The 2011 film Moneyball, based on the eponymous 2003 best seller by Michael Lewis, told the story of Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane (portrayed by Brad Pitt) as he tried to put a winning Major League Baseball team on the field every year with limited financial resources. Beane and his staff used advanced statistics — book smarts — to compensate for the lack of spending power flexed by rivals like the Yankees and Red Sox.
More than a decade later, Beane and his crew in Oakland still manage to put together legitimate MLB contenders on the field for less than half the cost of richer teams in the league. However, the A’s aren’t the only team playing “moneyball” these days. Upstarts from U.S. steel country to the Gulf of Mexico have figured out ways to play ball with baseball’s top-spending bullies. Here are five real World Series contenders with the lowest payrolls on the books.
1. Pittsburgh Pirates ($78.1 million)
The Pittsburgh Pirates were the feel-good story of 2013, but that didn’t stop doubters from questioning their playoff run until the day they made the postseason. Led by National League MVP Andrew McCutchen, one of the most exciting players in baseball, the Bucs brought roaring crowds back to PNC Park in Steel Country, U.S., as they snapped a playoff drought that had lasted 21 long years.
Many experts and baseball writers are picking them to win the NL Wild Card in 2014, with celebrated columnist Tracy Ringolsby picking the Pirates to claim the National League pennant outright. That’s not bad for a team outspent by NL Central rival Cardinals ($111 million) and Reds ($112 million) by more than $30 million this year.
2. Oakland A’s ($83.4 million)
The old wizard is still at in Oakland. A’s GM Billy Beane, still just 52 years old at time of writing, managed to win the American League West in 2013 despite being outspent by enormous margins by both Texas and Anaheim. In 2014, the A’s are dealing with huge setbacks after Jarrod Parker went down for the year in spring training. Tracy Ringolsby is still picking them to win the AL West this year.
It isn’t the first time critics and writers have counted out the A’s. They seem to breed quality young pitching every year while finding the offense that allows them to outlast opponents. Yoenis Cespedes will lead the power assault in 2014. Compared to their divison rival Rangers ($136 million) and Angels ($156 million), the A’s are the team of choice for anyone who loves an underdog.
3. Kansas City Royals ($92 million)
MLB analyst predicts the Royals will nab one Wild Card in 2014, while Tracy Ringolsby sees K.C. knocking off Detroit to win the AL Central title. Belief in the pitching staff (led by James “Big Game” Shields) and young bats (especially stud Eric Hosmer) have the game’s experts ready to say this year is the Royals’ shot at breaking through to the other side.
If they can pull off the upset, it would be on shoestring budget of $92 million compared to the favorites in the central divison. The deep-pocketed Tigers ($162.2 million) serve up an extra $70 million to field their squad. Talk about a level playing field.
4. Tampa Bay Rays ($77.1 million)
Of all the legitimate MLB contenders on this list, the Tampa Bay Rays have the lowest payroll and the best shot to win the World Series in 2014. No matter; Tampa has been playing “moneyball” since they were called the “Devil Rays” and were managed by the legendary “Sweet” Lou Piniella. Skipper Joe Maddon sets the tone for a young, aggressive team that pitches and defends with the best clubs in the game. Somehow, Maddon manages to keep players loose and maximize the contribution of each.
In a division where the Red Sox ($163 million) and Yankees ($204 million) spend more than double the budget of the Rays, the club needs every ounce of talent its young stars can deliver. Fortunately, David Price, Evan Longoria, Matt Moore, and Wil Myers have this talent in spades. MLB.com’s Richard Justice, Hal Bodley, and Tracy Ringolsby are just a few of the experts picking Tampa Bay to win the 2014 World Series.
Vegas likes their odds as well. At 12-1, bookies favor the Rays over the Yankees (14-1) and consider them on par with the Red Sox (12-1). That’s “moneyball” at its best.
5. Cleveland Indians ($82.5 million)
As with Tampa Bay, the Cleveland Indians seem to reflect the mindset of Manager Terry Francona more than anything else. At a payroll far below division rival Detroit, Cleveland made it to the playoffs in 2013 in a magical run that ended at Tampa Bay’s hand in the Wild Card game. With star Jason Kipnis signed to an extension and Francona’s club healthy again in 2014, the Indians can make another run at the pennant.
Few are picking the Indians to make hay in 2014 with the expensive Tigers ($162 million) holding court in the AL Central, but Francona’s team probably relishes the role of underdog. Between the upstart Royals and the veteran core of the Indians, Detroit will have a true run for its money. Since paper tigers don’t win World Series, that’s what “moneyball” is all about.