All four teams left in the 2013 MLB postseason—the St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers—are built to last, to one degree or another. Each is terrifically talented, and none is likely to be hamstrung by financial issues anytime soon. They have different shapes, different strengths and different philosophies, but they could all be back here a year or two from now.
In parsing them, though, separating their futures from one another, we might be able to identify the one to whom this run is most important, the one whose fans should most readily embrace the team they see right now. I’m not one who believes the will to win carries much force in baseball, predictively, but it’s important to keep these things in mind, as spectators. Let’s check them out.
The Cardinals are, by general acclaim, as well-run as any organization in baseball. They make terrific scouting finds, develop young talent exceptionally well, build deep rosters and refuse to overspend on free agents. In fact, their big free-agent outlay over the last decade was a seven-year, $120-million deal to retain Matt Holliday. That contract is perhaps the only nine-figure deal in recent memory that looks like it will truly end well for the team who issued it.
Detroit readily overspends for top-end talent, but to their credit, they are quite good at identifying good investments, and so have a roster laden with true stars. Prince Fielder’s contract won’t leave you wondering how Dave Dombrowski does it, but the fact that Fielder, Miguel Cabrera and a cast of solid hitters have congealed into one of baseball’s three best offenses might. That offense has been years in the making, but Dombrowski’s more impressive coup is the construction—through three trades and two well-spent draft picks—of the best starting rotation in baseball.
The Boston Red Sox are a machine, with the deepest 40-man roster in baseball, a strong farm system and—I presume—room to re-raise their payroll from the $150 million they spent this season. The trade that freed them from obligations to Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett and Nick Punto not only gave them the flexibility to totally start over and build a new contender, but deepened their minor-league pitching trove. They have five starters already under contract for next season, none of them a bad option, and that doesn’t include Felix Doubront (whom they still control), or prospects like Allen Webster, Anthony Ranaudo, Matt Barnes or Henry Owens. Of the four members of their lineup who become free agents at season’s end, two have full-time in-house replacements, and one has at least a solid part-time option.
The Dodgers have the best pitcher in baseball, a fistful of second-level stars and so much cash that their roster never has a weak link for long. They’ll need to add a starting pitcher this winter, but should have the wherewithal to do so easily, and they might even jump into the deep end with an offer to Robinson Cano or Brian McCann, to shore up their lineup. Refusing to be constrained by profit-margin concerns, Ned Colletti and staff have assembled a roster full of overwhelmingly talented players who were deemed bad bets, or bad bargains, at the time that Los Angeles pounced.
I think the Cardinals’ sustainability is slightly oversold. It’s possible to express trust in their system, their process, without falling so madly in love as to lose sight of the difficulty of replicating some of these finds. Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright and Matt Holliday are the anchors of this team. They’re all going to retire with, at the very least, a fringe case for induction in the Hall of Fame. As impressive as Oscar Taveras, Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha and Trevor Rosenthal are, it’s not remotely fair to saddle them with the expectation of becoming Cooperstown-caliber players. Even if we ascribed the Cardinals’ aptitude in scouting and player development to the New York Yankees, we wouldn’t expect the Yankees to find true replacements for Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada. It’s a lot harder to find and retain players of that caliber than we sometimes imagine.
The Tigers have an obvious issue, in that they’re locked into what could become onerous commitments to Fielder, Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez, and are likely to lock up Miguel Cabrera this winter on a deal smart baseball people will recognize immediately as a problem. At this exact moment, their core isn’t terribly old, but look past 2014 and it’s easy to see the expense of keeping certain players far surpassing their real value. The farm system is also pretty thin.
The Dodgers are spending without limits, and that makes betting agaionst them a bad idea. Matt Kemp’s eight-year, $160-million deal looks like it could be a flop, but thus far, the Dodgers aren’t even feeling that. The farm system is just fine, and getting better, and there won’t be a free agent for the next five years that won’t be tied to the Dodgers at some point in the process. Spend enough money and agents will learn not to accept an offer until they’ve given you a chance to weigh in.
That said, if the spending should stop, or be severely curtailed—either by some unforeseen rule change or when ownership gets tired of footing such an outrageous bill—the Dodgers’ backs would suddenly be against the wall. They’re locked into some major money that isn’t returning huge dividends, so having good money to throw after the bad is a necessary part of their game plan. The risk of that coming back to roost may be small, but it’s a risk.
So my pick is Boston. They will be able to offer as many as five players qualifying offers this offseason, entitling them to draft-pick compensation if the player should sign elsewhere, locking those guys in for a single season at $14.1 million if they accept. The five are Jacoby Ellsbury, who will absolutely turn down that offer; Stephen Drew, Mike Napoli, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Koji Uehara, all of whom would have interesting decisions to make. Boston cna absorb the cost even if they all come back, but it’s likely that at least two would turn it down. That would give Boston a chance to load up even more on prospects, a resource they already possess in abundance.
I could see a trade for Giancarlo Stanton or Max Scherzer. I could see a splashy free-agent signing, like Cuban defector Jose Abreu. I could see a lot of things. The point is that nothing about the Red Sox suggest imminent regression. They have tremendous depth, and all the resources they need to add a superstar if they so choose. The era of dynasties in baseball is over, but none of these four teams should fail to at least contend for the playoffs anytime soon.Next post: 2013 ALCS Game 3: How Justin Verlander Should Attack the Red Sox
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