So we're in full swing of both LCS's now, with one series surprisingly close and the other just plain surprising. Honestly, if you thought the Rangers would be up three games to one, with just a single inning standing between the Yankees and an ignominious sweep out of the playoffs, then raise your hand up high and be counted. You are apparently a baseball genius.
As gratifying as it's been seeing the Yankees get knocked around, though, let's face it: most of us probably don't care a whole lot about the outcomes of these series. I'm sure there are a few here who either through geography or association or some other mystical reason of their own have a deep and abiding investment in one of these teams. I do not.
However, what I do care quite deeply about is our own El Birdos, and what lessons they might be able to glean from the teams still playing baseball right now. The Cardinals are heading into an incredibly pivotal offseason, and they can use all the help available. Each of the four teams playing right now has something to teach us, I feel; something enduring and meaningful about success and why they're having it. So let's just see if we can't drag those lessons out into the light, shall we?
I'm going to start with the National League, and then move on to the junior circuit as we go.
The Lesson: Patience
It's easy now to look at the Phillies and see only the model franchise in the National League, the dynasty team with the amazing core of talent, the team which seems to show very few signs of slowing down any time soon, unless their general manager actually manages to trade every last prospect they have in his quest to build the greatest rotation ever known to man. The Phillies are incredibly good, and it's hard to look at them and not be a little dazzled.
This is a team, though, which despite having players like Chase Utley on their roster could not break into the playoffs as recently as 2006. Their pitching was atrocious to the point their world-beater offense simply couldn't support it. It would have been easy to look at the mix and decide it just wasn't right, that something was missing, and blow it all up to try and start over.
The Phillies that we see today were not assembled on the quick. The core that gives them such a remarkable base to build upon began coming together better than a decade ago. Jimmy Rollins came first, drafted out of high school in 1996. Chase Utley was drafted out of UCLA in 2000, and Ryan Howard followed in the fifth round of the 2001 draft, taken out of what was then Southwest Missouri State. Cole Hamels came along in 2002.
Just as important as drafting and developing the players was figuring out how to use them. When Ryan Howard was on his way up the ladder, he looked to be blocked, quite honestly. The Phils already had a first baseman. Guy by the name of Jim Thome. Pretty good hitter, actually. But when Philadelphia felt Howard was ready to take the job at first, they moved Thome to make room for the kid they believed in. They didn't let a misguided belief in the value of veteranness or an attachment to a player whose best days had passed him by get in the way of their plan. They believed in the player they had brought along, and made the move to open a spot for him.
What the Lesson Means to the Cardinals
I think you can all see where I'm going with this, but here goes anyway. The Phillies team we see today took a decade to assemble. Through it all, they stayed with their plan, with their belief in the players they were developing. The Cardinals have been in serious draft and develop mode since 2005, just five years ago. In that time their system has produced one cornerstone talent and a bunch of players to round out the margins of a big-league roster. There should be at least one more cornerstone player in the minors now; some combination of Zach Cox/Shelby Miller/Carlos Martinez/Bryan Martinez/Oscar Tejada should end up as at least one star player. Yet we hear from the field management and even some factions of the front office about how unsatisfactory the pipeline has been.
The lesson is patience, letting the plan you've put in place have time to work, rather than making moves to fill holes today at a long--term cost. You want quantity of talent? How about the trades the Cardinals made last season to bring in Khalil Greene and Mark DeRosa? Matt Holliday was at least a player the Cards viewed as a long-term part of the plan; you can argue how much value there was in trading for him rather than just waiting and signing him, but the fact is he's a big part of the team's future. DeRosa and Greene, though, while both decent risks to take in certain ways, were never seen as anything more than temporary stopgaps until something longer term could be found. It isn't my intention to dig around in the past and criticise, but how good would Chris Perez and Luke Gregerson look added to the Cardinals' already-impressive collection of bullpen talent? At the very least it would present more opportunity for the front office to go out and try to acquire a building block for the future.
I know the calculus is a little different when the best player in the game is whiling away his few remaining hours in a Cardinal uniform surrounded by mediocre talent, but that actually speaks to another point I have later. For now, though, remember the patience of waiting for you plan to come through and let's move on to the...
The Lesson: Elite Talent Goes a Long Way
Okay, look, let's not kid ourselves here. We all know what the San Francisco Giants are. The Giants are a one-trick pony of epic proportions. It just so happens that one trick is of Harry Houdini quality.
The Giants are, simply put, an okay team with a couple transcendent players. They don't really hit all that much, they don't run much, they don't hit a ton of home runs, and the defense is just okay. But good god can they ever pitch. The Phillies are a much better team pretty much top to bottom, but the Giants are up 2-1 in their series because their elite players have carried them to a 2-1 series lead.
What the Lesson Means to the Cardinals
Fortunately, this is a lesson the Cardinals seem to be learning as time goes by, but it still bears repeating: elite talent goes a long, long way. When you draft, draft the guy with the talent to be a star, not the future role-player with great instincts and questionable bat speed. The Giants are where they are now because they took the chance on Tim Lincecum and Madison Bumgarner. They picked those guys and paid those guys and now they can sit back and just watch those guys do what needs to be done.
Please note this is not an endorsement of the stars-and-scrubs approach to building a roster. I don't think you cannibalize big swaths of your team for the benefit of having a few huge talents. The lesson is when the talent is available to you you take it. One Tim Lincecum can make a world of difference; five Lance Lynns are very useful but will never do what that one can do. When you do all you can to build a roster with world-class talent, you invite in greatness for a visit. When you fill your house with mediocrity you only ensure there isn't room for greatness when it does stop by.
The Lesson: There's Life After the Big Guy is Gone
A few years back, the Texas Rangers had one of the better sluggers in the American League in their lineup. Mark Texeira was a beast, no doubt about it. Funny thing was, the Rangers didn't seem to be able to get much of anything done with him out there. The team around him just wasn't good enough.
A couple years before that, the Rangers had an even better slugger in their lineup. They had given him an unprecedented contract to come and be the centerpiece of something special, but Tom Hicks and the rest of the Rangers' front office found that their budget simply couldn't support handing a huge percentage of their payroll to one player, no matter how transcendent the player or how Texas-sized the pile of bad idea money grew. Alex Rodriguez did his damnedest to live up to that massive sinkhole of a contract, but it didn't matter how good he was. The team wasn't good enough.
In both cases, of course, the Rangers traded away their centerpiece player. The A-Rod contract was bad enough they could only finagle Alfonso Soriano out of the deal (not a terrible return, but still), but the Mark Texeira deal was a pretty damned fine one. They got a remarkably promising young shortstop out of the deal, as well as a pitcher who's already closing for them and really is faced only with the question of what his role is going to be long term. It's just a shame Saltalamacchia didn't really pan out the way he was expected to. On the other hand, it does give us a nice cautionary tale, reminding us prospects are called so for a reason.
The Rangers are a better team now than they ever were with either Alex Rodriguez or Mark Texeira on their roster, a point against stars and scrubs. You concentrate too much of your resources and too much of your talent in just a few spots, then what happens when those spots fail?
What the Lesson Means to the Cardinals
Oh, come on. I know you can all see where I'm going with this one. The Cardinals have Albert Pujols, one of the truly great players in the history of the franchise and the game itself, on their roster right now. This season will be his last on his current contract, and he's going to need a lot of money to stay here. You can argue he'll give a discount because he loves the game and he loves the city and he loves to win, but I don't really buy it. When Ryan Howard got his big-ass deal before the season, Albert's manager refused to say they would use that deal as any sort of basis for a new Albert contract. The way they view it, he said (paraphrasing), is that there's Albert, all by himself on an island, and then there's everyone else. You can look at that statement a lot of ways, but I see it as a declaration that Albert should be on his own pedestal beyond everyone else.
Regardless, the Cardinals need to look very long and very hard at whether or not signing Albert to a mega-contract is really going to be the best course of action for this team long term. I know there are plenty of people who would swear off the Cards if Albert left, but I'll bet those same people would come back as soon as they started winning again.
It's hard to let go of such a magnificent talent, but teams win championships. Individual players do not. If you can get a return on Albert that makes you better, you take it. The Rangers couldn't win paying Alex Rodriguez 30% of their payroll; I wonder if the Cardinals will try to win paying Albert that much?
For the record: LB and I were discussing this very thing just the other day while hammering out some stuff for this year's Maple Street Annual, and Larry disagrees with me. He thinks you sign Albert to whatever he wants money-wise, but try to keep the years down a bit. If you can't get a deal done, you take one last shot with him and then accept the draft picks when he walks. I happen to think getting just a pair of draft picks for Albert might be the worst possible outcome; if you're not going to sign him you need to move him for the best haul you can possibly get, in my ever so humble. I don't have a point, I just wanted to toss in what seemed to me an interesting anecdote and get you all thinking about ordering your 2011 Maple Street Press Annual. Anyway, on to the final team, the...
The Lesson: Money Doesn't Just Talk, It Wins
I don't hate hate the Yankees, but I do kind of hate them. Being sure Cliff Lee will pitch the next five years in pinstripes is sickening, to be quite honest. It feels inevitable, and it makes you a little angry. Nonetheless, there's a lesson to be learned from the Yankees, who just buy whatever the hell they want and then go out and win championships.
If you really want to improve a baseball team, there's one way that's faster and more effective than just about any other: spend some money on it. The Yankees don't operate in the same universe as most of the rest of baseball in terms of revenue, but the principle remains the same right on down the line. If you want to win, you can always go out and bring in some player to help you do that, so long as you're willing to sign the checks. Money talks and bullshit walks, as they say, and so far as I know that's not a shot at the people who prefer on-base percentage to batting average.
What the Lesson Means to the Cardinals
The Cardinals have moved into a bright and shiny new stadium in recent years, one which was built largely on the theory that a new stadium would allow them to remain competitive with their payroll allocation. The attendance numbers have remained ridiculous, but payroll has somewhat stagnated. Unfortunately, there have been some remarkably bad decisions made on certain contracts (I think we all know which needlessly handsome starter we're looking at), and the team needs upgrades. If you're serious about winning, then break out the wallet (I refuse to use that ridiculous contraction), and pay for more talent. There isn't a truckload of talent out there, but there's enough to upgrade this team. A player like Hiroyuki Nakajima, the Japanese shortstop set to begin contract negotiations with his NPB team today (and whom I wrote a column about this morning for the RFT in honour of said negotiations), will cost you money, but he won't cost you players. You don't have to give up talent, you don't have to give up draft picks. All you have to give up is money.
If the Cards think they need Jake Westbrook, then they can't count on him signing some sort of big discount deal. He has a right to get what he's worth on the open market, and I'm pretty sure he'll be more than willing to exercise that right. Pony up for the guy if he's what you believe you really need. Hell, the same thing could apply to Albert, I suppose, thus ruining one of my two points, but I think there's a line to be drawn between paying a guy and crippling your franchise. It's up to the Cards to find that line, or draw it if it isn't out there already.
Four teams left, each one with something to teach us about how to build a winner. You have to be patient and believe in the process like the Phillies. You have to be willing to bet on the big payday, secure in the knowledge that one big payday will wipe out all your losses in an instant like the Giants. You have to understand that one man does not a team make, and that just because you have to give up something you love it doesn't mean there's no opportunity for something even better to come along, like the Rangers. And then, when all else fails and you can't seem to get what you need to get, you have to be willing to reach for the pocketbook and get what you need to get the old fashioned way: buy it. Like the Yankees.
So what does all this mean for the Cardinals this offseason? Only they can decide that. But there are lessons to be had. Let's hope our team is paying attention.
The Baron's Playlist for the 20th of October, 2010
"Blangee Blee" - Land of Talk
"Never Gonna Give You Up" - the Black Keys
"In Response" - Peter Wolf Crier
"Gray Sunset" - Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti
"I'm Gonna Change Your Life" - The Thermals
"Revenge Wears No Wristwatch" - The Walkmen (there's a live in-studio performance slated to go tonight on Rob Levy's Juxtaposition on KDHX. 7-9pm, 88.1 FM or streaming here)