How Fast Did the Payroll Grow, Anyway?

A look into the rate of the increase of the Cardinals' player payroll compared to the rest of MLB while the current team ownership has been in place.

I didn't think too much about it at the time. During the course of a long and interesting interview, Jeff Luhnow's statement didn't seem out of line, just like most everything the Cardinals vice president had said. Still, that one comment stuck with me.


"I bet that if you look at team payroll from the year prior to this ownership group taking control until today, the Cardinals have had one of the biggest percentage increases (and gross figures as well) in the industry during that time period."


Given the rhetoric that has emanated from each side of a most emotional argument during this tumultuous off-season, this seemed to be one of the few points that has been made by anyone about the money spent on players that could actually be proven beyond a fair shadow of doubt.


I liked that. Therefore, not knowing what the answer would be, but clearly intrigued by the possibility, I set out to investigate Luhnow's point.



I went to USA Today's Baseball Salaries database for the raw information. There are some limitations with the data, but on the average, it balances out for each organization. For example, team salaries are set based on those players on the opening day roster each year.


Also, no adjustments are made for players whose salaries are being paid in part by another organization. So, for the 2005 Cardinals, for example, the team payroll was overinflated because their total included the portions of Roger Cedeno's and Larry Walker's salaries that were actually being paid by the Mets and Rockies, respectively.


However, I assured myself that this would only enhance Luhnow's comment, since the higher the Cardinals' 2005 aggregate salaries, the stronger his point would be reinforced. Or so I wondered.


Flashback - 1996

The starting date for this analysis is ten years ago – 1996. That was easy, since Bill DeWitt Jr.'s ownership group purchased the club in March of 1996. The salaries of the players of the 1996 Cardinals had already been established at that point, likely not influenced by the incoming owners.


The offseason between the 1995 and 1996 campaigns was a particularly difficult time for the Cardinals and their fans. There were strong feelings that the long-time ownership, led by Gussie Busch, had allowed the team to slip competitively in the National League. Both the 1994 and 1995 teams had finished below .500, which were the first consecutive losing seasons for the proud Cardinals franchise since the 1950's.


Overall, the Cardinals payroll in 1996 just reached the top third of the then-28 teams in MLB at $38.7 million, good for #9. The end of the Ozzie Smith era was nearing, as the starting infield consisted of John Mabry, Luis Alicea, Royce Clayton and Gary Gaetti. The Benes brothers, Andy and Alan, along with Todd Stottlemyre and Donovan Osborne, led the pitching staff.


The offense was paced by the powerful outfield of Ron Gant, Ray Lankford and Brian Jordan. Still, overall this was hardly a lineup bound for Cooperstown. Yet the results in the standings demonstrated that $38.7 million was well-spent, as the Cardinals led the National League Central with 88 wins.  


The data

2005-1996 increase rank 2005 payroll rank Team Total payroll - 2005 Total payroll - 1996 1996 payroll rank Percent increase - 2005 vs. 1996 Average % MLB increase - 2005 vs. 1996
1 3     New York Mets $101,305,821 $23,456,500 21 432%  
2 1     New York Yankees $208,306,817 $52,189,370 1 399%  
3 4     Los Angeles Angels $97,725,322 $26,892,500 20 363%  
4 5     Philadelphia Phillies $95,522,000 $28,393,500 17 336%  
5 23     Washington Nationals $48,581,500 $15,410,500 28 315%  
6 15     Detroit Tigers $69,092,000 $21,941,000 23 315%  
7 2     Boston Red Sox $123,505,125 $39,676,000 7 311%  
8 22     Oakland Athletics $55,425,762 $19,404,500 26 286%  
9 12     Houston Astros $76,779,000 $26,894,000 19 285%  
10 9     Chicago Cubs $87,032,933 $30,954,000 14 281%  
11 7     San Francisco Giants $90,199,500 $34,605,225 13 261%  
12 20     Minnesota Twins $56,186,000 $21,961,500 22 256%
13 11     Los Angeles Dodgers $83,039,000 $34,647,000 12 240%  
14 6     St. Louis Cardinals $92,106,833 $38,741,666 9 238%  
15 16     San Diego Padres $63,290,833 $27,133,026 18 233%  
16 8     Seattle Mariners $87,754,334 $39,221,501 8 224%  
17 19     Florida Marlins $60,408,834 $30,079,500 15 201%  
18 29     Kansas City Royals $36,881,000 $18,480,750 27 200%  
19 27     Milwaukee Brewers $39,934,833 $20,482,000 25 195%  
20 10     Atlanta Braves $86,457,302 $47,930,000 3 180%  
21 28     Pittsburgh Pirates $38,133,000 $21,253,500 24 179%  
22 13     Chicago White Sox $75,178,000 $41,940,000 5 179%  
23 25     Toronto Blue Jays $45,719,500 $28,486,708 16 160%  
24 21     Texas Rangers $55,849,000 $35,862,028 10 156%  
25 18     Cincinnati Reds $61,892,583 $40,719,334 6 152%  
26 14     Baltimore Orioles $73,914,333 $48,726,832 2 152%  
27 24     Colorado Rockies $48,155,000 $34,918,490 11 138%  
28 26     Cleveland Indians $41,502,500 $45,317,914 4 92%  
N/A 17     Arizona Diamondbacks $62,329,166        
N/A 30     Tampa Bay Devil Rays $29,679,067        


I think the data in the table is self-explanatory. However, here is a brief summary, using the Cardinals as the example. Refer to the line in bold.


In 2005, the Cardinals' salary of $92.1 million ranked them as the sixth-highest in major league baseball. Their 1996 budget and ranking of $38.7 million and #9, respectively, are as mentioned above. The Cardinals' increase between 1996 to 2005 was 239%.


That 239% increase was 14th highest in baseball, or almost exactly in the middle of the pack. 13 teams had a greater increase, while 14 teams had a smaller increase in their player payroll. (Arizona and Tampa Bay were excluded from the analysis, as they had not yet begun play in 1996.)


The MLB average increase in payrolls between those two years was 241%, as noted on the far right.


The New York Mets grew their payroll by 432%, with six other teams increasing their player spending by over 300%, when comparing the years in question. Only one of the 28 teams, the Cleveland Indians, actually had a smaller payroll in 2005 than in 1996.



I should have taken Jeff Luhnow up on his bet. The facts show that the Cardinals' percentage increase in player salaries when comparing 2005 to 1996 is clearly nowhere near the top in the game.


On the other hand, the Cardinals didn't really lose ground, either. The rate of their increase in payroll was just a hair short of the average across baseball between 1996 and 2005.


With the statement from ownership that the player payroll is budgeted to remain flat from 2005 to 2006, once all the 2006 team payrolls will be known, one can only assume that the Cardinals' relative position in comparison to other teams will erode.


To steal, then twist a phrase once uttered by a now-forgotten politician in the midst of a re-election bid, "Do you feel better off today than you did ten years ago?"


Apparently, Cardinals ownership does.


Brian Walton can be reached via email at


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