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Opinion: MLB's payroll disparity has become laughable, threatening the integrity of sport

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It’s a monstrous and horrifying Great Divide that has long cast a shadow in Major League Baseball, but never before has the divide in team payroll between the haves and have-nots been so pronounced,and created such a deep impact in the standings.

The Los Angeles Dodgers have a current player payroll of $261 million, easily the highest in the league, and more than double the total of 15 other teams, according to the team payrolls and player salary information disseminated from MLB’s Labor Relations Department and obtained by USA TODAY Sports.

The Dodgers’ payroll, excluding cash transactions from other teams like the Boston Red Sox splitting starter David Price’s annual $16 million salary, is a staggering $284 million. It will be the first time since 2017 that the Dodgers will be subjected to a luxury tax penalty.

Clayton Kershaw is one of baseball's highest-paid pitchers at $31 million in 2021.
Clayton Kershaw is one of baseball's highest-paid pitchers at $31 million in 2021.

On the other side of the ledger, the Pittsburgh Pirates have a major-league low $49.1 million payroll.

This means the Dodgers are paying nearly as much money ($38 million) to starting pitcher Trevor Bauer, who has been on administrative leave since July 2, as the Pirates are paying to their entire 40-man roster.

MLB DATABASE: 2021 team-by-team salaries

MAKING HISTORY: Orioles riding an 18-game losing streak

The Dodgers’ payroll is a whopping $200 million more than four teams.

The New York Yankees are the only other team with at least a $200 million payroll, currently at $203.6 million. Their payroll would be $221.9 million if not for the $19.3 million they received in cash transactions, with the Chicago Cubs and Texas Rangers assuming the entire 2021 salaries for Anthony Rizzo and Joey Gallo, respectively.

While there are 11 teams in baseball that have payrolls exceeding $150 million, there are 10 teams who have payrolls under $100 million – including four who have sub-$75 million payrolls.

The gross disparity reflects why it's critical that MLB and the players union find a way in their labor discussions to solve the great divide in the next collective bargaining agreement.

When there are teams like the Orioles not even attempting to win, with a current 18-game losing streak and on pace to lose 112 games, there’s a huge competitive problem.

How fair is it that Tampa Bay is 15-1 against the Orioles this year and the White Sox are 7-0, but 11 teams haven’t had the opportunity to play them this year?

The Cincinnati Reds, who are 9-1 against the Pirates this season, play them nine more times in their final 36 games.

The San Diego Padres, who are 3-4 against them this year, don’t play the Pirates again, but have 19 of their remaining 36 games against the National League’s two best teams, the San Francisco Giants and Dodgers.

The Reds and Padres just so happen to be battling for the same wild-card berth.

Sure, huge payrolls is not an automatic ticket to the playoffs, or Angels star Mike Trout would have been in the postseason more than once in his career.

Small payrolls certainly stack the odds, but it doesn’t necessarily mean your postseason chances are hopeless. Just ask the Rays, who are about to reach the postseason for the third consecutive year, and the seventh time in 14 seasons, despite a payroll that is nothing more than pocket change to the Yankees and Red Sox. The Oakland Athletics, with an $89.3 million payroll, are vying to reach the playoffs for the seventh time in 10 seasons.

Yet, the Mount Rushmore of the lowest payrolls are hopelessly out of division and wild-card playoff races. The Miami Marlins ($60.5 million), Orioles ($52.3 million), Cleveland ($51.9) and Pittsburgh ($49.1 million) are a combined 105 games under .500, led, of course, by the Orioles (38-85).

Meanwhile, of the eight teams with payrolls of at least $175 million, only the Angels (62-64) are not in contention.

  • The Dodgers ($261 million) have the second-best record in baseball and the top National League wild-card spot. They are 2 ½ games behind the San Francisco Giants in the NL West.

  • The Yankees ($203.6 million) have the best wild-card record in the American League and are four games behind the Rays in the AL East.

  • The Mets ($196.5 million) are 6 ½ games out of first place in the NL East.

  • The Phillies ($191.1 million) are 4 ½ games behind Atlanta in the NL East.

  • The Astros ($188.1 million) are leading the AL West.

  • The Red Sox ($186.2 million) are sitting in the second wild-card spot.

  • The Padres ($183.2 million) are one game behind the Reds for the second wild-card berth in the NL.

  • The Rays and A’s are the only teams with sub-$100 million payrolls that are legitimate playoff contenders.

Perhaps this is why MLB is pushing for a minimum payroll in labor talks, making sure that all teams spend at least $100 million, according to a report by The Athletic. Yet, if there’s a basement, it also means a salary cap or substantial luxury tax, and the union isn’t about to limit free spending and tell the Dodgers to knock it off.

But something must be done to assure that all 30 teams are really trying to compete.

The Seattle Mariners, with the sixth-smallest payroll at $82.6 million, should not have the longest playoff drought in North American sports at 20 years and counting.

The Marlins, with the fourth-smallest payroll, should have more than three postseason berths in franchise history, including one in a 60-game shortened season, their first since 2003.

And, at some point, the Orioles have got to stop being baseball’s human pinata with the sixth-longest losing streak in modern-baseball history.

The new collective bargaining agreement may not immediately change the zoning laws between the haves and have-nots, but unless something is done to at least bring a semblance of competitive balance, there won’t be a reason to even watch baseball in half of the markets after the All-Star break.

There are 13 teams who are hopelessly out of contention, and we’re not even at Labor Day.

Sure, expanding the playoffs from 10 teams to 14 teams beginning in 2022 could help, but really, it’s just slapping a bandage over a deep, infected wound that is brutally threatening the integrity of the sport.

The Great Divide player payroll wall must come crashing down.

Before it’s too late.

2021 Team payrolls (millions)

  1. L.A. Dodgers: $261.166

  2. N.Y. Yankees: $203.637

  3. N.Y. Mets: $196.537

  4. Philadelphia: $191.148

  5. Boston: $186.230

  6. Houston: $188.168

  7. L.A. Angels: $183.434

  8. San Diego: $183.245

  9. Washington: $169.544

  10. St. Louis: $167.247

  11. San Francisco: $162.8

  12. Chic. Cubs: $150.591

  13. Toronto: $149.611

  14. Atlanta: $149.563

  15. Chic. White Sox: $141.630

  16. Cincinnati: $130.341

  17. Minnesota: $126.182

  18. Colorado: $123.203

  19. Milwaukee: $105.052

  20. Texas: $101.576

  21. Arizona: $99.476

  22. Kansas City: $94.54

  23. Oakland: $89.381

  24. Detroit: $85.659

  25. Seattle: $82.659

  26. Tampa Bay: $76.889

  27. Miami: $60.575

  28. Baltimore: $52.313

  29. Cleveland: $51.960

  30. Pittsburgh: $49.140

Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB's payroll disparity threatening the integrity of sport