NEW YORK — Baseball’s playoffs no longer are an exclusive club of high rollers.
Pittsburgh, 26th among the 30 teams with a $73.6 million payroll, rolled past Cincinnati on Tuesday night and into an NL division-series matchup against St. Louis.
Oakland, 27th on the spending list at $71.1 million according to Major League Baseball’s latest figures, won the AL West and faces Detroit. And Tampa Bay, 28th at $65.6 million, plays the wild-card game tonight against Cleveland, 21st at $88.6 million.
“We’ve created things that have really helped our sport. They’ve really helped us in a myriad of ways,” Commissioner Bud Selig said with pride Tuesday. “The economics — they were archaic. I used to joke that we were still in back in the Ebbets Field-Polo Grounds days. What I call the reformation of the economic system certainly created a lot of this, there is no question.”
Sure, some of the big spenders found their way into October. The Los Angeles Dodgers raised their spending to $236.8 million during the season and are currently about $100,000 behind the Yankees.
Despite a No. 1 payroll, the Yankees finished tied for third in the AL East following an injury-filled season.
Boston is third at $174.1 million, Detroit fifth at $153.4 million, St. Louis 11th at $119.3 million and Cincinnati 13th at $113.3 million.
But half the playoff teams are from the bottom 50 percent in spending, with the A’s, Rays, Pirates and Indians joined by Atlanta (16th at $95.3 million).
Increased revenue sharing has helped. But a team must make good draft picks and be prudent with contracts and clever with trades.
“I think that the playing field is not level, never will be. But we as the Pittsburgh Pirates have committed ourselves to never using that as an excuse,” controlling owner Bob Nutting said just before the team’s first postseason appearance since 1992. “Is it easier to build a great club with $200 million than with $75-$80 million? Absolutely. But I believe, have always believed and will continue to believe, that we can be competitive at that level. We need to make different decisions. We need to make smart decisions.”
Parity has increased markedly. No team has won consecutive World Series since the New York Yankees took three in a row from 1998-2000.
Half of the 30 teams have made the expanded playoffs in the past two years. Twenty-one have reached postseason play in the last five, and every club except Kansas City and Toronto has appeared in the playoffs over the past 13 seasons.
Many accustomed to the October spotlight already are home. Missing out along with the Yankees were Philadelphia (fourth at $166.2 million), the Los Angeles Angels (sixth at $143.4 million), defending champion San Francisco (seventh at $141.3 million), Texas (eighth at $134.5 million) and Toronto (ninth at $125.9 million).
Oakland, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay have found success with youth. Only Houston ($29.3 million) and Miami $42.3 million had lower payrolls than the Rays, and they jettisoned veterans in favor of young players. While they endured terrible seasons — the Astros were 51-111 and the Marlins 62-100 — they hope a young core will transform into a contender in a few years.
“If you place that type of faith in them, a lot of times they’ll come through for you,” said Athletics manager Bob Melvin, who works under Billy Beane, the general manager who made “Moneyball” famous.
Cleveland manager Terry Francona has seen the dollar divide from both sides. He led the large-market Red Sox to World Series titles in 2004 and 2007, and then took over the more-limited Indians last fall.
“Once the game starts, dollar signs go out the window,” he said. “It’s more helpful in the winter when you’re trying to sign guys, but I’ve immensely enjoyed this team and that has nothing to do with money. It’s the characters and the character on this team, and whether we win or lose won’t have anything to do with money.”
Revenue sharing came in with the labor agreement in 1997, two years after the end of a strike that wiped out the World Series for the first time in nine decades. Revenue sharing was boosted again in the 2002 labor deal, when a tougher luxury tax was agreed to. That tax has gotten stiffer, and in 2011 players agreed to restraints on bonuses for amateur draft picks and international signings.
“I took a lot of criticism back in those days,” Selig said. “Is it worth it now? You bet it is. Because I knew we were doing the right things.”
Rays manager Joe Maddon thinks there’s another factor at play: drug testing.
With fewer players using performance-enhancing drugs since testing began in 2003, there are fewer oversized sluggers with oversized statistics who bulk up their salaries in the free-agent market.
“I thought that the elimination of PEDs in the game permits teams with lower payrolls to compete and win.” he said.
Salary may be the key figure from November to February, but once players are on the field, pitching and execution usually matter most.
“Any team can beat any another team on any given day,” Oakland catcher Derek Norris said. “It could be a guy making minimum versus a guy making $30 million, that guy making minimum can still beat him.”