Don't look now, but coming into the season, the Marlins payroll was about $52.5 million. Roughly one-third of the Yankees payroll. They finished the season with a manager who was truly on nobody's radar screen to even manage again, let alone be a potential manager of the year and nobody even knew who Dontrelle Willis was. Still, the Marlins are winners and it's not hard to dissect the situation and find the reason why.
First, payroll isn't the determining factor. Yes, five of the eight teams in the playoffs had payrolls in the top ten of the major leagues coming into the season. Certainly, money does help, but look at the final results. The Marlins were ranked 20th in payroll coming into the season. Last year's World Series featured a Giants team that was ranked 8th and an Angels team that was ranked 15th coming into the year. That means that for two years in a row now, the World Series Champion wasn't ranked in the top ten. Ironically, both San Francisco and Anaheim moved up on the 2003 payroll rankings and neither repeated as their league champion. The Angels moved up one spot on the list and the Giants jumped from eighth to fifth. At least San Francisco made the postseason, which is something the Angels can't even say that they were able to do.
The American League did have the top two payroll teams in the league competing for the league title. Not true in the National League. The Cubs were ranked eighth coming into the season, meaning that of the four NL teams in the postseason, the two with the lowest payrolls battled for the league's bragging rights.
Another key element of the playoff teams was activity. The Red Sox, Cubs, Twins, Giants and Marlins all made moves at or around the trading deadline that helped push them into the playoffs. The Cubs found key players like Kenny Lofton, Aramis Ramirez and Randall Simon. The Red Sox found Scott Williamson and others to patch up their bullpen. In Minnesota, Shannon Stewart came over from Toronto and Florida found Jeff Conine, who was a major addition to their club. In San Francisco, Sydney Ponson came over from Baltimore. Teams that stayed with what they had – like the Philadelphia Phillies – fell short. Ed Wade's rantings about being satisfied with his "playoff caliber" club were simply wrong and short-sighted.
Another factor that may not bode well for the Phillies is a look at the postseason managers. None of them have a personality anywhere near the fiery disposition of Larry Bowa. They're all steady-handed men who guided their teams with control. They're all men who earned the respect of their players not with tirades of public bashings in the media, but with a knowledge of the game and by treating their players by the simple golden rule. Joe Torre, even in the face of a literal war with the Red Sox, was smooth. He let it be known that he was behind his players, but didn't do it with fire. Even benching his star second baseman in Game Five didn't cause rancor, because Torre is undoubtedly in control of his team and his emotions. Jack McKeon was a mentor and leader to his young team. From day one, he established himself as someone who could help them to be better if they just gave him the chance. There were no managerial explosions from Grady Little, Bobby Cox, Felipe Alou, Dusty Baker, Ron Gardenhire or Ken Macha. The closest to an eruption that any of them came was a supposed spat between Baker and Sammy Sosa, which was quickly patched up behind closed doors and not in the media.
The book Moneyball by Michael Lewis details how the Oakland A's have remained strong even with the loss of key players. GM Billy Beane has developed an interesting look at evaluating players and for the most part, it works. That's not to say that Beane's approach is perfect, but the A's have been in the postseason even though they have lost the likes of Jason Giambi, Jason Isringhausen and Johnny Damon among others. More and more teams, whether by using Beane's approach toward player skills, or simply by doing a better job of scouting young players, are realizing that just throwing money onto the field doesn't get the job done. It's a key concept that teams like the Phillies – and their fans – need to realize.
The problem in Philadelphia is that the team tries to be "thrifty", even though their payroll has risen fairly substantially, but their general manager is no Billy Beane. He also is no Larry Beinfest (Marlins), Jim Hendry (Cubs) or Theo Epstein (Boston). Wade can find cheap players, but not the ones that can put up strong enough numbers to produce winning teams.
In the new world of baseball, money isn't everything. It can't buy happiness. Ask George Steinbrenner how happy he is today. Are the Braves convinced that they got what they paid for with the third highest payroll in the National League? What about the Dodgers, Mariners, Mets, Cardinals and Diamondbacks, who all ranked in the top ten spenders in major league baseball and who all sat in front of their televisions watching the postseason? Did the increase in payroll help for the Giants and Angels? The average payroll ranking of the eight teams in the 2003 postseason was tenth. Considering that, maybe the Phillies, who ranked 12th in major league payroll, were right about on the money for what they spent. Still, can they fill their teams holes without climbing ahead of where their new revenue increasing ballpark can take them? In other words, can they be successful while living within their means?
Money is nice. Solid scouting and smooth moves by a general manager are better. It will be interesting to watch the baseball world unfold over the next few seasons to see if the trends continue to hold. Will more and more teams be able to do more with less? Will payrolls overall, fall lower? Players, who whispered of collusion last offseason will need to realize that while the Jim Thome's and Vladimir Guerrero's of the world will get their money, the lesser stars are going to have to get by on less. Kind of like how many playoff teams are finding a way to do exactly the same thing.