Take a good look at the teams that are either in the Major League Baseball playoffs or on the verge of the playoffs in 2013. They all fit into two categories: Either they spend a lot for their talent, or they've built a roster of young draft picks (fifth round or higher) who have come to fruition on the field. Baseball has become a sport of one or the other.
Here are the teams with big-money rosters that have reached the postseason or are in contention at the wire (numbers courtesy of USA Today):
- Los Angeles Dodgers: $216.6 million
- Boston Red Sox: $150.7 million
- Detroit Tigers: $148.4 million
- St. Louis Cardinals: $115.2 million
- Texas Rangers: $114.1 million
- Cincinnati Reds: $107.5 million
All of those teams were in the top 13 of MLB payrolls at the beginning of the 2013 season. Of course, payroll doesn't guarantee success. But let's not kid ourselves either. In the world of professional sports, the job is infinitely easier with more capital at your disposal.
So, that's five teams. There are 10 that ultimately make it. Here are the teams outside of the higher payroll list with high draft picks currently on the team roster:
- Pittsburgh Pirates: (7 total) Neil Walker, Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Justin Wilson, Jordy Mercer, Tony Sanchez, Gerrit Cole
- Tampa Bay Rays: (7 total) Chris Archer, Alex Cobb, Jeremy Hellickson, Evan Longoria, Jake McGee, Matt Moore, David Price
- Atlanta Braves: (6 total): Brian McCann, Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Mike Minor, Andrelton Simmons, Craig Kimbrel
While the Pirates and the Rays are on the low end of the payroll scale, they get good production out of their top-end draft picks. The Braves mixed a couple of very good picks with acquisitions like the Upton brothers, Tim Hudson and Dan Uggla. They are hardly crying poverty there.
So that leaves two outliers: The Cleveland Indians and the Oakland A's. I absolutely love what Cleveland GM Chris Antonetti has done. First, he hired a great skipper in Terry Francona. Then he shrewdly put some veteran pieces to fit around the club's young talent in Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher, Scott Kazmir and the ancient but ageless Jason Giambi.
The Indians have only two big-time draft picks in Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall, and the club ranks 21st in payroll at $77.8 million. So needless to say, there has been some hocus pocus done. And the fact that this team is in the postseason and will likely host the Wild Card Game speaks volumes.
But in the end, it still does not compare to what Billy Beane of the Oakland A's has done. Only four teams work with a lower payroll—two of them are the Pirates and Rays. We have already gone over their ability to build their rosters with high picks accrued during the 2000s. The other two teams are the Miami Marlins and Houston Astros, the two worst teams in baseball.
And while the A's have two players that were high draft picks, one was drafted to be an outfielder and is now a relief pitcher (Sean Doolittle). So without any high draft picks other than 2011 No. 1 pick Sonny Gray and little flexibility to make moves, how does Beane do it?
Well, over the last two years, Beane has valued players that fit the Moneyball mode: patient hitters that can work a count and pitchers that don't walk hitters. Since 2012, you could include names like Brandon Inge, Brandon Moss, Jonny Gomes, Jed Lowrie, John Jaso and Bartolo Colon. All were acquired inexpensively (relatively speaking) and all provided dividends in an Oakland uniform.
But Beane really does well when trading for players. Players like Lowrie, Jarrod Parker, Derek Norris, Josh Reddick, Ryan Cook and Tom Milone were all acquired via trade in the last two years. It is hard to get quality out of that many acquisitions on the fly. Beane has managed to make that seem commonplace.
Of course, some will say that Oakland has not won a championship since Beane has been at the helm in the front office. That's like saying a lottery winner only won $40 million instead of $400 million. Ask fans of the Royals, Pirates, Mariners, etc. if they would've liked to have been in the A's shoes over the last 14 seasons.
To be this good as consistently as Oakland has been, against the constraint of a skin-tight budget and without ever consistently drafting at the top of the board, has been nothing short of remarkable. In that way, 2013 has been even more impressive than 2012.
That's because the magical ride Oakland had last year was completely unexpected. At least going into this year, it was acknowledged that the A's should be better. But they were still not expected to run with the big-money Rangers and Los Angeles Angels. And they certainly weren't supposed to win the division again.
But here they are again. And largely unchanged from the start of the season. In other words, the moves Beane made equated to more success than the moves of any other team in baseball except the Boston Red Sox. And guess what? They wanted Beane too once upon a time.