DENVER — The best team in all of baseball happens to be the richest too, with the Los Angeles Dodgers refusing to flinch at their major-league leading $234 million payroll, according to baseball’s opening-day payrolls obtained by USA TODAY Sports.
The Dodgers, with three of baseball’s top 10 highest-paid players, quite frankly, couldn’t care less about tax hits, as long as it means becoming the first National League team in 45 years to win back-to-back World Series championships.
This is why they spent $102 million on free-agent starter Trevor Bauer, even if it means moving $32 million-a-year former Cy Young pitcher David Price to the bullpen, and if they need help at the July 31 trade deadline, they won’t hesitate picking up someone’s contract.
While the Dodgers are treating the $210 million luxury tax as if it’s no more of an inconvenience than picking up hotdog wrappers from the Dodger Stadium concourse, there’s not a single other team in Major League Baseball that will be opening the year eclipsing the luxury tax, according to USA TODAY Sports’ annual survey.
The Dodgers’ payroll, which would have almost eclipsed $250 million if not for the Boston Red Sox paying nearly $16 million of Price’s salary, is actually greater than the total of four entire teams.
The Miami Marlins ($57.1 million), the Baltimore Orioles ($54.1 million), the Cleveland baseball team ($49.8 million) and the Pittsburgh Pirates ($45.3 million) are combining for a $206.3 million payroll.
It’s this gross disparity, particularly with the frequency of teams deciding to rebuild instead of compete for a playoff berth, that has the Major League Baseball Players Association outraged.
It will be one of the key issues the union wants to address when it begins negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement with MLB, with the current agreement expiring on Dec. 1.
“When we sit down and engage with the league on any number of collective bargaining issues,’’ said Tony Clark, executive director of the players union, “that is going to remain a focal point. We want to move our game and industry forward in a fashion that questioning whether or not there is a high level of competition in the system doesn’t resonate nearly as much as it does now.’’
The Dodgers’ three highest-paid players in Price ($32 million), Bauer ($31.3 million) and Clayton Kershaw ($31 million), with a total salary of $94.2 million, are earning more than the payrolls of 11 teams.
Bauer is actually guaranteed $40 million this year as part of his three-year, $102 million contract, but his salary is calculated by MLB for its luxury tax as $31.33 million this year, $35.33 million in 2022 and $35.333 million in 2023. Bauer, who is guaranteed $45 million in 2022, has opt-out clauses after this season and after 2022.
The highest-paid player continues to be the game’s best player in Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout, who’ll earn $37.116 million. Rounding out the top five are New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole ($36 million), new St. Louis Cardinals third baseman Nolan Arenado ($35 million), three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals ($34.5 million), and San Diego Padres third baseman Manny Machado ($34 million).
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New York Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor, who’ll earn $22.3 million this season, will crack the list next year with his 10-year, $341 million contract extension that he agreed to late Wednesday night.
There were only seven contract extensions signed this winter, none remotely close in value to Lindor and Fernando Tatis Jr’s 14-year, $340 million contract with the San Diego Padres after playing only 143 games in the major leagues.
The Padres, vying to end the Dodgers’ eight-year supremacy as the NL West champions, will open the season with a franchise-record $173 million payroll. The Padres’ payroll has risen by $77 million in just two years, and will have 16 players earning $2 million or more.
In stark contrast, the Baltimore Orioles will have only six players earning more than $1 million, with young players ineligible for salary arbitration still grossly underpaid.
“That is still a topic of conversation that’s worth us looking at,’’ Clark said, “making sure that our service time-based system has as much integrity to it as possible. We want to have dialogue about to what extent a decision is being based on how a player has performed, rather than a business standpoint to start his clock.’’
Still, even with a pandemic that cost baseball clubs about $3 billion in revenue last year, according to Commissioner Rob Manfred, it remains troubling for teams sinking to payroll levels last seen nearly a decade ago.
The Pirates’ payroll this year is the lowest by any club since the Houston Astros ($22 million) in 2013 when they lost 111 games.
Just 20 years ago, 13 teams were within $30 million of the Yankees’ MLB-leading $109 million payroll, and two others, the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers were within $1 million.
Today, no one is within $30 million of the Dodgers.
It doesn’t guarantee the Dodgers will win back-to-back with World Series titles. But money sure gives them a whole lot better chance than anyone else on the baseball landscape.
It may take the next CBA to assure they have competition.
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