Baseball was once known to be a pay-to-win sport, where teams in the biggest markets who could spend top dollar on the best players in the sport would end up winning the World Series every year. With the number of record-setting contracts that players have signed in just the past 5 years, teams have dished out these massive deals to players who they think are deserving and can help bring a title to their franchise.
Only 2 players who have signed one of the 15 largest contracts in MLB history have won a World Series with the team that agreed to the deal: Mookie Betts with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Alex Rodriguez with the New York Yankees.
This ideology has become a flawed technique for putting a team together, failing to surround their superstars with enough talent and depth to make it through an entire season.
So how have teams found ways to win championships?
Finding key players within your organization and developing them has proven to be a crucial aspect of a successful team. Across all levels of the minor leagues, impact players are waiting to get called up and take advantage of their opportunity to contribute to a winning roster.
Teams in smaller markets have found ways to compete, and in some cases, exceed the records of big market clubs and be one of the last teams fighting for a title in October. Three teams with low payrolls especially have gotten off to incredible starts in 2023, and have taken many different paths to success.
The Tampa Bay Rays are notorious for being a franchise with one of the lowest payrolls in baseball, but their collection of players and team dynamic have cemented them as a powerhouse, currently with the best record in baseball at 43-19. Despite having the 28th highest payroll, Tampa Bay has continued their winning ways in the last 5 seasons, capitalizing on key draft selections and developing young talent on both sides of the ball that have shown to be difference makers.
After losing in the World Series in 2020, they proved to be a consistent threat in the AL East, finishing with a 100-62 record for their second consecutive division title. Tampa Bay’s pitching staff has endured injuries to key rotation pieces like Tyler Glasnow, Jeffrey Springs, and Shane Baz as they have turned toward their organizational depth to make starts and fill innings with quality pitchers who can dominate in any situation.
The Baltimore Orioles have been one of the biggest surprises of the 2023 season so far, breaking out with a young team full of rising stars. With a record of 37-22, they hold the third-best record in MLB behind Tampa Bay, and have finally turned the corner from their rebuild, in which they finished last in the AL East 3 times in a 5-year span.
Their playoff drought turned into some of the most talented players the organization has had in the last 20 years, using the number one pick in the 2019 draft on Adley Rutschman, who has proved to be the catalyst for the team as one of the premier backstops in the league.
With the 29th-highest payroll in the league, Baltimore has created a team that blends veteran leadership with promising young players, playing a brand of baseball that blends power and speed that has them in the top 10 across the league in runs per game and stolen bases. The level of young talent in the majors for Baltimore already has reenergized the fanbase and will only continue to grow as they see more of their top prospects reach the majors.
Perhaps the biggest surprise team of the 2023 season so far has been the Pittsburgh Pirates, who have taken a major step forward in the middle of their rebuild to potentially make a run at the NL Central title. With former NL MVP Andrew McCutchen returning to the team for his final season before retirement, the Pirates have been an exciting team to watch, currently 0.5 games ahead of Milwaukee for first place in the division.
In the midst of a rebuild that has resulted in four consecutive last-place finishes and the 27th highest payroll in 2023, Pittsburgh has been able to retool their farm system with young talent that has slowly started to make an impact on the big-league club. Breakout seasons from players such as Mitch Keller, Connor Joe, and Jack Suwinski have made huge impacts on the team as they look to regain their division lead.
Pittsburgh was the winner of the first-ever MLB Draft lottery on December 6th, giving them their second number-one overall selection in the past 3 seasons. Whether they pick the odds-on favorite to be selected first in LSU outfielder Dylan Crews is to be determined, but the Pirates find themselves in a great position with a team that has found success and will continue to develop their young prospects as the season goes on.
A common theme among these 3 teams is their ability to scout and develop the players that they draft and sign internationally at an extremely high rate, bringing high-quality players into the organization that can help create a winning culture. Coming out of a rebuild with talent spread across the field is the ultimate goal of every team, but being able to execute the plan and reassert themselves as a top team in their respective division.
There is no one way to win in baseball, but an organization can consistently put themselves in a position to win if they are able to take advantage of their resources and put their players in the best possible scenario. Having expectations of what the team will achieve in a season is something that every team has going into a season, but being able to live up to them and executing a plan is the ultimate test of the true strength of a team.