Build a Better Baseball Team -- Cheap

Baseball is played on a field of green. Cash, that is, which is as much a part of the game as the outfield grass. And for the clubs, error-free handling of the money -- particularly players' salaries -- is every bit as important as cleanly snagging liners off Mo Vaughn's bat.

What is the price tag on success in major-league baseball? Some teams spend hugely on players and get nothing for it. Others spend little, but through wisdom and self-discipline scrape together winning ballclubs. The Montreal Expos and the San Diego Padres are two such teams, franchises that have assembled winners this year, despite their more limited financial means. Looking at how they've conducted themselves -- and at the extravagant ways of other teams, like the Yankees -- provides a stadiumful of insight on how the game can be run in an era where some players and owners grow rich, while the fans shell out more and more for the sport they love.

What does it really cost to win a baseball game?

In the past few years, the Expos and the Padres conducted fire sales of their stars, and the rich clubs greedily gobbled them up. But in 1996 the Expos and Padres are teaching the big boys how to play the game. After the first two months of the season (all statistics in this story are based on play through May 31), San Diego had won only one fewer game as the vaunted Indians and Braves, and Montreal was close behind.

With a payroll of only $27 million a year, San Diego had 34 wins. Montreal, with only $15 million to spend, had won 31. The Yankees, who spend $53 million on players -- the most in baseball -- had bought exactly two victories fewer than Montreal. The Orioles, who have the second largest payroll, were three behind. In terms of salaries, each Yankee victory in the first two months of the year cost the club $609,000. Each Oriole victory went for $588,000. San Diego, on the other hand, spent only $267,000 per win. And the Expos bought their victories at a bargain-basement $166,000 each -- the best return on the dollar in baseball.

How is it possible for a poor club to create a winner in such a money-driven game? The Expos new general manager, Jim Beattie, helped put together the Seattle Mariners division champs of '95. Now, with the help of manager Filipe Alou, he's fashioning a miracle in Montreal.

After their great 1994 year, when the strike cheated them out of a sure World Series, the Expos lost slugger Larry Walker ($4.4 million, .322 batting average) to Colorado; as of May 31 he was batting .283. They got Henry Rodriguez ($210,000) from the Dodgers in '95. He's now leading the league in RBIs and could be the next Roger Maris. Montreal unloaded second baseman Delino Deshields ($3 million) to Los Angeles, and replaced him with defensive ace Mike Lansing ($315,000). Deshields is now batting .254; Lansing, .324.

That's hardly all. The Expos lost Marquis Grissom ($4.8 million, .288) to Atlanta, where he is hitting .289. His replacement, Rondell White ($300,000), was batting .300 before being injured. Pitcher Ken Hill ($3 million, with a 16-5 win-loss record) went to St. Louis, then to Cleveland, where he fell to a total 10-8 last season. Closer John Wetteland ($4 million, 25 saves) was lost to the Yankees and replaced by Mel Rojas (30 saves at half the pay). And when first-base prospect Cliff Floyd was hurt, they splurged on David Segui of the Mets, who wanted to unload his $1.6 million salary. Segui is now batting .329.

But, Beattie emphasizes, the secret "starts from scouting." While other teams shell out big bucks for free-agent has-beens, the Expos grow 'em cheap down on the farm.

Mark Grudzielanek, their .346-hitting leadoff man who after two months led the league in runs, may be a surprise to the rest of baseball, but not to Beattie. Grudzie was the MVP of the Eastern League minors two years ago. A spot opened for him when the Expos sent shortstop Wil Cordero to Boston, where he is batting .287. Cordero's salary: $1.9 million; Grudzielanek's: $135,000. Pitcher Pedro Martinez is another homegrown youngster. He was 5-1, after two months, at a salary of $315,000.

Total cost for Rodriguez, Grudzie, Lansing, and Martinez: less than a million bucks for the bunch. Montreal covered that simply by shunting Sean Berry and his million-dollar salary to Houston, where he is hitting .278.

"I don't think buying a free agent is the way to spend your money," Beattie says. "Certainly there's a correlation between having good players and being able to spend money. But there are other parts of the equation, like putting a team together. It's a team game."

Beattie looks for youngsters who will be major-leaguers in two or three years. They can't gamble on three or four years down the road, although "patience with young players is often rewarded. Our players have a feeling of comfort that they're going to get a good shot to play, because we're financially not in a position to go out and get a veteran to step in."

Beattie admits he looks forward wistfully to a future of revenue sharing, so he can play Rotisserie league baseball with the rich boys. But the Expos already practice a very effective form of revenue sharing: when a youngster's salary demands get too high, the rich teams step in and share their revenue by taking him off their payroll. Then Beattie finds a new hot-and-hungry bargain beauty in Ottawa or Harrisburg to replace him.

There comes a point -- at about 26 years old or $3 million -- when a Hungry Young Winner can no longer possibly earn his pay in extra games won on the field. At that point he ceases to be a Hungry Youngster and becomes a Deadwood Dick, another term for "free agent."

Bobby Bonnilla ($5.1 million), Danny Tartabull ($5.3 million), and Cecil Fielder ($9.2 million) are prime examples. Barry Bonds ($8.4 million) and Ken Griffey Jr. ($7.5 million) are strong candidates to join them.

"Salary does not dictate performance," one Montreal official says dryly. "When you buy a free agent, you're paying for what he did, not what he's going to do."

The man who built the great '94 Expos on an $18.8 million shoestring -- Dan Duquette -- was lured away to Boston, who have a budget of $39.4 million. Since then, the Red Sox went from first to next-to-last, while the Expos went from last to second. "He's changed his philosophy," the official says. "Now he's buying ballplayers."

Among Duquette's Boston purchases: Jose Canseco ($4.5 million, .275) and Tom Gordon ($2.9 million, 5-2). That's half of Montreal's payroll right there. Among the holdovers, Roger Clemens ($5.5 million, 3-5) and Mike Greenwell ($3.7 million, hitting .222 before being injured) represent the rest of the Expos' pay sheet. In Montreal they would have been gone a decade ago.

The New York teams have their own problems. The Yankees sport the largest payroll in the game: $8.7 million a month. They may regret landing Tino Martinez ($2.3 million) and Joe Girardi ($2.25 million). Martinez's .266 average does not justify his pay. Girardi seems to have left his vaunted defensive skills in Colorado, and his .285 batting average is misleading, since he leaves too many men on base in losing games.

Ruben Sierra, surprisingly, is having a strong year, leading the team in timely game-winning runs produced. Montreal couldn't afford his $6.2 million salary, but George Steinbrenner's checkbook is bulging and he needed the tax write-off. The Yanks were smart to get rid of Danny Tartabull, though, who for years was a drag on their offense. With the White Sox this year, he's up to his old tricks of flunking in the clutch, and he leads the league in losing games by stranding crucial runners.

The stars in the Yankee lineup have been Andy Pettitte, who is 7-3 on a $150,000 salary, and Gerald Williams, hitting .327 for a measly $200,000 -- and many of his hits have been gamers.

For the Mets -- who make so much money they could give away all their tickets for free and still turn a profit -- Pete Harnisch's $3.5 million paycheck reflects past glories, not present values. And Jeff Kent's .263 average is a $2 million luxury -- something the Expos would never be able to afford. (Despite some big contracts, the Mets spend only 29.3 per cent of their income on players' salaries, the least in the league. See sidebar, "Ballpark Figures.")

Out on the sunny California coast, San Diego general manager Kevin Tower has taken a different path than Montreal. The Padres have bought or traded for most of their lineup.

Their biggest splurge was Wally Joyner of Kansas City, who cost $5 million and was hitting .321 before breaking his thumb recently. And the key to their attack, Ken Caminiti ($3 million, .315), came in a trade from Houston.

At $2 million, 37-year-old Rickey Henderson, .211, was not one of their best moves. However, young Mark Newfield is hitting .319, makes $142,500, and is ready to step into Henderson's shoes. Catcher Brian Johnson is batting .318, makes $170,000, and wants to be the starter.

But if San Diego spends its way to the top, it plans to stay there the same way Montreal does. Tower is the former scouting director, and he has plenty of eager youngsters at their Las Vegas minor-league team who are anxious to come up.

"We have some great young talent," a Padres spokesman says. "We're very solid at the moment, with few holes, and in Triple-A we've got a lot of guys who just didn't make the parent club. We definitely have starting pitching to replace Bob Tewksbury ($1.5 million, 5-1). In Las Vegas we have one of the best relief staffs, and our Double-A club, Memphis, is the best team in the league.

"We're signing young guys for extended contracts who we'd like to keep together a couple years."

Meanwhile, Montreal isn't waiting for baseball to legislate a salary cap or revenue sharing. They're practicing both already. And they're making money. With a profit of $7 million last year, they ranked seventh in the major leagues. "We're committed to staying in Montreal," says Beattie. "We must be a success here."

Remember the ultimate Hungry Young Winners, the Miracle Mets of 1969? They're reincarnated today in Montreal. If the Expos played in New York, Shea Stadium wouldn't be big enough for the crowds.

None of this is to argue that more cash should disappear into the owners' pockets. Instead, it shows how baseball teams can use money more wisely and efficiently to benefit players and fans alike. Rather than underachieving veterans biting off the lion's share of salary dollars, rookies and younger players ought to be more fairly paid for their obvious productivity. And when even a bad upper-deck seat at Yankee Stadium costs $11.50, with a hot dog and a small beer setting you back eight bucks -- all in the blare of an advertising barrage from the jumbo scoreboard -- well, maybe a more reasonable pay structure would make it possible to cut ticket and concession prices, giving something back to those who most deserve it, the folks who ultimately pay everybody's salaries: the fans. That's our $609,000 a victory, after all.

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