for their respective team payrolls to be so far below the median value of Major League teams. For the bottom 12 teams, you could add $50 million and still not exceed what Atlanta paid in for its championship roster. Lest we forget, the Pirates have been at this scheme for a while.

There’s a reason that this essay has borne a special level of animus towards Bob Nutting, the owner of the Pirates. Full disclosure, I’m not from Pittsburgh and I’ve only been the once. I had an absolute blast. Pittsburgh, the town, the city, and the ballpark are the jewel of Major League Baseball. Yes, even more so than Dodger Stadium, and personally Dodger Stadium will always feel like home.

And, in researching this piece, I was legitimately shocked to find some Pittsburgh fans who were defending his ownership tenure. The Pirates had one-fifth of the payroll of the Dodgers in 2021. Yes, I realize that is an unfair comparison, so let’s compare the Pirates to the division champion Brewers, who are also in the bottom 15 of team payroll.

Survey says: $61.8 million versus $132 million. That’s quite literally just less than half the total payroll of the Brewers. And there’s no reason for it as far as I can tell! Yes, the team is rebuilding yet again after another brief fling with relevance and then driving itself into a ditch, but the development is more like a generational failing in philosophy than outright trying to channel poverty into profitability. All I know for certain is that Nutting bought the Pirates for a shade under $100 million dollars ($92 million) just over 25 years ago. The team is now valued at just under $1.3 billion dollars now, which is an increase of over 1400%! This team should have the resources to be competitive; using those resources to actually be competitive is another story entirely.

Remember, Rob Manfred said that owning a team is less lucrative than being in the stock market. You can likely safely call him a liar now. Never mind what Nutting has personally done or not done outside of baseball because that behavior is outside the scope of this essay. All I can do is look at the results where Pittsburgh has served as a glorified puppy kennel for the other teams in the league (oh look Tyler Glasnow, Gerrit Cole, Austin Meadows are legitimate stars now - too bad for the team that let go - yup, you guessed it!) having moments of seemingly accidental relevance before sinking back into putrescence. And all the while, Bob Nutting makes money off the long-suffering citizens of Pittsburgh. From what I was able to tell when I was there, most of the Pittsburgh faithful are well aware of the con and have resigned themselves that he’s not going anywhere.

But to conclude, I’ll let a native Pittsburgher say it better than I could from a rant posted after the Pirates’ collapse in 2018: Steve Linkowski, aka UrinatingTree, or Tree - so we’ll defer to that sobriquet. Tree is a YouTuber who focuses on Pittsburgh sports, as well as doing long-form video essays on the NFL, NHL, and baseball. The ones I have linked to are genuinely interesting and well worth your time in a setting where you can find the time.

Tree is brash, hilarious, and a true blue-collar guy. I wouldn’t mind interviewing him before he gets too big to be unrelatable. He also collaborates frequently with YouTubers Tom Grossi and FivePointsVids (Adam Jaxson) - who are also worth checking out, but who are not specifically relevant to this essay. Shoutouts to everyone involved, and I certainly hope Tree does not mind my admiration of his work and constantly referring to it as a starting point for my own.

And you know the worst part of Nutting’s behavior? He keeps reminding me of another owner who was frequently cheap as to team payroll and kept saying all the right things re: owner-speak about the players making too much, etc., etc. Yes, this owner just kept hanging around, while cashing checks until the owners revolted against the yoke of Fay Vincent and he was made commissioner. This man served until he retired and was replaced by Rob Manfred. Yeah, I’m referring to Bud Selig.

And if the financial trends in baseball aren’t adjusted in a major way, I could easily envision a scenario where Nutting ends up as commissioner after Manfred. Manfred as a guardian of the game has been an absolute joke, but remember that description isn’t his job. He’s paid by the owners to represent their interests, and on that score, they are likely quite happy at the moment. Heck, they’ll probably extend his contract after all this labor strife, which is now over - for now.

But, as I’ve repeatedly said, it’s not my money.

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