So you want to win Major League Baseball's offseason. Well, good idea. You should go for it.
Just know that what comes next, nobody really knows. Good. Bad. Indifferent. All three outcomes are possible, and seemingly more or less equally likely.
It's not much of a conclusion, but it's what we've got after—with huge assists from historical payroll and free-agent signing records from Cot's Baseball Contracts—taking a look back at how splashy spending sprees have panned out since the turn of the century. The idea was to see if either large free-agent investments and/or payroll increases have tended to result in better fortunes for teams the following year.
It'll perhaps surprise nobody that the results were all over the place, but there are notable examples of both massive failure and massive success that stood out. So, we thought we'd highlight five of each.
But first, a closer look at said results.
Post-Big Spending Fates Are a Mixed Bag
Reality is more nuanced, but let's agree for the sake of agreeing that teams spend money with a simple premise in mind: the more they spend, the more they win.
There have been studies that show this is a sound idea generally, but the picture changes a bit when the focus is limited to sudden spending spikes.
Positive year-to-year payroll increases basically haven't correlated to subsequent increases in winning percentage. And of the 43 teams that have carried out the biggest free-agent spending sprees since 2000—for which we applied a rudimentary inflation adjustment based on CPI—21 made the playoffs the following year and 22 didn't.
But rather than shrug and leave it at that, we set the following ground rules for best- and worst-case scenarios to shine a light on:
Some prominent examples of big-spending success might intuitively come to mind, but you'd be surprised how many of them didn't meet our standards.
For example, the 2009 New York Yankees spent $429 million in free agency the prior winter (about $585.4 million in 2022 dollars) and went on to win 103 games and the World Series. Oddly enough, though, they actually opened the season with a lower payroll than the one they'd had at the outset of 2008. Cheapskates, say we.
In any case, let's count down the worst-case scenarios before moving on and doing the same with the best-case ones.
Worst-Case: Spent big, increased payroll and yet had a worse season than the year before and missed the playoffs.
Best-Case: Spent big, increased payroll and had a better season than the year before and made the playoffs.
Worst-Case No. 5: 2007 San Francisco Giants
- 2006-07 FA Spending: $209 Million
- 2006-07 Payroll Change: +0.2 Percent
- 2007 Result: 71-91 (5th in NL West)
The Giants may not have dramatically increased their payroll from 2006 to 2007, but the investment they made in free agency that winter is not to be underestimated. In 2022 dollars, they spent more like $300 million on new players.
The headliner, of course, was Barry Zito. The Giants poached the Cy Young Award-winning southpaw from the cross-bay Oakland Athletics for $126 million over seven years, amounting to what was then the largest ever contract for a pitcher.
The Giants also signed Dave Roberts and Bengie Molina and re-signed Ray Durham and Barry Bonds, the latter of whom was just 21 home runs shy of Henry Aaron's all-time record with the 2007 season looming. All in all, not a bad bunch with which to seek a better outcome than the 76-85 record that the '06 club had achieved.
As for why such an outcome never materialized, it didn't help that Roberts and Durham failed to even rise to the level of, um, replacement-level. It helped even less that Zito, whose acehood was already on the fritz despite his big contract, slipped permanently into mediocrity by way of a 4.53 ERA.
On the plus side, the Giants were World Series champions just three years later, and then again in 2012 and yet again in 2014. Even Zito had a hand in the '12 run, allowing just one run in 13.1 innings between Game 5 of the National League Championship Series and Game 1 of the World Series.