The $198 million Yankees are fighting to reach the American League playoffs against three teams Baltimore, Oakland and Tampa Bay who together are spending as much on players as New York.
While the injury-riddled Yankees are struggling and high-salaried teams such as the Philadelphia Phillies and Boston Red Sox have had disappointing seasons, several clubs with payrolls in the lower half of Major League Baseball's 30 franchises are closing in on clinching postseason spots.
It is baseball's annual version of "Moneyball," the best- selling book and Academy Award-nominated movie about how the small-payroll 2002 Athletics used analytics to stay competitive with higher-spending teams.
"Chemistry is a big deal for small-market clubs," Tampa Bay Rays pitcher James Shields said in an interview. "A lot of those guys on the Red Sox and Yankees that are paid a lot are veteran players. And sometimes you might not have good chemistry."
Shields's 2012 salary of $8 million makes him the highest- paid player on the Rays. On the Yankees, he would be the 10th- highest-paid player on the 25-man roster.
The Yankees had the highest opening day payroll of any MLB team, according to USA Today, which since 1988 has been doing an annual survey of salaries based on information from MLB, clubs and the players' union. The Phillies were second at $175 million, followed by the Red Sox at $173 million.
New York heads into a weekend series at home against Tampa Bay tied with Baltimore atop the AL East division with 81-62 records.
Philadelphia (72-72) is third in the National League East and the Red Sox (64-80), who lost to the Yankees 2-0 last night, are in last place in the AL East.
The Phillies and Red Sox have cut payroll this summer. Philadelphia traded away outfielders Shane Victorino, 31, and Hunter Pence, 29, saving $20 million annually. Boston sent first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, 30; pitcher Josh Beckett, 32, and outfielder Carl Crawford, 31 the team's three highest-paid players to the Los Angeles Dodgers as part of a nine-player deal.
"Here in New York and Philadelphia and Boston, the East Coast teams are so used to outspending everyone, but it may not be the best move for them," Wayne McDonnell, an associate professor of sports management at New York University, said in a telephone interview. "Other teams are developing guys in their farm systems instead of buying them."
At the other end of the spectrum are teams such as the Rays, whose $64 million opening-day payroll ranked 25th and the Oakland Athletics, who were next to last with a $55 million payroll.
The Athletics head into the weekend atop the AL wild-card standings, while Tampa Bay is four games behind the Yankees and Orioles and four games back in the wild-card chase. The top two non-division winners in each league earn wild-card playoff spots.
Adding the Orioles' $81 million opening day payroll to the Rays and A's comes to about $200 million roughly the same as the Yankees.
Athletics owner Lew Wolff said in a telephone interview that it gives him an "acute sense of satisfaction" when he looks at the standings and sees his team ahead of much richer teams in the playoff hunt.
"If we were spending more, I probably wouldn't have the same sense of satisfaction," he said with a laugh. "Spending more would not necessarily make us more competitive. Just because a guy is making 10 times as much as one of our guys, that doesn't mean he's 10 times better."