Four remaining clubs wisely build with young talent, key moves
By Richard Justice
Baseball's top nine payroll teams have all been sent home. Take a moment to wrap your mind around that one. It isn't just about the money anymore, is it?
The Kansas City Royals, who once fretted about being able to compete, are now the most experienced team in the postseason. Yep, something has changed, and not in a small way.
These days, winning is about about investing in player development and developing a blueprint and being patient with that blueprint. It's about hiring great talent evaluators and listening when they see something in a Marco Estrada others might not.
It's about understanding that Alex Gordon and Kevin Pillar and Juan Lagares are players who contribute to winning even if some traditional statistics don't immediately reveal how impactful they are.
It's about trusting talent, pure talent, regardless of age. It's about understanding the complex stew that goes into winning.
Those are among the lessons to be learned from the Cubs and Mets as they advanced to the National League Championship Series and from the Blue Jays and Royals as they prepare to play Game 1 of the American League Championship Series tonight at 7:30 ET on FOX.
Of the four teams in the League Championship Series, only the Blue Jays cracked the payroll top 10 (and they're 10th). The Cubs are 13th, the Royals 16th and the Mets 21st.
That's an average payroll rank of 15th. To take it a step further, six of the top nine payroll clubs didn't make the postseason. Seven of them didn't get into a postseason series.
The Mets, Cubs and Blue Jays didn't make the postseason in 2014, and that's a trend, too. In the last three seasons, 18 of the 30 teams in the Majors have played at least one postseason series. In the last nine seasons, 12 franchises have played in the World Series at least once.
Let's pause for a reminder that payroll is cyclical, that salaries are a function of service time AND talent. So the Cubs and Mets eventually will have to pay all those young guys big bucks. The Royals have already had to make some tough decisions. For instance, in allowing James Shields and Billy Butler to depart via free agency.
They were disciplined in those things because they prepared for them and saw them coming. They've built a winning organization on continuing to develop kids and on finding free-agent bargains.
Once upon a time, there was a feeling in baseball that only the wealthy teams could compete for a championship. In places like Pittsburgh and Kansas City, there was a sense that October baseball was for those other teams.
Even if they produced their own stars, those players got really good and became unaffordable, so they bolted for the bright lights and big cities. We can debate whether that was really true or not. But there's no question baseball's landscape has shifted in another direction.
First, revenue sharing. Baseball's wealthier teams will transfer close to $500 million to the lower-revenue teams this season. When those lower-revenue teams invest that money in player development, in scouts and facilities and coaches, it has the potential to dramatically close the gap.
Second, analytics. Smart teams don't evaluate players the way they once did. Billy Beane changed the world when he introduced Moneyball to the Athletics in 2001. This system has allowed teams to see value where others didn't. For instance, defense has become an extremely valued commodity.
The Royals know that Gordon wins games with his glove. Winning is winning, right? Pillar, a 32-round Draft pick, does the same thing for the Blue Jays.
Third, teams have torn up the old book on player development and decided to push their best young players through the Minor Leagues. They've learned that the best ones can be challenged at higher and higher levels of baseball and that their talent will allow them to catch up and contribute.
They represent the blueprint Mets general manager Sandy Alderson stuck to relentlessly even as his team came up short the last couple of seasons. Alderson took plenty of heat for not trading some of those kids to get a couple of veterans.
Apart from how much the Mets could spend or were willing to spend, Alderson believed that he had a core of pitching that would sustain winning for several years to come.
The Royals used a similar blueprint. When team owner David Glass hired Dayton Moore as his general manager in 2006, the two men had long talks about how to build a winner.
Moore outlined a plan in which the Royals would pay a short-term price at the big league level while focusing on building a farm system. By 2011, the Royals had a great system, and once the kids -- Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez, Mike Moustakas -- began to arrive, it was only a matter of time.
Glass never lost faith in Moore even though the plan hit some bumps in the roads, even though those kids didn't become stars overnight once they arrived. Now a club that once fretted about being able to compete is the only LCS team back for a second straight season. And the Royals draw big crowds and get huge local television ratings.
The Blue Jays have used some of their Minor League talent to trade for veterans, and that's part or the process, too. Teams see young talent as their most valued commodity and use it to trade for talent rather than competing against big-market clubs in the free agency marketplace.
The Blue Jays have kids, too. When they eliminated the Rangers in Game 5 of their ALDS on Wednesday, they used three homegrown pitchers 24 or younger: Marcus Stroman (24), Aaron Sanchez (23), Roberto Osuna (20).
All of this isn't to say that money isn't important. It is. It allows teams to cover up their mistakes and get quick fixes in free agency. But more and more, teams understand that money alone can't build a winner. Even as the Yankees and Dodgers spend big, they're pouring money into their farm systems to create a stream of talent.
When the Yankees were one of baseball's dominant teams in the 1990's, they were doing it, not just with money, but with homegrown players like Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada.
So enjoy this next round of the postseason. Marvel at the young talent. Appreciate at how those teams haven't taken a traditional route to winning.
Prepare for more. The Cubs are set up to compete for years to come. So are the Astros and Pirates.
Other teams -- for instance, the Brewers -- are implementing a similar plan. This is baseball's new world order. Every single franchise has a chance to compete. Every franchise has hope. For a fan, this is as good as it gets.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.