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Bang for Your Baseball Buck: Rays, Orioles & Pirates Are Winning on a Budget

Last Updated: July 1, 2023
How are MLB teams with three of the lowest five payrolls succeeding right now? Boardroom breaks down the Rays, Orioles, and Pirates.

Every MLB team has played more than 40 games, bringing us to the quarter-pole of the baseball season. And of the five teams with Opening Day payrolls under $90 million, three of those teams are over .500

The Tampa Bay Rays, Baltimore Orioles, and Pittsburgh Pirates are off to really strong starts thanks to strong drafting and development, shrewd trades and waiver pickups, and signing bargain bin veterans to short-term free agent contracts. Tampa Bay won its first 13 games of the season, tying a modern-era record to begin a campaign, and has Wander Franco, Yandy Diaz, and Randy Arozarena in baseball’s top 10 in Fangraphs WAR among hitters.

Franco was signed as an amateur free agent from the Dominican Republic in 2016, but Diaz was acquired in December 2018 as an afterthought in a three-team trade for Jake Bauers that saw Carlos Santana and Edwin Encarnacion switch teams, while Arozarena was acquired from St. Louis in January 2020 along with outfielder Jose Martinez in a deal that brought the Cardinals then-hyped pitching prospect in Matthew Liberatore. The only veteran the Rays signed in free agency over the offseason for more than $1 million was starter Zach Eflin, who’s thriving after inking a three-year, $40 million deal.

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Baltimore’s rebuild is yielding results right on schedule after nearly making the playoffs last year, with 2019 top overall pick Adley Rutschman leading the way along with fellow draftees Cedric Mullins and Austin Hayes and 2016 Rule 5 draft pick Anthony Santander. The only seven-figure veteran free agents the O’s signed over the offseason were innings-eating starting pitcher Kyle Gibson, infielder Adam Frazier, and injured reliever Mychal Givens. Primarily, the O’s are all-natural, baby.

Pittsburgh has lost eight of 10 after a super strong start, but still has the majors’ seventh-best ERA thanks to ace former draftee Mitch Keller, injured free agent signing Vince Velasquez (one year, $3.15 million), and All-Star closer David Bednar, acquired from San Diego in 2021 as part of the Joe Musgrove trade. Four of the six Pirates making at least $5 million were short-term offseason signings, with Rich Hill ($8 million) eating up innings, Santana ($6.725 million) currently second on the team in RBIs, Austin Hedges ($5 million) splitting time at catcher, and homegrown hero Andrew McCutchen ($5 million) tied for the team lead in home runs.

The Rays, Orioles, and Pirates are all faring better thus far than the New York Mets, with their payroll approaching $350 million, the San Diego Padres with their payroll just shy of $250 million, and the Chicago White Sox, who are 14-28 with a $185 million payroll. All three of the teams relied on big free agency signings and trades with farm systems ranked 14th (Mets), 26th (White Sox), and 28th (Padres) to end last season, per MLB.com.

Baltimore’s top-ranked system has highly-touted prospects Grayson Rodriguez and Gunnar Henderson already contributing, Pittsburgh ranked seventh with Roasny Contreras in the rotation and future superstar Oneil Cruz out after a broken ankle, and Tampa Bay ranked eighth with starting pitcher Taj Bradley adding to its deep rotation before being sent back to the minor leagues.

Big-spending teams aren’t always the best. Four of the eight MLB teams with Opening Day payrolls over $200 million are under .500 early on. So far, even teams with the lowest payrolls can compete if you draft, develop, sign the right veterans, and make the right trades.

While these teams should be spending more, it’s good for baseball overall that teams can achieve success in markedly different ways.

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