Balancing the Payroll - Pitching vs. Hitting

A historical look at whether the Cardinals should spend more on hitting or pitching next season is inconclusive.

A recent poster on our message board put the current free agent dilemmas facing the Cardinals into a simple question with a difficult answer. Should the team invest in more hitting or more pitching?

 

Not surprisingly, the fans don't seem to have a firm view. But, apparently neither do those who are running the team. In this offseason, the initial push was toward San Diego free agent outfielder Brian Giles before Marlins free agent starting pitcher A.J. Burnett became the team's new top signing priority.

 

While I could eloquently argue either side of the hitting versus pitching question leveraging my high school debating skills, the fact is that there is no right or wrong answer. It would take a very clear crystal ball to know which route would most clearly lead to a 2006 World Series victory.

 

Yet, I was intrigued by the question. So, I took a look back at roster distribution from a payroll perspective for some recent squads, both in the National League Central and across the League.

 

This analysis is far from scientific and can be altered by one very important factor. If a team has a core of good young hitters, or pitchers for that matter, the amount necessary to pay them is low. That skews the payroll spend in the other direction.

 

A good example of this is the 2003 Astros, who other than Billy Wagner and Octavio Dotel, did not have a single pitcher making over $1 million. The opposite is the 2005 Houston Astros, carrying Roger Clemens on the books at $18 million alone.

 

The source of this data is USA Today's Salary Database, which looks at opening day rosters as well as the total team's payroll, regardless of which team is footing the bill. So, it is consistent, though not 100% pure.

 

For example, the entire 2005 salary of a Larry Walker or Roger Cedeno would be included under the Cardinals, despite the reality that the Rockies and Mets, respectively, covered much of their past salary sins. Still, for high-level comparison purposes, this should be just fine.

 

Let's take a look to see what we can learn. Here is some recent history, showing the amount spent on position players and pitchers, with their representative percentages, making up 100%.

 

Team

Year

Position

Players

Percent

 

Pitchers

Percent

Cardinals

2005

$61.4M

66.4%

 

$30.7M

33.6%

 

2004

$46.3M

58.1%

 

$33.4M

41.9%

 

2003

$49.5M

59.1%

 

$34.2M

40.9%

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cubs

2005

$43.8M

50.4%

 

$43.2M

49.6%

 

2004

$53.9M

59.5%

 

$36.7M

40.5%

 

2003

$52.7M

69.5%

 

$23.2M

30.5%

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Astros

2005

$40.4M

52.6%

 

$36.4M

47.4%

 

2004

$53.0M

70.3%

 

$22.4M

29.7%

 

2003

$57.5M

81.0%

 

$13.5M

19.0%

 

I included the Cardinals' top two division rivals' budgets above. 

 

Considering the NL Central teams that went the farthest in the playoffs, highlighted in the table above, the 2003 Cubs spent almost 70% of their player salaries on hitting, while the 2004 Cardinals spent 58% of their money there. The 2005 Astros allocated less than 53% of their money on hitting, influenced by Clemens' mammoth deal noted above.

 

It is difficult to draw a conclusion here. In just three years, the range of spending on pitching versus hitting by the best in the NL Central varied by almost 20%.

 

So, let's expand the scope to look at the last few NL World Series participants. (I am excluding the American League due to the potential inequity caused by the use of the designated hitter.)

 

NL Champs

Year

Position

Players

Percent

 

Pitchers

Percent

Astros

2005

$40.4M

52.6%

 

$36.4M

47.4%

Cardinals

2004

$46.3M

58.1%

 

$33.4M

41.9%

Marlins

2003

$33.7M

69.2%

 

$15.0M

30.8%

Giants

2002

$46.1M

58.9%

 

$32.2M

41.1%

Diamondbacks

2001

$40.9M

48.0%

 

$44.4M

52.0%

 

Another huge extreme here. The 2001 Champions were led by Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling among others, and as a result, they were the only team I saw in recent memory where spending on pitching actually exceeded that on hitting.

 

Seems clear there isn't a surefire formula for success. Still, let's look at the 2006 Cardinals, making some estimates to show us what the A.J. Burnett/Brian Giles decisions could mean to this balance.

 

First, some assumptions. We know which players will be back this coming season and what their salaries will be. In other cases, we'll make some educated guesses. I will assume that the Cardinals will get either Giles or Burnett, but not both. Either one is plugged in to cost $10 million in 2006. This also assumes no other major trades that would disrupt the steady state.

 

Numbers are gross, not intended to be pinpoint accurate, which is impossible anyway with nine or ten roster spots still open. The $94 million total is just an estimate.

 

2006

Cardinals

Case 1 – Sign Burnett

Case 2 – Sign Giles

Position

Players

 

 

Starting

six controlled

$39M

$39M

2B and RF

openings

$5M

$5M

LF opening

$5M (Marquis trade)

$10M (Giles)

Bench

$4M

$4M

 

 

 

Position total

$53M

$58M

Position %

56.4%

61.7%

 

 

 

Pitching

 

 

Four starters

(excl. Marquis)

$17M

$17M

Final starter

$10M (Burnett)

$5M (Marquis)

Bullpen

$14M

$14M

 

 

 

Pitching total

$41M

$36M

Pitching %

43.6%

38.3%

 

 

 

Total payroll

$94M

$94M

 

Case 1 – Spend on pitching

So, what does this tell us? Looking at Case 1, assuming that Burnett is in and Marquis is out, the Cardinals would end up spending around 44% of their 2006 payroll on pitching. That is midway between the 2004 Cardinals and what the Houston Astros dropped this past season, with Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt leading the way. But, in this case, it would be Chris Carpenter, Mark Mulder and Burnett.

 

Prior to Houston this past season, we'd have to go back to the 2001 Diamondbacks to find a National League Champion who spent as much of their total percentage on arms. But, the 44% does not stand out as excessive in the least.

 

Yet, it is a major change compared to past Cardinals teams, especially 2005. In this scenario, the spend on pitching would increase from 34% to 44% from 2005 to 2006. While some is due to built-in increases for players like Chris Carpenter, Mark Mulder and Jason Isringhausen, the addition of Burnett would be the biggest difference-maker.

 

Case 2 – Spend on hitting

Case 2, on the other hand, is the view with Giles signing and Marquis staying. Even so, the over 38% of the Cardinals payroll spent on pitching in 2006 in this case would represent nearly a 5% shift over 2005's 33.6%.

 

As a result, for those who feel the Cardinals were short in pitching, with these assumptions, the team would actually be putting more money as a percentage of the total behind pitching in 2006 even when signing Giles.

 

In conclusion

There is no clear formula for success. Either of these approaches, signing Brian Giles to augment the offense or A.J. Burnett to fortify the pitching, would seem to put the Cardinals' 2006 payroll in an area where other teams in the past have been able to prosper.

 

So, for those looking for the answer as to which way to go, keep searching.

 

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

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