Can you buy a World Series? What Mets can learn from the biggest spenders in MLB history

MLB

New York Mets owner Steve Cohen has built the most expensive team in baseball history, sending shock waves throughout the sport and destroying previous payroll records with an unprecedented three-year spending binge. His additions have included two future Hall of Famers in Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander and two other possible Hall of Famers in Francisco Lindor and Carlos Correa (pending conversations over his physical, which concerned the Mets after it scuttled his deal with San Francisco).

In his first two years, Cohen committed over $714 million in future salaries and was rewarded with a 101-win team in 2022. That was merely the calm before the storm. This offseason, the Mets have committed $806 million in free agency, including giving Verlander a two-year deal that matched Scherzer’s annual salary ($43.33 million) as the highest-paid players in the game, re-signing center fielder Brandon Nimmo and closer Edwin Diaz, signing Japanese star right-hander Kodai Senga ($75 million) — and, then, because one potential Hall of Fame shortstop wasn’t enough, they swooped in for Correa, though the saga of waiting for his signing to become official is still playing out.

The Mets’ 2023 estimated payroll, including a luxury tax bill that will exceed $100 million: around half a billion dollars.

We’ll have all offseason to evaluate the team and predict whether the Mets will even beat the Braves in the National League East. In the meantime, let’s look back at a few other of the most expensive teams in major league history — and what lessons can be drawn from what happened to them.

1992 Toronto Blue Jays

Record: 96-66

Background: The Blue Jays had been contending for several years, reaching the American League Championship Series in 1985, 1989 and 1991, but they hadn’t yet reached a World Series. The opening of SkyDome midway through the 1989 season pushed the Jays to record-setting attendance figures, including more than 4 million in 1991. According to a report from Financial World magazine at the time, the Blue Jays earned nearly $18 million more in gate receipts than any other team. In response, longtime general manager Pat Gillick started spending on free agents, a departure for a franchise that had stressed player development.

What happened: Prior to the 1992 season, the team signed Dave Winfield and Jack Morris, and then it acquired David Cone in August to bolster the rotation for the playoff run. It worked: The Blue Jays won the World Series. “The Toronto Blue Jays paid big money to win big,” read The Associated Press story about their championship. It was true: When final payrolls were calculated, the Blue Jays topped the majors at $49.1 million. That was 57% higher than their 1991 figure of $31.3 million, and a 25% increase from 1991’s top payroll of $39.2 million — which belonged to the Oakland A’s. (The A’s had the second-highest payroll in 1992; it was a different era.)

By comparison, the Mets’ total payout for 2022, including an unofficial estimate of $29.9 million in luxury tax, will be about $317.9 million. As of now, their estimated 2023 payroll of $390 million plus a luxury tax payment of $111 million would clock in at $501 million — a 57.5% increase over 2022 that matches the increase the Blue Jays made in 1992 (although less if you factor in only actual player salaries).

The Blue Jays doubled down in 1993. They lost Winfield and Cone, but they re-signed Joe Carter and then signed Paul Molitor and Dave Stewart and made an in-season trade for Rickey Henderson. That’s four future Hall of Famers in Winfield, Morris, Molitor and Henderson. They once again led the majors in payroll, at $51.6 million. They won a second straight World Series.

By the way, the lowest payroll in 1992: Cleveland at $9.3 million. The Blue Jays were more than five times higher than the lowest team. The Mets’ $390 in player salaries for 2023 is more than seven times that of the A’s, the team with the lowest current 2023 payroll ($54 million).

Lesson for the Mets: This can work — at least in the short term. After those two World Series titles, the Blue Jays got old in a hurry, falling to 55-60 in the strike-shortened 1994 season and then 56-88 in 1995. Gillick, seeing the handwriting on the wall, “retired” after 1994 — only to resurface a year later with the Orioles. By 1996, the Blue Jays were in rebuilding mode; they dropped to 19th in payroll. While that won’t happen under Cohen, the Mets did have the third-oldest lineup in the majors in 2022 and the oldest pitching staff. With the addition of the 40-year-old Verlander, that group will be even older in 2023. The problems are most likely to surface in a couple of years, when Verlander and Scherzer might be gone (both are free agents after 2024) and the likes of Correa, Lindor and Nimmo will be drawing hefty salaries as they start declining in their 30s.

2004 New York Yankees

Record: 101-61

Background: After winning four World Series in five seasons from 1996 to 2000 with a homegrown group of stars — Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada — the Yankees would spend the 2000s trying to buy more championships: Mike Mussina in 2001, Jason Giambi and David Wells (in a return engagement) in 2002, Hideki Matsui and Jose Contreras in 2003 (plus re-signing Roger Clemens). The launch of the YES Network in 2002 further deepened the team’s coffers.

What happened: After losing the World Series in 2001 and 2003, the Yankees took their pursuit to another level in 2004 with perhaps the wildest, most ambitious offseason in major league history. They did lose Clemens and Pettitte to the Astros in free agency, but check this series of moves from GM Brian Cashman: They traded for Kevin Brown (14-9 with a 2.39 ERA for the Dodgers in 2003), traded for Javier Vazquez (coming off a 6.0-WAR season with the Expos), signed Gary Sheffield (third in the MVP voting with the Braves) and filled out the roster with free agents Ruben Sierra, Tom Gordon, Paul Quantrill, Kenny Lofton and Tony Clark. They would re-sign Orlando Hernandez, who had missed 2003 with an injury. Then came the blockbuster of all blockbusters: They acquired 2003 AL MVP Alex Rodriguez from the Rangers.

The Yankees had acquired the third- and fifth-best position players in baseball the previous year in A-Rod and Sheffield. They acquired two starters who had ranked third and 14th in the majors in ERA. Quantrill (1.75 ERA) and Gordon (3.16 ERA) had been two of the top relievers in 2003. Lofton was 37 but coming off a 3.5-WAR season.

Their payroll climbed from $152.7 million in 2003 to $182.8 million in 2004 — a mere 20% increase but a total that would dwarf the payroll of the Red Sox, the No. 2 team, who came in at $125.2 million. Only two other teams (the Angels and Mets) even topped $100 million. In a similar vein to Verlander and Scherzer in 2023, A-Rod and Jeter would make more in combined salary than the four lowest-payroll teams (although the Rangers paid part of Rodriguez’s salary). The Yankees had seven of the game’s 27 highest-paid players: Rodriguez, Jeter, Mussina, Brown, Sheffield, Giambi and Williams.

They finished with the exact same record as 2003. Then blew a 3-0 series lead to the Red Sox in the ALCS.

(The Yankees would have an even higher payroll in 2005, jumping to $213 million, after acquiring Randy Johnson from the Diamondbacks. I calculated the average of the other top-10 payrolls, and in 2005, the Yankees more than doubled the average of $95.7 million, and that doesn’t even include a $34 million tax bill. The Mets’ $390 million is impressive — but it is less than double the current average — about $236.8 — for the rest of the top 10. So, relative to the other top payrolls, the 2004-06 Yankees spent more than the current Mets, excluding luxury tax payouts.)

Lesson for the Mets: The MLB playoffs are the great equalizer. The Yankees would win 100-plus games each season from 2002 to 2004, but they went home without a title — after winning one with 92 wins in 1996 and 87 in 2000. The Mets learned this lesson all too well in 2022, when the 89-win Padres vanquished them in the National League Division Series. “This puts us over the top,” Cohen told the New York Post after reaching the deal with Correa. We’ll see. Much like the Yankees still had to get past the Red Sox in 2004, the Mets will still have to get past the Braves — not to mention the Dodgers, Padres, Phillies and Cardinals.

2009 New York Yankees
Record: 103-59

Background: After that crushing ALCS loss to the Red Sox in 2004, the Yankees continued to add stars: Johnson in 2005, Johnny Damon and Bobby Abreu in 2006, Clemens and Pettitte as reunions in 2007. After 2007, George Steinbrenner, in poor health, handed over control of the team to sons Hal and Hank. In 2008, the team payroll sat at $209 million — a whopping $70.4 million higher than that of the No. 2 Tigers. The Yankees also missed the playoffs for the first time since 1993.

What happened: The Yankees signed Mark Teixeira ($180 million), CC Sabathia ($161 million) and A.J. Burnett ($82.5 million) — easily the three biggest contracts that offseason. They re-signed Pettitte and reliever Damaso Marte. Total outlay: $441 million. OK, that doesn’t quite match the Mets’ total of $806 million, but it is $621 million in 2022 dollars.

The Yankees’ payroll actually decreased from 2008, to $201.4 million, but that year’s total still towered over that of the No. 2 Mets, who came in at $135.7 million. The moves worked. Sabathia won 19 games and finished fourth in the Cy Young voting. Teixeira led the AL in home runs and RBIs and finished second in the MVP voting. Burnett won 13 games. The team improved from 89 wins to 103 and won the World Series.

The Yankees couldn’t sustain that level of success, however. They made the playoffs the next three seasons, twice reaching the ALCS, but didn’t win 100 games again until 2018. Sabathia had two more great seasons before starting to decline. Teixeira’s first season with the Yankees was by far the best of the eight years he’d spend in pinstripes. Burnett was terrible the next two seasons and was traded to the Pirates.

Lesson for the Mets: Beware the future! Free agents are paid for what they’ve already done, not for what they’ll do, so any long-term contract is a risk — and even if the Mets can absorb the financial risk, it’s the performance risk that is unknowable. Correa is entering his age-28 season; in theory (and ankle notwithstanding), he should have several peak seasons still in him. Teixeira, however, was 29 in his first season with the Yankees. His WAR would drop from 5.3 that first season to 4.1, 3.4 and 3.8 (and then an injury wiped almost all of his 2013 season). The Yankees got only one superstar season out of him. The Mets’ best chance to win with this roster might very well be this first season.

2015 Los Angeles Dodgers

Record: 92-70

Background: Under owner Frank McCourt, the Dodgers had been competitive, making the playoffs four times in six seasons between 2004 and 2009, but in 2011, the Dodgers filed for bankruptcy protection. McCourt was in the midst of a two-year bitter divorce battle, and proceedings revealed he and his wife had diverted more than $100 million from the franchise to maintain a lavish lifestyle — MLB accused McCourt of “looting” the Dodgers of $189 million. The bankruptcy protection was a last-ditch effort by McCourt to keep the franchise, but he eventually agreed to sell the team in March 2012 to Mark Walter and his Guggenheim Baseball Management team — including Magic Johnson pitching in as the face of the ownership group.

What happened: By 2011, the Dodgers had fallen out of the top 10 in payroll. Since 2008, the Dodgers, once the major player in Latin America, hadn’t signed any of the 115 international signings who had received bonuses of at least $100,000. They fell to 80-82 in 2010 and 82-79 in 2011. The new owners decided on a two-tier plan: They would increase the size of the payroll in order to remain as competitive as possible but embark on a complete rebuilding of the organization.

The first big moves came later in the summer of 2012. They acquired Hanley Ramirez from the Marlins. The Red Sox were dumping big contracts, and the Dodgers traded for Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett. They gave Andre Ethier an $85 million extension. In 2013, they signed Zack Greinke to a six-year, $147 million contract. In 2014, Clayton Kershaw signed a seven-year, $215 million extension. They didn’t make the playoffs in 2012, but they did in 2013 and 2014.

In four years, the Dodgers’ payroll had increased from $104 million (in 2011) to $277 million (in 2014, including the luxury tax penalty). In 2014, for the first time since 1998, the Yankees didn’t have the highest payroll.

The next year, the Dodgers’ luxury tax payroll hit a record $297.9 million — $67 million more than the Yankees. Also Andrew Friedman’s first year as general manager, in that season, the team was fine — but hardly a powerhouse, winning the NL West before bowing out to the Mets in the NLDS. Behind the scenes, however, the Dodgers were developing the best minor league system in the majors. In 2017, they won 104 games with a payroll lower than in 2015. In 2019, they won 106 games with a payroll lower than in 2017. In 2020, they won the World Series (with the fifth-highest payroll in baseball). In 2021 and 2022, the Dodgers’ payrolls did climb to the highest in the game, but they won 106 and 111 games.

Lesson for the Mets: The key to a sustainable future with year-to-year success isn’t just signing free agents, but it’s developing young talent. Free agents get old and eventually decline. Right now, the Mets resemble the Yankees of the 2000s more than the 2017-2022 Dodgers — they need to do similar work to build up a farm system.

Indeed, the Mets have already made two crucial mistakes involving young players during Cohen’s tenure. Before 2021, they acquired pitcher Joey Lucchesi from the Padres in a three-team trade, sending minor leaguer Endy Rodriguez to the Pirates. Rodriguez has developed into one of the best hitting prospects in the minors. In the Lindor trade, they sent infielder Andres Gimenez to Cleveland. Gimenez had a breakout season in 2022 and had a higher WAR than Lindor (7.4 to 5.4). Given the salaries involved, that might be a deal the Mets would like to do over.

Eventually, the Mets will have to work in some young talent on the major league team. Maybe that means catcher Francisco Alvarez this season, even if in a DH role some of the time. Maybe it means Brett Baty, although Correa now blocks him at third base.

The Mets are certainly the team to watch for 2023. Now they just have to go out and earn those salaries.

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