Two decades ago, payroll disparity was the hot-button issue in Major League Baseball off the field. And given this winter's odd polarity -- some teams have spent big, and others very little; with huge contracts for some free agents, and with long waits on the market for others -- it's fair to wonder whether we are seeing a move back toward that level of discord.
This offseason, we have one 2023 National League playoff team that has committed more than $1 billion in free agency (the Los Angeles Dodgers) and another (the Miami Marlins) that has yet to ink a single big league free agent. We have two division champions -- the Minnesota Twins and Milwaukee Brewers -- who are likely to enter the new season with markedly lower payrolls than a season ago, even as four of the top seven free agents have yet to sign.
While it's always been true that some teams are more willing to spend than others, this winter some of the more reluctant clubs are ones that in normal circumstances would be trying to maximize a contention window. And it's particularly odd at a time when franchises are so valuable and baseball's top-level annual revenues keep setting new records. We're less than two years removed from the ratification of the most recent collective bargaining agreement, which not only adjusted the calculations around luxury tax thresholds but also changed the competitive landscape with the expansion of the playoff format.
Baseball has disparate levels of team-to-team revenue, and unless that changes, we are unlikely to ever see true payroll parity in the game. From a competitive standpoint, it might not really be necessary. But too much disparity causes problems. Avoiding it is no small issue -- for those who don't remember, things got so bad in the prior era that baseball's owners made a frightening effort to contract two franchises.
After that, the scale of payroll disparity began to decrease in the latter part of the 2000s, and the trend continued until 2019.
Now the trend is moving back the other way -- but how much has it increased? And what is driving it?
Here's a deeper look into the numbers and factors behind this latest wave of big league polarization -- and what it might tell us about the health of the game.