Thursday, June 19, 2008

Knocking Down the Excuses, a continuing series: the Payroll

Throughout my time as a Nationals fan, I've found reporters and fans far more likely to make excuses for him than to argue straight out that he's a good GM. It's really hard to conclude the latter, but a guy who worked for Marge Schott for a decade gets cut some slack. So one of the things we're going to do here is to examine these excuses one at a time to see if indeed they explain why Bowden has failed to build a winner for so long.

One of the most common excuses given for Bowden's poor performance has been the payroll. As Washington Post former beat writer Barry Svurluga's put it in his final chat covering the Nationals, that "Bowden's never had a competitive payroll, not here, not in Cincinnati." (The link to this chat appears to be dead, but it was the 5/7/08 chat.)

Now, it's true that he's never had Cashman money, and for his first couple years in DC, while the team was owned by a cabal of our 29 competitors, he operated with an unprecedented salary cap.

But it's a not accurate to say that Bowden has been so hamstrung by low payroll throughout his time as a GM that he couldn't compete. In fact, here's how the payrolls Bowden had to play with in Cincy ranked in MLB (the team's record in parens):

93: 6th out of 28 (73-89)
94: 5th out of 28 (66-48--strike year)
95: 3rd out of 28 (85-59--lost in NLCS)
96: 6th/28 (81-81)
97: 16th/28 (76-86)
98: 26th/30 (77-85)
99: 20th/30 (96-67)
00: 23rd/30 (85-77)
01: 22nd/30 (66-96)
02: 23/30 (78-84)
03: 17/30 (69-93)

So that's 4 years in the top of the top payrolls, 2-3 years in the middle of the pack, and just 4 years in the bottom third. Just one year really at the very, very bottom (1998). Again, the oft-repeated canard that Bowden had a shoestring payroll in Cincy is flat-out wrong.

Also, throughout his time in Cincinnati, superior GMs (for starters, Gerrry Hunsicker, Billy Beane, Terry Ryan, and Larry Beinfest) were able to achieve far more success with less payroll than Bowden had. Looking at 1997 and beyond, when the Reds fell to the middle or bottom third of the league by payroll, at least one team with a lower payroll than the Reds made the playoffs in 5 of 7 of those years:
97: Houston
98: none
99: none
00: Oakland
01: Oakland again
02: Oakland and Minnesota
03: Oak, Min, and Florida

Check it yourself--all the historical payroll data on every major league team is here, though you have to download a spreadsheet.

The bottom line is this: Has Bowden consistently had the kinds of payrolls that have virtually guaranteed perennial playoff appearances, like the Yankees and Red Sox have had in recent years? No. Is it however impossible, as Svurluga implied, to compete with the salaries Bowden's had? Clearly not. Is it plausible to assume that Bowden has all along been a top-tier GM, the kind of guy you'd want to leave in a job for 16 years, but that his otherwise good work has been torpedoed by cheap bosses: No way.

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