The 2013 Astros' payroll is projected to be under 23 million dollars this season. Unless Houston decides to spend on the remaining free agents, they will have the lowest payroll in the AL and possibly MLB. It got me thinking about how teams have fared with a payroll so low. So using baseballreference.com I looked at payrolls from the last 13 seasons and took note of teams with payrolls under 40 million and their respective records.
In 2012 there were no teams with a payroll under 40 million.
From 2000 to 2011 their were a total of 35 teams who entered the season with payrolls under 40 mil. Of these 35 teams 9 had winning seasons. The 3 teams who featured payrolls under 40 mil the most were Tampa (6 times), Florida (6), and Pittsburgh (5).
Payrolls under 40 mil were more common early in the 2000's. Florida was the last team to have a payroll lower than what Houston's projects to be, and that was 21.8 mil in 2008. Florida also has bragging rights to the lowest payroll during this time span, 14.9 mil in 2006, with Tampa a close second in 2003 at 19.6 mil. Oakland in 2001 and Florida in 2000 had payrolls under 23 million. Houston will be the 6th team since 2000 to feature a payroll under 23 million.
The best records I found from these teams were much better than I anticipated. I expected the teams who had winning seasons to hover around the .500 mark, which about half did, but there were 5 90+ win seasons of the bunch.
2010 San Diego 91-71
2002 Oakland 103-59
2001 Oakland 102-60
2000 Oakland 91-70
2000 Chicago White Sox 95-67
Still, of these 90+ win teams only Oakland had a payroll under 30 mil, at 22.8 mil, very close to where Houstons' payroll will probably end up. The other 4 teams' payroll was closer to the 40 million dollar mark.
The average record of these 35 teams sits around 74-87.
I took it a little further and isolated the teams with payrolls under 25 mil. This left 8 teams with a average record of 79-82. Of these 8 teams only 3 have had winning seasons, with Oakland (2001) being the only team to win 90+ games.
So based strictly on payroll, is it possible for Houston to compete with a 23 million dollar payroll? Yes. Is it likely? No. Winning with a payroll under 40 mil is more the exception than the rule.