When the Colorado Rockies advanced to the World Series with a National League Championship Series sweep of their NL West rivals, the Arizona Diamondbacks, the baseball world had witnessed two more clubs that were able to do more with a little less than the big-market teams. That is, at least until the World Series, when big-market Boston took the game's biggest prize.
Still, it became clear last October that the Rockies and the D-backs were going to be teams to watch again in 2008, not just one-year wonders. Both of them are infused with youth, and both put a plan in place specific to their situations and found a high level of success in '07, perhaps a little earlier than could be expected but with the definite concept of continuity.
"We've only done it for one year," Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd points out in a statement that actually could apply to both clubs. "It's not like we've built a dynasty here. There are a lot of things left to accomplish. There's a lot of consistency left to prove."
Having passed the torch for the time being, the A's are not expected to be a threat for October this year. But significant rebuilding trades this offseason have restocked the farm system in hopes another run of top Major League players will follow.
Which, of course, proves that even the best of the mid-market clubs might have to take a deep breath now and then.
"I think every team in every size market should be forward-thinking in some way, but if you're not one of the big-market teams, you probably have to do a little more of that, and that's a challenging thing to continually do," A's GM Billy Beane said in January. "But we like the challenge. That's part of the fun of the job, and I think most of the people in similar situations would say the same thing."
As teams from Baltimore to Arlington and Cincinnati to Tampa Bay try to make good on the promise set before them by the A's and Twins and now Rockies and D-backs, it's those two NL West clubs that have all eyes upon them this year.
D-backs: New skin
By Steve Gilbert/MLB.com
There was a time when the D-backs acted like a big-market team. They signed marquee free agents like Randy Johnson and traded for and signed to lucrative extensions players like Curt Schilling and Matt Williams.
All that money, a good deal of it deferred, proved more than the Phoenix market was able to support. These days, the D-backs are more window shoppers when free agency comes around. That's in part by financial necessity, but it also represents the organization's philosophy under GM Josh Byrnes, who took over in November 2005.
To Byrnes, it's not just the dollar amount for a free-agent contract that is prohibitive, it is also the length of the deal.
"To write a big check betting on the next five or six years of performance is probably not something we're willing or able to," Byrnes said.
The D-backs have used two methods to improve the team during Byrnes' tenure: making trades with other teams and bringing up young players from their farm system.
The players the D-backs seek in trades are those that the team can control for several seasons at a reasonable rate, or a pricier player that doesn't have much time left on his contract.
For example, in a deal with the Blue Jays that sent Troy Glaus and his onerous contract to Toronto, the D-backs received second baseman Orlando Hudson and pitcher Miguel Batista. Hudson still had three years of arbitration before he became a free agent and Batista had just one year and around $4.75 million left on his contract. Hudson has been a mainstay for the club, while Batista was a useful contributor in 2006 before being allowed to leave via free agency.
It was the same this past offseason, when the D-backs traded six prospects to the A's for starter Dan Haren, who is under contract for the next two years at less than $10 million total, and the club holds an option for a third year at $6.75 million, a bargain for a pitcher with his credentials.
Of course, the reason the D-backs are able to pull off a trade like that is because their farm system has churned out a lot of talent in recent years -- not only giving Byrnes an inventory from which to trade but also putting top Draft pick picks like shortstop Stephen Drew and outfielder Justin Upton on the big league club. That allows for an everyday lineup made up largely of pre-arbitration -- i.e. relatively inexpensive -- players as well as the depth to use in trades to fill holes.
The D-backs' payroll this year will approach $80 million when you factor in the money owed to players not on their roster. Their actual on-field payroll will be closer to the mid-60s.
And because they have a lot of young players whose salaries are very predictable for the next few years, the D-backs have adopted a three-year payroll plan. Rather than focus on a hard number for one year, Byrnes has been allocated a chunk of money to spend as he sees fit over a three-year period.
Rockies: A developing story
By Thomas Harding/MLB.com
They no longer call O'Dowd "Dealin' Dan."
"I never asked for that in the first place," O'Dowd said of the nickname that, nonetheless, fit at the start of this decade, when he made 12 trades involving 43 players in 2000 and kept shuffling the roster for years.
Perhaps "Developin' Dan" is a better fit these days. The Rockies could begin their defense of the 2007 NL pennant with seven of nine starters and numerous reserves developed by their farm system.
The Rockies' near-total reliance on their farm is a slight departure from the D-backs, whose mostly homegrown roster is interspersed with key figures obtained through shrewd trades and free agency. The Rockies, in fact, border on unique in baseball.
The Rockies are likely to start 2008 with just three of their key players having come in trades -- center fielder Willy Taveras, catcher Yorvit Torrealba and three-time All-Star reliever Brian Fuentes. Right-handed setup man Luis Vizcaino, signed to a two-year, $7.5 million deal this offseason, ranks as the biggest free-agent signing.
First-round picks who will take the field March 31 in St. Louis are first baseman Todd Helton, shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and starting pitcher Jeff Francis. Compensatory first-round pick Jayson Nix could be the starter at second. The Rockies spent upper-round money for the most-recognized player, right fielder Matt Holliday, taking him in the seventh round in 1998 when other teams feared his salary demands. If not Nix, the second baseman could be Jeff Baker, selected in the fourth round in 2002 under circumstances similar to Holliday's.
Second-round pick Aaron Cook could be part of the rotation. The Latin American program could be responsible for two starting pitchers in Ubaldo Jimenez and Franklin Morales, and the closer in Manny Corpas.
"Everyone would like to do that, but it's very difficult to do," Rockies CEO Charlie Monfort said. "That means you've got to have the right scouts and the right development people to get these guys to the Major Leagues. It's something we take pride in.
"Bottom line is if we had a bunch of holes to fill from the outside, we'd be back where we were four or five years ago, struggling to compete."
Whether the Rockies will continue to be such an inside operation, or even succeed doing so, is the next big question.
Francis, Cook, Corpas, Helton, Holliday, Tulowitzki and right fielder Brad Hawpe are signed to multiyear contracts. But a Rockies organization that was named Baseball America's Organization of the Year is expected to create logjams. The Rockies may be forced back into the trade market, where they will have to mimic the D-backs' shrewdness.
"Our goal is never to really trade any of our young players coming up in our system," O'Dowd said. "We want to hold onto the players we're developing at this level, too. We really haven't gotten to the point where we've had to force any of those issues. I hope that time comes."