NLDS quartet bound by more than just rich traditions
The four franchises that will begin competing on Thursday in the two National League Division Series are each among the most history-rich in our most history-minded of American sports. The Braves, Cardinals, Dodgers and Pirates represent four of baseball's eight franchises to have been founded in the 19th century, four of the seven to have won at least 10,000 games and four of the seven to have produced at least 40 Hall of Famers.
Each of the clubs cherishes the values that have become imbued in them during well over a century of existence, but this year they all added a new chapter to their winning tradition -- in the case of the Pirates, reversing two decades of failure -- not by looking back, but by looking ahead. They have built rosters designed to anticipate and then exploit nascent on-field trends. They have intelligently worked to fluidly operate within the league's ever-changing financial realities; while the Dodgers have this season battled the Yankees for the game's highest payroll, none of the others is in the league's top 10.
"We understand that we're going to have to zig and zag to stay successful," John Mozeliak, the Cardinals' general manager, told me this summer about his organization's approach. "We can't ever just get complacent and think that we've figured it out. The moment we do that, we're going to get passed."
The Cardinals, certainly, seem to have figured something out -- this represents their third straight postseason appearance, and their 10th in the last 14 seasons -- but so, too, have the Braves, Dodgers and Pirates. The historic quartet, as currently constituted, have many features in common, suggesting that 2013's success will be repeated in the coming years. Here are five:
1. They have committed to the strikeout
Early last decade, the former Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan realized that one way for a club to succeed in an era of exploding home run totals was to nurture pitchers who could master the sinker, thereby leading sluggers to pound the ball into the ground. It worked: St. Louis won the 2006 World Series with a soft-tossing pitching staff that ranked 26th overall in strikeouts, but third in groundball percentage. As Duncan's tenure with the Cardinals was nearing its end (he retired in 2011), he anticipated that declining home run rates would make the strikeout ever more valuable, and encouraged the club to acquire pitchers who miss bats -- pitchers like Lance Lynn (drafted in 2008) and Shelby Miller (2009).
Major league hitters struck out 35,710 times this season, thereby setting a record for the sixth consecutive year, and the Cardinals both contributed to and capitalized on the trend: they ranked fifth in the NL in whiffs. Each of the NL's playoff teams, in fact, ranked in the top seven: the Dodgers were second, the Pirates third and the Braves seventh.
2. They excel at the tricky art of bullpen construction
As the age of pitching specialization continues -- MLB relievers threw 14,977 innings this season, the fourth-most ever -- so has the importance of building deep and quality bullpens. By mid-May, the Braves' bullpen seemed as if it was on the cusp of becoming neither, as that was when Eric O'Flaherty joined Jonny Venters -- the two were star closer Craig Kimbrel's top set-up men -- on the disabled list. Both would be lost for the season, and needed Tommy John surgery. So it came as a surprise when Atlanta's relievers finished the regular season with a cumulative ERA of 2.46, baseball's best, led by Kimbrel's microscopic 1.21.
The Braves assembled such a 'pen by selectively mixing young players they'd developed (like 24-year-old lefty Luis Avilan, who had a 1.52 ERA in 75 appearances) with older scrapheap finds from other organizations in whose stuff they believed (like Anthony Varvaro, David Carpenter and Luis Ayala, each of whom had an ERA under 3.00).
The Pirates' bullpen, which was nicknamed "The Shark Tank" and ranked third overall in ERA at 2.89, was led by a pair of those aging scrapheap guys, first-time All-Stars Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon. The Cardinals suffered an unfortunate blow when Jason Motte, their closer, tore his ulnar collateral ligament before throwing a pitch this season. Still, their bullpen ranked 13th (3.45), thanks largely to young relievers they'd developed like Kevin Siegrist (0.45 ERA) and Trevor Rosenthal (2.63), who will be their closer in the postseason.
Best of all, these bullpens are cheap. The relievers the Braves will likely bring to the NLDS combined to make around $4.1 million this year, the Pirates' made $5.2 million and the Cardinals' around $9.5 million -- though that figure is inflated by the presence of John Axford, who came over from the Brewers just over a month ago.
The Dodgers represent something of an outlier here, both in salary (the disappointing Brandon League is making $4.5 million this yer, more than all the Braves' relievers) and in performance, as their relievers ranked 13th overall. But their bullpen stabilized after a rough start, due largely to the young, inexpensive arms the franchise developed: rookie Paco Rodriguez, who emerged as an excellent setup man, and Kenley Jansen, who took over from League as the closer and saved 28 games in 32 chances.
3. They are adept at drafting future stars
The first round of the 2005 draft was famously stacked -- it included Justin Upton, Alex Gordon, Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, Troy Tulowitzki and Jacoby Ellsbury -- but, like any draft, it included its share of disappointments. Jeff Clement, Ricky Romero, Wade Townsend, Mike Pelfrey and Cameron Maybin had all gone off the board by the time the Pirates picked Andrew McCutchen 11th. Eight years later, McCutchen trails only Braun, Zimmerman and Tulowitzki from that group in career WAR -- and that is primarily because that trio, drafted out of college, reached the big leagues years before McCutchen, who was selected out of Florida's Fort Meade High and debuted at age 22 in 2009.
The ability to turn draft picks into stars is another tie that binds the NL playoff teams. For each of them, their best player this year, as measured by FanGraphs' WAR, was one that they drafted and developed: the Pirates' McCutchen (8.2), the Braves' Freddie Freeman (4.8), the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw (6.5) and the Cardinals' Matt Carpenter (7.0). While Carpenter, a 13th round pick in 2009, didn't establish himself as a star until this season, at the age of 27, the others rocketed up their club's organizational ladders and had become big league mainstays by the time they were 22.
The National League playoffs will also be dotted with recent high draft picks who are only just beginning to establish themselves as elite major leaguers -- and who in many cases were first promoted from the minors this summer -- like the Pirates' Gerrit Cole (the top overall pick in 2011), the Cardinals' Michael Wacha (a first rounder in 2012), the Braves' Alex Wood (a second rounder in 2012) and the Dodgers' Rodriguez (also a 2012 second rounder).
4. They don't saddle themselves with crippling contracts
Yes, the Dodgers are committed to a number of their players for a lot of years after this one, and at very high salaries. Seven of them have contracts that run through at least 2017. But these are not the types of contracts that figure to hang as albatrosses around the franchise's neck, hindering its operations going forward as the aging players that long ago signed them hobble to the bank to cash their checks more often than they do onto the field.
For one thing, all of the long-term contracts Los Angeles has either given out or assumed will expire well before the players attached to them reach their dotages. Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez will each be 36 when theirs end, in 2017 and 2018, respectively. Andre Ethier is signed through the age of 35, Matt Kemp and Zack Greinke through 34. Besides, the Dodgers seem to be entering into a future in which they are able to afford pretty much anything.
The rest of the NL playoff field has not only entirely avoided deals that will likely prove painful in their final years, but, with a few notable exceptions, many major long deals at all. Four Cardinals are signed through 2016, but they happen to be among the team's very best players and, at 33 or younger, are showing no signs of slowing down: Allen Craig, Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright. The Braves have three players signed past 2014, and while two of them are B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla (the other is Justin Upton), those players are still young enough, at 29 and 33, to reverse this year's struggles. The Pirates have just two players signed past next year: McCutchen, whose six-year, $51.7 million deal runs through 2017 and is a steal, and Jose Tabata, who is due a total of only $11.5 million from now through 2016.
These clubs are not ageist. Between them, in fact, they fielded 22 players who were 35 or older this season, and they value their influence on clubhouse culture and, especially in the cases of players like Carlos Beltran, A.J. Burnett and Grilli -- each of whom is 36 -- their high-end production. The key is that of that group of 22, just two are signed past this year -- Grilli (though 2014) and the Cardinals' 38-year-old lefty specialist Randy Choate (through 2015).
All four teams, in other words, have given themselves plenty of financial flexibility, now and in the future.
5. They are committed to international scouting
In June of 2012, the Dodgers signed Yasiel Puig to a contract that was unprecedented for a Cuban player -- seven years and $42 million -- mostly because they fell in love with his talent, but partly because they wanted to reestablish themselves as major players in the Latin American market. The franchise's spending there had dwindled under their parsimonious previous owner, Frank McCourt, to the point that buscones -- the semi-officials who connect top Latin youths with big league clubs -- refused to bring them their best prospects, knowing they wouldn't pay.
Puig, obviously, has worked out well, but so has another major international signing: Hyun-Jin Ryu, the Korean lefty to whom the Dodgers gave a six-year, $36 million deal last December after having paid a $25.7 million posting fee for the right to negotiate with him. If Puig is a lock to finish second in the NL Rookie of the Year balloting, behind the Marlins' Jose Fernandez, Ryu will likely finish third, after going 14-8 with a 3.00 ERA in 30 starts. Puig and Ryu have in short order become Dodgers centerpieces, and, in retrospect, virtually every team would have signed both players to their current contracts, had they known then what they know now.
The Braves have long been active in Latin America, and their NLDS Game 3 starter, Julio Teheran, and their best middle reliever, Avilan, were signed by the organization out of, respectively, Colombia and Venezuela. (Their catcher of the future, Christian Betancourt, came from Panama.)
While the rosters of the Pirates and Cardinals are less dotted with international finds -- though Pittsburgh signed its second-best offensive player, Starling Marte, out of the Dominican Republic -- that should change in short order. Increased efforts abroad have produced three of the Pirates' top four remaining prospects (outfielder Gregory Polanco and shortstop Alen Hanson from the Dominican Republic, and pitcher Luis Heredia from Mexico) and the Cardinals' top two (outfielder Oscar Taveras and pitcher Carlos Martinez, both Dominican).