Given that we’re Twins fans here, payroll has never been a topic of discussion. No one has ever been annoyed at the lack of big spending in free agency and is always perfectly ok with how the front office allocates their resources, especially this year. Free agency is supposed to be an opportunity to right the sinking ship through veteran additions to a low-talent roster (Texas), to fortify a good roster to take their team over the top (Boston), or to sit around and talk about how good the farm system is (San Diego). Every year, we see the offseason as a chance for teams to flex on small market franchises by throwing money at players like drunken pirates. Nowadays it isn’t as prevalent, but teams are still paying players for their services for the next year or beyond. But is that a recipe for success? How often does spending big in free agency actually result in winning more games the next year? Thank you for asking these questions, voice in my head, because I was wondering the same thing. What I want to look at are the teams that spent the most money in the offseason and then how they did the year following with their new toys.
The process is quite simple, find the top 10 spending teams in an offseason over the last 5 years and then see where they ended up the following year. I’ll rank them by total money spent so that the Padres’ brilliant Eric Hosmer contract screws them over a lot because they deserve to be ridiculed. Information will be used from Spotrac, let’s see what it says!
2018 offseason shopping sprees
A few things are already looking interesting here! The Cubs slide into the top spot because they handed out contracts to pitchers like Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood who both probably are sleeping in their beds of money, grateful for their agents, while the Ricketts continue to try to print money in order to scrape together a hitting coach that they won’t throw under the bus. Other than that, a great number of the top teams are up there because of financial promises to a single player. Some were great (J.D. Martinez with Boston), some were very good (Lorenzo Cain with Milwaukee), and some were terrible the second they were signed (everyone with the Rockies). Altogether, the top 10 in spending netted +6 wins overall or +34 if you want to ignore Baltimore, which is a good plan for just about everything. Only 3 teams went negative in wins the year after spending like a redneck at a gas station with one of them being, of course, the Twins, great luck there. Let’s go back one more year now.
2017 offseason shopping spree
Ah, 2017, a simpler time, a time where Dexter Fowler received the 3rd most expensive contract of the offseason and Ian Desmond got the 5th. I have to say, I like seeing the spread of typically smaller spending teams here like Miami, Cleveland, and Colorado. It really just warms my cold frozen heart. Overall the top ten spending teams netted a whole -1 more wins than the year prior but that number becomes +22 if you throw out the massive outlier in the Giants. The Dodgers were by far the biggest spenders but most of it was them keeping players they already had like Kenley Jansen, Justin Turner, and Rich Hill, leaving Sergio Romo and his $3 million payday as their highest paid free agent who came from another team. All in all, this list translates fairly well to success when considering the context of which players were brought in for which team. Houston added a few veterans who turned them into a World Series champion, Cleveland added Edwin Encarnacion to legitimize their lineup and lead them straight into out of the playoffs after round 1, and the Yankees added back Aroldis Chapman after swindling the Cubs into trading yet another top prospect for pitching. Although, someone should have told St. Louis not to invest over $110 million into Brett Cecil and Dexter Fowler, yikes.
2016 shopping spree
The first obvious thing to note, what the hell was going on in this offseason? Are you guys seeing the amount of money that teams were spending here? We talk about the horrible offseason in 2018, but it looks like free agency actually started going downhill a year before that. Maybe it was a fluke year, but teams were dropping money like an upper-class toddler at Toys R Us on their birthday. All for elite names like Chris Davis, Jason Heyward, Ian Kennedy, and Jordan Zimmermann. Freakin Jeff Samardzija got $90 million this offseason, what was going on back then? Luckily, there isn’t some massive outlier team, so adding up the wins gained/lost results in a cool +9 overall. I do love how the Twins biggest signing that offseason was David Murphy, who decided that he would rather not play baseball the rest of his life than play for the Twins. And this was after an 83 win season! The next biggest acquisition was Carlos Quentin who you definitely forgot was technically a Twin, leaving the only impactful addition to be Fernando Abad who was signed to a minor league deal, great stuff Terry Ryan, it’s a wonder that it took him that long to be canned. Despite that Heyward contract looking like the albatross to end all albatrosses, the Cubs dropping nearly the GDP of the Republic of Palau that offseason brought them to the promised land thanks to other veteran signings like Ben Zobrist, Dexter Fowler, and John Lackey.
2015 shopping spree
We finally reach the infamous 2015 offseason where Max Scherzer and Jon Lester got paid handsomely and actually provided good value for their team while Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez also got paid well and did whatever the opposite of providing value would be. Overall, the top spending teams netted +38 wins overall which still stays a +14 even if you throw out the outlier Cubs. There isn’t too much to really report here, spending was about what it typically is. The Royals added some garnishing to their eventually World Series-winning club with the signings of Edinson Volquez and Twins legend Kendrys Morales. Hell, they even gave Alex Rios $11 million that offseason to kind of just hang around and do Alex Rios things. This was also the year where the Twins handed out their biggest contract ever in Ervin Santana which went pretty well, they also decided to bring back Torii Hunter for old times sake, which went less well, but who cares? Torii was back!
2014 shopping spree
What a strange offseason this was, the Mariners absolutely shocked the world when they gave a 31-year-old Robinson Cano a 10 year $240 million contract and then later shocked no one by not keeping him through the whole deal. The Rangers gave Shin-Soo Choo $130 million and then lost 24 more games than the year prior. The Yankees decided to back the dump truck of money up for veterans like Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltran and I’m sure that they would still do that Ellsbury contract again if they could. The Twins slot in as the 4th highest spending team mostly thanks to the elite three-headed Nolasco-Hughes-Pelfrey starting trio. They also tried to bring back Kubel, Bartlett, and Guerrier, all of whom failed miserably and proved that you do in fact become the villain if you live long enough. Kurt Suzuki was a nice cheap find here who made the all-star game despite being signed for less than $3 million in the offseason and is still kicking after getting a nice deal from the Nationals this offseason. Overall the top ten spending teams netted +16 more wins than the year prior and there is something kind of hilarious about the second highest spending team going +26 while the third highest went -24. Interestingly enough, the Giants won the World Series that year despite their biggest signing that offseason being a Tim Hudson who was collecting social security at that point and needed a walker to get to the mound.
Alright, that’s a lot of information, what narratives can we draw from this? Overall, through 5 years of data covering 50 individual team seasons, the top 10 spending teams netted 68 more wins or an average of 1.36 more games won than the year before. Throwing out any season that ended in a +20 or -20 to control for outliers brings the number to 93 more wins total or an average of 2.07 more games won than the prior year. So, there is a very slight positive correlation between spending money and winning more games than the year before. Let’s get even more specific here, the top spending team over each offseason overall won 8 more games than the year before or an average of 1.6 more games won. Teams that were top 3 in spending in a given year won 41 more games than the year before overall or an average of 2.73 more games. Teams that spent more than $200 million in an offseason overall netted 45 more wins the next year or 4.5 more games on average.
For me, this data is certainly interesting, but nothing really groundbreaking or astonishing. Spending more does indeed have a general slight positive correlation with winning the next year, but the numbers weren’t exactly eye-popping to me, just an average of 1-2 more games won than the year prior. That total is certainly an improvement, but not such an incredible one that spending becomes such an obscene advantage over other teams that it isn’t even fair. I also find it hilarious that the top spending team on average barely won more games than the year before, so much for a competitive advantage. I suppose if I had any other major conclusions, it would be that spending more than $200 million in an offseason without being the highest spending team would be the best plan of attack for teams who are inclined to do such things.
As it pertains to the Twins, spending more would improve the team, but context is more important when considering how much a team spends. Yes, in general spending more will win a team more games, but it has been and will always be about how that money is spent more than how much of that money is spent. Spending will never save a bad team from the depths of irrelevance, but it can certainly lift a team up into the glories of the Postseason.