Hi, I’m Jeff Euston. I’m a fan who follows baseball from a cul-de-sac in Kansas. I also track the market for MLB players at Cot’s Baseball Contracts. If I win, I would hope it’s because I’ve dared to write about the Nationals and I’ve written something worth reading.

Payroll by Position

We’re not yet reached May, but the year already has been a long one for the Washington Nationals.

The Nats fired front office executive Jose Rijo in February in the midst of a federal investigation into the skimming of bonus money for players in Latin America. Fallout from the scandal later led general manager Jim Bowden to resign.

On the field, left-handed pitcher Odalis Perez, the club’s Opening Day starter in 2008, failed to report to Spring Training and was released.

Once the season began, things only got worse. Washington stumbled out of the starting blocks like perennial loser Teddy Roosevelt in the nightly Presidents Race at Nationals Park. The Nats set out on a six-game road trip to Florida and Atlanta, where they were outscored 45-26. They returned to Washington winless and were met by boos at their home opener, a loss which dropped their record to 0-7.

Opening Day center fielder Lastings Milledge played his way into a demotion to Class AAA Syracuse. Shortstop Cristian Guzman provided a bright spot with a 5-for-5 day at the plate in the home opener, but strained a hamstring in his final at-bat and is convalescing on Washington’s disabled list, which now includes six players. Washington stars Adam Dunn and Ryan Zimmerman took the field Friday wearing jerseys reading “Natinals.” It has been that kind of year.

Acting general manager Mike Rizzo gave manager Manny Acta a vote a confidence before Sunday’s game with Florida. But only a few hours later, after watching his bullpen blow a save for the third game in a row, the frustration boiled over for the manager.

“I think it’s embarrassing,” a visibly angry Acta said. “I think it’s unacceptable. I think our fans have every right to be mad, like we are right now. … This is the big leagues, and they’re big league pitchers, and you win with pitching. We had a chance to win three games in a row, we couldn’t do it, and it’s not going to be tolerated. So starting tomorrow we’re going to have a brand new bullpen. Plenty of moves, and more to come.”

Rizzo and Acta made good on that threat, demoting four players, including three relievers. Only 12 games into the new season, seven of the 25 players with Washington on Opening Day (Milledge, Guzman, Willie Harris, Wil Ledezma, Steven Shell, Josh Bard and Saul Rivera) were no longer on the active roster. (Rivera has since returned.)

For all the new additions to NatsTown, the club’s overall talent level is roughly the same. Acta is outmanned most nights, mixing and matching, creatively trying to find a combination of pitchers who can put up a few scoreless innings and hitters who can scrape together a few runs.

But the Nationals face another challenge as well, the fallout from Bowden’s roster construction. Washington boasts baseball’s most unbalanced roster, devoting more than 80 percent of club payroll to position players, according to an analysis of Opening Day club payrolls. (For a team-by-team breakdown of spending by position, as a percentage of total club payroll, click here.)

With a National League-leading 80 runs allowed, pitching remains an issue. The Nationals devoted just 19.76 percent of their payroll to pitching ($12.15 million), the majors’ lowest figure. Only Oakland is close, spending 20.4 percent of payroll ($12.77 million) on a staff that has allowed only 55 runs in 13 games. Surprisingly, the big-spending Yankees rank third at 31.5 percent ($65.1 million).

How did it come to this for Washington? Skewed resource allocation figures often can be traced back to one bad contract. The Tigers committed more than 37 percent of their 2009 payroll to outfielders (fifth in baseball), thanks in large part to the $13.6 million they’ll pay Gary Sheffield to enjoy new Citi Field this summer. Nearly 12 percent of the Phillies payroll is going toward Adam Eaton of the Orioles and Geoff Jenkins, who is working out in Arizona, awaiting a call from his agent.

The Nationals owe Wily Mo Pena $2 million this season, but they have relatively little dead money on their books. Instead, the Nats simply poured money into position players, primarily first basemen and corner outfielders. Six players alone – Nick Johnson, Dmitri Young, Adam Dunn, Austin Kearns, Josh Willingham and Pena – make up more than 50 percent of the club payroll.

At the other end of the spectrum is one of Washington’s NL East rivals, the Atlanta Braves. General manager Frank Wren added starters Derek Lowe, Kenshin Kawakami and Javier Vazquez during the off-season, devoting a Major League-leading 66 percent of payroll to pitching ($64.5 million). Atlanta’s five-man starting rotation makes up a full 53 percent of the club’s overall payroll. In terms of raw dollars, the Braves actually committed more to their bullpen, $12.73 million, than the combined salaries of the entire Nationals pitching staff ($12,152,049). (For a detailed summary of the spending by the Braves and Nationals for 2009, click here.)

The Braves had the luxury of going outside the organization to acquire pitching because of a farm system that has produced a young core of five starting position players still years away from free agency. Atlanta has devoted less than 11 percent of payroll to Kelly Johnson, Yuniel Escobar, Brian McCann, Jeff Francouer and Jordan Schafer. The emergence of another young player, Jair Jurrjens, softened the blow when $15.5 million starter Tim Hudson underwent elbow ligament replacement surgery last August.

Though Washington’s scouting and player development is not yet on par with Atlanta’s, there are signs of hope. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman signed a five-year contract Monday, and top prospect Jordan Zimmermann defeated the Braves later that night in his Major League debut. Acta’s revamped bullpen has given him six consecutive scoreless innings.

With Zimmermann and high-ceiling minor-league pitchers Ross Detwiler and Jack McGeary, the Nationals have the makings of a promising young core of their own. If the club manages to sign San Diego State pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg this summer, soon Washington might no longer be first in war, first in peace and last in spending for pitching.

A STUDY IN CONTRASTS: Spending by position, as a percentage of total club payroll
Opening Day payroll $97,692,834 *
Infielders          $19,400,000 (19.86%)
Outfielders          $8,312,500 ( 8.52%)
Catchers             $5,466,667 ( 5.59%)
Starting Pitchers   $51,783,667 (53.00%)
Relief Pitchers     $12,730,000 (13.04%)

Opening Day payroll $61,455,049 *
Infielders          $24,525,000 (39.91%)
Outfielders         $23,317,500 (37.95%)
Catchers             $1,406,500 ( 2.38%)
Starting Pitchers    $6,351,049 (10.34%)
Relief Pitchers      $5,801,000 ( 9.42%)

* Figures include 2009 salaries for players with Major League contracts, including signing bonuses, pro-rated over the life of each contract. Figures do not account for deferred money and do not include performance, award or roster bonuses.

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I found this easy to follow.
Interesting topic and well-written. I enjoy reading about where teams invest their money. Experts say pitching is 80-90% (pick a number) of the game --- yet no one spends their money in that fashion. Good stuff.
How's this hold up historically? Is this spending on position players or on pitching historically very unusual? I feel like since the first 8 paragraphs are essentially fluff to lead into the analysis, that part could have been cut down for more context, either in today's national league or historically.
I liked the beginning the best. At least it put the Nationals in context. Sorry, but the analysis was fluff. I don't see the adequate context or the significance of the National's skewed salary distribution.
It seems to me that the Nats simply don't have any pitchers worth spending significant amounts of money on. Not only based on their quality, but that many are pre-arbitration, and those types of players, regardless of team or position, are predominately paid well below their market value.
Enjoyable article, easy to read and informative. Thanks.
I have to disagree with some of the previous comments. I found the writing style distracting (probably because there were snippets in parenthesis every two sentences) and I don't know why the author picked the Braves as a comparison team for the Nationals besides the fact that both are in the NL East. I also question the title of the article since the first half of the article has nothing to do with Payroll by Position, but has more to do with the ineptitude of the Nationals franchise. Upon initial consideration, I thought this article would've been about some kind of Payroll by Position analysis for all of MLB, and not just two teams.
He chose these teams because the Nationals have the lowest Pitching Payroll Percentage and the Braves have the highest.

But a little context about how much teams historically spend on pitching and how much they "should" be spending would have been helpful. I really liked this.
I'm adding my judging comment to each article:

Euston, Jeff -- 9. If I didn't know who Jeff was, well, I'd still love this piece. It reminds me of Doug Pappas and that's just ... well, I don't throw that one around. It's well written, it's well researched, and really teaches me something without being too technical. I simply love this piece and wonder why Jeff hasn't written more.
Who is Jeff anyway? Is it some Cot's Baseball Contacts connection?
My thoughts on this piece are right along the lines of Mr. Carroll's. Something tells me this type of article won't play well with the BP crowd but hopefully I'm wrong. I really enjoyed reading this. Thanks!
This is the only article I read all the way through. As soon as I see a graph and spreadsheet numbers that all look the same, I am gone. A basic, to the point analysis is always appreciated!
This seemed like two different articles to me almost written in two different voices. Not sure if it had to be done that way.
I may be missing the point, but it seems to me there's nothing wrong with not spending a lot on pitching if you have a lot of good young pitching. A heavy payroll in a certain category usually means the team hasn't done a good job of developing that talent internally, right?

This is particularly true of pitching, where the aging curve is mostly flat before eventually trending down.

Plus, pitchers are generally not as good an investment on the free agent market than hitters. So this may be a consequence of smart money management by the Nats, not bad money management.
The interesting analysis may be to see what the going free agent rate is on pitching (as measured by $/VORP point) versus hitting and see if they are on par with each other.
I don't know about VORP, but that's been done with a number of other value stats. I did it with Win Shares for several years. In every case, free agent pitchers were much more expensive than free agent hitters. And I used WSAB, which attempts to adjust for the imbalance between starting pitching and everything else in Win Shares.
I believe BP uses MORP for the $/VORP calculation...

marginal wins over replacement-level

divided by

marginal dollars over MLB minimum salary
Er, invert that.. I think the marginal dollars are divided by the marginal wins...
Great read, kept me interested.
more cowbell