Behind in the count

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Toronto Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi came to a simple conclusion recently.

The American League East is a completely different animal from baseball's other divisions. You still need to put a hungry, selfless, hard-working team out on the field every day. But you also must spend cash, too.

"I don't think you are going to compete in our division on a $50 million payroll. That's just inconceivable," said Ricciardi, who increased his club's salaries from about $50 million to $73 million this year. "I think our division is the toughest division in baseball."

With the Chicago White Sox winning the World Series last season and the Florida Marlins doing it in 2003, mid-to-lower-tier payrolls have proved it's not how much you spend, but how wisely.

Yet in the AL East, the disparity has been so great that it's tough to dismiss economics when talking about titles. The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox have finished 1-2 in the division for the past eight seasons. Not coincidentally, those teams have spent the most money overall - by far - in that period.

This season won't be any different, at least in the races for most money spent and top revenues received. Although 2006 payroll numbers are not yet official, the Yankees again will easily be No. 1 in the majors with an estimated roster totaling about $190 million. Boston is second in baseball with a projected payroll nearing $135 million.

The only other team expected to cross the $100 million mark on Opening Day is the New York Mets in the National League East.

To put the AL East's spending into proper perspective, the Yankees' payroll is expected to be about $11 million more than the Blue Jays' (an estimated $73 million), the Orioles' (estimated $70 million) and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' ($36 million) combined.

The left side of the Yankees infield, third baseman Alex Rodriguez ($25 million) and shortstop Derek Jeter (about $21 million, including prorated signing bonuses), out-earns the Devil Rays' entire 25-man roster by almost $10 million.

"Not only that," adds Devil Rays senior vice president Gerry Hunsicker, "but [the Yankees'] total payroll by far is more than the total revenue that this franchise will generate in a year."

In other words, the Yankees spend more on salaries than the Devil Rays will make in all baseball facets in 2006. And, in a competitive environment that pits different markets against each other, there is no realistic solution to level the field barring a salary cap, which the powerful players union would never let happen.

To compete dollar-to-dollar with the Red Sox's and the Yankees' lucrative television deals, soaring merchandising and advertising sales and salty ticket prices, the Blue Jays, Orioles and Devil Rays would have to substantially increase their current streams of revenue. Ticket prices, as an example, likely would have to escalate to the point where games would be cost-prohibitive for many fans in those cities - which would defeat the purpose of raising the cost.

"It is hard to ignore; that is reality," said Rodriguez, the reigning AL Most Valuable Player and baseball's highest- paid player. "But, at the same time, it still comes down to sound baseball decisions, farm systems and then execution on the field by the players. There are a lot of components to that [other] than just saying it is the highest salary."

That's the silver lining for the rest of the AL East. Teams with payrolls less than $80 million can, and do, win the World Series if they have a little luck and a solid management plan. Last year, the champion White Sox were 13th overall with a $75 million payroll when the season began, and their opponent, the Houston Astros, were 12th with $76.7 million dedicated to salaries.

The Yankees, who were at about $208 million through much of 2005, won the division, but lost in the first round of the playoffs.

"I think a $70 million payroll can be more than competitive, which is indicative of what happened last year," Orioles vice president Jim Duquette said. "If you are in the $70 [million] to $80 million range, you can do it the right way, with a combination of veteran players and using players from within. But your scouting and player development are critical in doing it."

With the second-lowest payroll in baseball, behind only the Marlins' $19 million, the Devil Rays know just how important player development can be. They already have a major league roster filled with young talent, and their farm system, ranked 10th overall by Baseball America, has a few of the game's most heralded minor leaguers.

Still, first-year executive vice president Andrew Friedman said: "I definitely think we need to be [at] more than $36 [million] to build a competitive team that we can sustain."

The club's new owner, Stuart Sternberg, has promised a payroll increase between 10 and 20 percent in the near future. But Friedman said he's not sure what would be the absolute minimum needed to ensure competitiveness in such a difficult division.

"It definitely is higher than $36 million, but how high? I don't know, and I don't expend much mental energy on that," Friedman said. "Whatever we can spend, we will spend the best that we can. And I'm confident we are going to get where we want to get."

The Blue Jays have had a moderate payroll and mediocre results for the past decade, finishing in third place seven of the past eight years and once in last. This offseason, armed with an additional $25 million in his budget, Ricciardi aggressively pursued top free agents and trade targets.

He signed pitchers A.J. Burnett and B.J. Ryan to five-year contracts worth a combined $102 million. He traded for corner infielders Troy Glaus and Lyle Overbay and rescued catcher Bengie Molina from a suddenly dry market.

Based on the structuring of the deals - Burnett, for instance, will count for significantly less in 2006 than the contract's $11 million average because of backloading and prorating - the Blue Jays' 2006 payroll sits at about $73 million.

Even with the significant increase, it still is about average in baseball terms.

"When people say we spent a lot of money, I say, 'In relation to what?'" Ricciardi said. "We spent money, but we didn't spend along the lines of Boston and New York, and we are never going to be able to do that."

Perhaps the most significant difference between the big spenders and the moderate ones is depth. The 2005 Orioles were a prime example. Despite having a payroll of roughly $73 million, significantly below those of their two primary rivals, the Orioles were in first place for much of the season's first half.

But when their most effective starting pitcher, Erik Bedard, and productive catcher Javy Lopez were beset by injuries, the club's momentum took a big hit. Eventually, the Orioles fell out of first and tumbled to fourth in a disastrous second half on and off the field.

"The big thing when you have a moderate payroll is you don't have any margin for error," said Hunsicker, who built the Houston Astros into a mid-budget contender in the late 1990s. "When one of your guns go down, you don't have the money to go out and replace that person."

There's also another key part of that equation, Hunsicker said.

"If you make a mistake on one of your pickups or signings, one of your major players doesn't work out, you can't brush that under the rug and go replace them," Hunsicker said. "Teams with big payrolls can dothat."

Again, the Orioles are Exhibit A. In 1998, they had the league's highest payroll and finished fourth. Since then, they have spent money in line with the average major league team and haven't had one winning season.

One contributing factor is that some of their larger contracts - such as four years and $28 million for first baseman David Segui in December 2000 and a three-year, $22.5 million deal for pitcher Sidney Ponson in January 2004 - were busts.

Conversely, the Yankees barely received any production out of bigmoney additions Carl Pavano (a four-year, $40 million contract and just four 2005 wins) and Jaret Wright (a three-year, $21 million; five 2005 wins) and they still won an eighth straight division crown last year.

The elementary difference is that the Yankees and Red Sox have more high-priced stars and, therefore, can absorb more injuries to their roster.

"Usually the price tag comes with the [production] numbers," Boston third baseman Mike Lowell said. "If you are adding money, you usually are adding good players. I don't think many teams add payroll and get worse. It kind of goes hand-in hand."

Ultimately, however, winning championships is not guaranteed in baseball. That's a fact proved season after season. It's also the hope that teams like the Devil Rays, Blue Jays and Orioles must cling to each spring - that maybe they can be this year's version of the White Sox, because the alternative is another season behind the big boys in the AL East.

"Once that first pitch is thrown, all the way to the last pitch, you don't see any payroll on the field," Devil Rays outfielder Jonny Gomes said. "No one is wearing World Series rings. It's just man on man.

"They might be worth more, or have better career numbers, but it is whoever shows up to play that day that is going to win."

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

2005 AL EAST PLAYER SALARIES

NEW YORK YANKEES

Alex Rodriguez $25,705,118

Derek Jeter $19,600,000

Mike Mussina $19,000,000

Kevin Brown* $15,714,286

Randy Johnson $15,419,815

Jason Giambi $13,428,571

Bernie Williams $12,357,143

Gary Sheffield $11,496,689

Jorge Posada $11,000,000

Mariano Rivera $10,500,000

Carl Pavano $9,000,000

Hideki Matsui $8,000,000

Jaret Wright $5,666,667

Tom Gordon* $3,750,000

Felix Rodriguez* $3,150,000

Tino Martinez* $2,750,000

Tony Womack* $2,000,000

Ruben Sierra* $1,500,000

Tanyon Sturtze $850,000

John Flaherty* $800,000

Rey Sanchez* $600,000

Bubba Crosby $332,950

Andy Phillips $317,200

BOSTON RED SOX

Manny Ramirez $19,806,820

Curt Schilling $14,500,000

Johnny Damon* $8,250,000

Edgar Renteria* $8,000,000

Jason Varitek $8,000,000

Keith Foulke $7,500,000

Trot Nixon $7,500,000

Matt Clement $6,500,000

David Ortiz $5,250,000

Tim Wakefield $4,670,000

David Wells $4,075,000

Kevin Millar* $3,500,000

Mike Timlin $2,750,000

Bill Mueller* $2,500,000

Bronson Arroyo* $1,850,000

Wade Miller* $1,500,000

Doug Mirabelli* $1,500,000

Chad Bradford* $1,400,000

Matt Mantei* $750,000

Mike Myers* $600,000

David McCarty* $550,000

Kevin Youkilis $323,125

Adam Stern $316,000

TORONTO BLUE JAYS

Roy Halladay $10,500,000

Miguel Batista* $4,750,000

Shea Hillenbrand $3,870,000

Corey Koskie* $3,500,000

Eric Hinske $3,100,000

Ted Lilly $3,100,000

Vernon Wells $3,070,000

Frank Catalanotto $2,700,000

Scott Schoeneweis $2,500,000

Justin Speier $1,900,000

Gregg Zaun $950,000

Frank Menechino* $650,000

Pete Walker $400,000

Orlando Hudson* $365,000

Josh Towers $358,000

Reed Johnson $342,000

Jason Frasor $332,500

Alex Rios $331,000

Justin Miller* $328,000

Dave Bush* $327,500

Vinnie Chulk $326,000

Gabe Gross* $318,500

Russ Adams $316,000

Gustavo Chacin $316,000

Brandon League $316,000

ORIOLES

Sammy Sosa* $17,875,000

Miguel Tejada $10,781,206

Javy Lopez $7,500,000

Melvin Mora $3,833,333

Eli Marrero* $3,200,000

Rafael Palmeiro* $3,000,000

Jay Gibbons $2,600,000

B.J. Ryan* $2,600,000

Steve Kline* $2,500,000

Rodrigo Lopez $2,375,000

Eric Byrnes* $2,200,000

Jason Grimsley* $2,000,000

B.J. Surhoff* $1,100,000

Luis Matos $1,025,000

Chris Gomez $850,000

John Parrish $612,500

Bruce Chen $550,000

Brian Roberts $390,000

David Newhan $365,000

Todd Williams $347,500

Geronimo Gil* $342,500

Erik Bedard $330,000

Daniel Cabrera $325,000

TAMPA BAY DEVIL RAYS

Charles Johnson* $9,000,000

Aubrey Huff $4,916,667

Danys Baez* $3,750,000

Julio Lugo $3,250,000

Toby Hall $1,950,000

Alex Gonzalez* $1,750,000

Travis Lee $1,300,000

Dewon Brazelton* $1,124,000

Trever Miller* $1,100,000

Casey Fossum $950,000

Eduardo Perez* $950,000

Rob Bell* $800,000

Hideo Nomo* $800,000

Josh Phelps* $800,000

Travis Harper $745,000

Carl Crawford $625,000

Jesus Colome $600,000

Chris Singleton* $550,000

Mark Hendrickson $362,500

Lance Carter* $361,000

Kevin Cash $327,500

Nick Green $325,000

Seth McClung $320,000

Jorge Cantu $316,900

Franklin Nunez* $316,500

Scott Kazmir $316,000

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