On the Diamondbacks' Payroll and Sustained Success

Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images

I’d like to start this post with a "long time listener, first time caller" type introduction. I’ve been following this community for years and always enjoyed the analysis and seeing the different perspectives in the comments sections. I even took part in the fantasy league several seasons ago. I don’t comment on the stories or post in the GDTs at all anymore, but I’m here today with a piece to speak and I’d like to hear your opinions on it.

As we lick our wounds following the valiant conclusion to our 2023 season, I wanted to dig into something that had been nagging at me since our Game 1 loss in the NLCS. A common refrain from that game all the way through this morning after our season ended across forums that I follow was other fanbases congratulating us and repeating "your future is bright". It was an innocent and well-meaning comment, but it still hurt because I knew in my heart that it wasn’t true. While we have good, cost-controlled talent that played excellent baseball through to the ultimate series of the season, asking this club, with so little invested in starting pitching or proven bats, to win 13 games in October is a bit outrageous. The margins are razor thin. Asking them to do it two years in a row? *Gulp*

Now, I don’t want to hear about how the Mets and Yankees and Padres spent record amounts of money and missed the playoffs. There’s stories like that every single year on both sides of the spending coin. I firmly believe that any year, anything can happen. I am still concerned about the future, though. Considering our usually-low salary spending, is the future really that bright for us?

I took a look at the playoff participants in the last 10 seasons (arbitrary cutoff disclaimer) and compared those teams who made at least the Championship Series with their payroll standing relative to the league. Of the 40 teams who made at least the LCS, 25 came from the top 10 in that season’s payroll standings. Not overwhelming, sure, but the fact is nearly two-thirds of LCS participants in the last 10 years came from the top-third of spenders in the league. Going a step further, 14 pennant winners in the last 10 seasons (70%) were top 10 spenders and 8 of the last 10 World Series champions have come from the top 10 as well.

That is just a snapshot of success in a singular season, though. We just saw success this year with a relatively low payroll (21st in the league if you are wondering), but what can payroll tell me about staying power? Looking at the same data from earlier, I found sustained success even more heavily favors the well-funded franchises. Over the past 10 seasons, of the 20 franchises with at least one trip to the LCS, only two have multiple appearances in the LCS without a top-10 payroll (KC in ‘14 and ‘15; TOR in ‘15 and ‘16). Contrast that with the list of teams with multiple appearances in an LCS while being in the top-10 in spending at least once: Houston (7x, 5 top-10), LA Dodgers (5x all top-10), New York Yankees (3x all top-10), Chicago Cubs (3x, 2 top-10), Boston and Philadelphia (2x all top-10), Atlanta and St. Louis (2x, 1 top-10). Final tally is 10 teams in the last decade had multiple trips to the LCS, and 8 had at least one of those seasons spending in the top-10.

Major League Baseball has touted the payroll parity of teams making the playoffs in recent seasons, but the results on the field in October have clearly been heavily favoring those teams who spend the highest.

Why write all this? Part of it is probably the salty, small market fan in me that just had to watch my scrappy, but in the end overmatched, DBacks lose to a more expensive roster in the World Series. They succumbed to a roster that was paid over $280m, almost 2.5x what Diamondbacks paid to field their team. I don’t want to belittle the contributions of anyone on the Rangers roster, because they had many guys who had moments that are still on arbitration-level salaries, but their two best position players to close out the Series in Games 4 and 5 were also their highest paid players. Their two starters in Games 4 and 5, who gave up a combined 1 run in 11 IP, both made more money than our highest paid player.

Mostly, though, I felt a need to put onto paper, er, word processor, why I feel so strongly that, as much as I love this version of the DBacks and will look back on this season more fondly the further into the rearview it goes, I don’t expect any sort of sustained, championship-level success from them due to ownership that has long been middle-of-the-pack at best in spending.

We have several good youngsters, one with an MVP-ceiling. But having one, or even two MVPs (see: Angels), doesn’t guarantee you playoff success. We have one more year of Sewald and Walker plus two years of Gallen and Kelly in addition to our promising young guns of Carroll and Moreno, Pfaadt and Thomas. For 2024, we have a solid foundation, but we know what the holes are. According to the league’s recent history, asking this group to run it back while only adding reclamation projects or one-last-paycheck contributors (all due respect to the amazing career of Evan Longoria) is a bad bet.

Maybe I’m setting the bar of the LCS and World Series a little too high. Maybe just making the playoffs is a better standard for success. Sure, everyone wants to win it all, but 29 teams fail at that every year so… Nope, sorry, can’t do it. I want to win titles. I want banners, or whatever we call those metal signs at Chase. I want management to realize the insanely cheap production they already have under contract and say, "we’re (censored) dangerous!" and inject some extra juice to our payroll next season.

I’ll conclude by saying I’m under no illusion that Kendrick and Hall will all of a sudden open the floodgates and become perennial top-spenders, and I think us fans do have to bear some of that responsibility. The DBacks never rank highly in attendance (20th this season). I also know I’ve been proud of the franchise for maintaining the cheapest ballpark experience in the league since probably 1998. So yeah, I feel like we, as a fanbase, are partly at fault for the low salary ceiling. I’ll also admit that maybe the new playoff format with even more teams (and those unfair layoffs for the top teams lol), may lead to more "surprise" teams making the LCS. Shoot, maybe the DBacks can be one of the outliers, a la 2015 Royals, that can win a chip with below-median spending. But it sure would be nice to know that we don’t have to start Joe Mantiply in Game 4 of the 2024 World Series or have Pavin Smith be our starting Designated Hitter in any playoff game.

Seriously. Pavin. Smith.