Alex Rodriguez Not Responsible for the Houston Astros' Low Payroll


As another MLB season is set to begin, the Houston Astros are set to make their AL debut while sporting a payroll less than the salary that will be received by Alex Rodriguez.

Predictably, the boo-birds have come out in full force, as this presents yet another opportunity to criticize both A-Rod’s ridiculous salary and MLB’s disparate financial issues.  Really, how can a sport justify an entire team being paid less than an injury-prone third baseman who is no longer an All-Star when healthy?

Nobody is arguing that Alex Rodriguez is overpaid; it’s been a running theme (fair or not) with A-Rod ever since he signed that $252 million contract with Texas prior to the 2001 season.  At this stage of his career, A-Rod’s contract issues are low-hanging fruit for sportswriters that specialize in outrage.

But does Alex Rodriguez really deserve to be the source of anger on this issue?

In truth, A-Rod is not the only player who will make more than the Astros’ roster this year.  Vernon Wells, Cliff Lee, and Johan Santana (who is likely to miss the entire year) are also set to exceed the Astros’ $24.3 million payroll.  In fact, depending on who you ask (or how the season plays out), as many as twenty players could end the year with salaries higher than the Astros’ roster.

This is also hardly a new phenomenon.  According to USA Today’s MLB salaries database, Houston’s payroll will be the lowest that baseball has seen since 2008, when the Florida Marlins shelled out a mere $21.8 million for a team that went 84-78 on the year.  Both A-Rod and Jason Giambi were paid more than the Marlins that year, while Derek Jeter’s salary was early identical.  Similarly, a whopping twelve players had higher salaries than the Marlins’ payroll in 2006, while A-Rod and Manny Ramirez both made more than Tampa Bay’s roster in 2003.

And here’s the thing:  not a single one of those players is responsible for those other teams going ultra-cheap.  That blame falls directly at the feet of management, particularly in the case of the Houston Astros this year.

Houston is not a small-market franchise by any definition:  it is the fourth-largest city in the country and is located in one of the nation’s top ten largest metro areas and media markets.  East Texas is also one of the fastest-growing regions of the country, and the Astros’ cable deal is among the most lucrative in the game.  There are also no ballpark issues, as Minute Maid Park opened in 2000 and consistently drew 30,000+ per game until the club’s recent woes set in. 

As recently as 2009, the Astros had a $102 million payroll that ranked among the ten largest in MLB. 

No, the Astros’ extremely low payroll is the creation of ownership and management, not high-dollar players on other teams.  The Astros are in the midst of a major rebuild, and they have decided that the way to do that is by rebuilding the farm system with talent as opposed to spending big money on older players in free agency.  They also recently changed ownership groups, and eschewing long-term financial commitments likely made it easier for the deal to get done. 

Additionally there is clearly something to what the Astros are doing.  Stocking up on young talent is generally a pretty good way to rebuild a franchise.  It also results in a significant decline in payroll, as young players who are acquired via the draft or international scouting tend to cost a fraction of what free agents get on the open market.  Long-term, this strategy could pay off handsomely.

At the same time, the Astros are intentionally trying not to put the best possible team out onto the field in the current day.  The franchise’s considerable resources are not being spent on the Major League product, and it will be particularly galling if the Astros’ low payroll results in them being a benefactor of revenue sharing

Houston's management and ownership is responsible for the Astros' ridiculously low payroll this year, not Alex Rodriguez.  Even A-Rod's biggest critics should be able to admit that.