How Some MLB Teams Win with Low Payrolls

The free-agent market before the 2023 MLB season was buzzing, with teams like the Padres, Mets, and Yankees spending record numbers, but none of those teams made the playoffs. The teams taking their place had some of the lowest payrolls in baseball. The Rays, Orioles, and Diamondbacks all made the playoffs and are all in the bottom third of total payroll compared to the rest of the league. The Diamondbacks even made the world series with the 21st-highest payroll in the 30-team league. Here is a close look at how they did it...

Tampa Bay Rays ($79 Million)

The Rays have been at the forefront of baseball's information age, leveraging analytics and player development to identify potential in players that others may overlook. They focus on players with high exit velocities and pitchers with fast fastball velocities. Key to their strategy is making under-the-radar acquisitions of players who show potential based on advanced metrics. Their success is also attributed to the energy and creativity of their top executives, Erik Neander and Chaim Bloom, and the management style of their manager, Kevin Cash, who balances information from the front office with building strong relationships with players​​.

Some notable players who excel on the Rays with a lower salary include:

Randy Arozarena ($4.15 Million/year - 68th among league outfielders)

Shane Mclanahan ($737k/year - 142nd among league pitchers)

Yandy Díaz ($6 Million/year - 24th among league first basemen)

Baltimore Orioles ($71 Million)

The Orioles have taken a measured approach to team building, opting for incremental increases in their payroll and focusing on low-cost acquisitions rather than pursuing high-dollar free agents. They have brought in veteran players on relatively modest contracts and relied on young, minimum-salary players who have made significant impacts. The Orioles have arguably the best young core in baseball which will set them up for success in the years to come, while still being able to avoid big-number contracts.

Some notable players who excel on the Orioles with a lower salary include:

Adley Rutschman ($734k/year - 51st among league catchers)

Gunnar Henderson ($723k/year - 60th among league third basemen)

Cedric Mullins ($4.1 Million/year - 69th among league outfielders)

Arizona Diamondbacks ($119 Million)

The Diamondbacks' 2023 payroll featured Ketel Marte as highest-paid player, making over $11 Million. Notably, the team didn't acquire any of their top five players in payroll through free agency. Instead, they focused on developing players internally through their farm system and trading for others. The Diamondbacks also managed their payroll by releasing high-salary players who were underperforming, like Madison Bumgarner, and promoting prospects like Jordan Lawlar. The team also took a unique approach to gameplay, diverging from the prevalent focus on home runs and strikeouts. Instead, they emphasized smaller aspects of the game like bunts, sacrifice flies, stealing bases, and moving the runner over.

Some notable players who excel on the D-Backs with a lower salary include:

Corbin Carroll ($1.625 Million/year - 100th among league outfielders)

Alek Thomas ($735k/year - 137th among league outfielders)

Christian Walker ($6.5 Million/year - 21st among league first basemen)

The Bottom Line

The 2023 MLB season showcased a remarkable triumph of strategy over budget. Teams like the Tampa Bay Rays, Baltimore Orioles, and Arizona Diamondbacks, with their modest payrolls, outperformed big spenders by focusing on analytics, smart acquisitions, and maximizing player potential. Their success underlines a pivotal shift in baseball, demonstrating that insightful management, innovative tactics, and a strong developmental system can level the playing field against teams with heftier financial resources.


ChatGPT, personal communication, November 19, 2023).

MLB rankings. (n.d.).

1AZfan! (2023, November 2). On the diamondbacks’ payroll and sustained success. AZ Snake Pit.