Prospects, Homegrown Talent Have Replaced Checkbooks as MLB's Crucial Currency

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistSeptember 30, 2015

Chicago Cubs' Kris Bryant (17), bats during a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015 in Chicago. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)
Paul Beaty/Associated Press

In baseball, as in life, money makes the world go 'round. It's a business, as players, agents and owners never tire of reminding us.

But something has shifted—there's a new currency in the game, a new blueprint for success. And it prioritizes prospects, player development and homegrown talent over limitless checkbooks.

Mike Bauman of charted this sea change in 2013:

There is an emerging moral for team-building in the early 21st century:

Grow your own. It is so much cheaper than the alternative. It can happen regardless of market size. It is a function of intelligence, acumen and diligence, not a question of pocket depth.

Yes, a glance at the dozen clubs that are still in the playoff mix as of Wednesday includes the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees, baseball's highest rollers:

Look at the rest of that list, though. The Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals, Kansas City Royals and New York Mets are all in the middle of the pack in terms of payroll. The Pittsburgh Pirates, owners of MLB's second-best record entering play Wednesday, fall into the bottom fifth of spenders.

And the Houston Astros, who sit a half-game off the pace for the second American League wild-card slot, shell out less for their entire roster than the Dodgers do for their pitching staff alone.

Sure, major league history is littered with tales of small-market clubs that rose up, defied the odds and made deep October runs. This is something more than that, though. 

Heck, even the Yankees and Dodgers are getting in on the act. New York has lately shown restraint on the free-agent market and has placed renewed emphasis on its farm system. Ditto the Dodgers under president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, who cut his teeth with the spendthrift Tampa Bay Rays.

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Money still matters; make no mistake. But cost-controlled, emerging talent frequently matters more.

Consider the San Francisco Giants, who've won three Commissioner's Trophies in five years. Yes, the Giants have a top-10 payroll. They've also got a roster stuffed with homegrown players.

In fact, seven of the 10 guys (including the DH and pitcher) who started Game 1 of the 2014 Fall Classic for San Francisco rose through the club's farm system. 

The trend continues among this year's October hopefuls. 

The small-budget Houston Astros are in the thick of the playoff race thanks to a young core that includes AL Rookie of the Year contender Carlos Correa.
The small-budget Houston Astros are in the thick of the playoff race thanks to a young core that includes AL Rookie of the Year contender Carlos Correa.Pat Sullivan/Associated Press/Associated Press

In the National League, the Cubs, Pirates, Mets and Cardinals are reaping the benefits of fertile farms. Chicago, in particular, is a poster child for the grow-your-own mentality, with a regular starting lineup anchored by presumptive NL Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant and a nucleus of burgeoning studs the Cubs either drafted or brought in as minor leaguers.

And the Bucs, as Will Graves of the Associated Press (via the Idaho Statesman) put it, have "remained reticent in terms of chasing high-dollar free agents," opting instead "to aggressively pursue players through the amateur draft." 

Now they're about to step onto the playoff stage for the third straight year.

In the AL, the story is the same, with the Royals, Minnesota Twins and Astros leaning heavily on development from within. The latter two teams weren't even supposed to contend this year, yet here they are.

Then there are the squads that used their prospects to acquire reinforcements. 

The Toronto Blue Jays, seeking to end a 22-year postseason drought, dipped into their stash to bring in MVP-caliber third baseman Josh Donaldson in the offseason, plus stud southpaw David Price and All-Star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki at the trade deadline.

And the Mets parted with prospects to land slugger Yoenis Cespedes, a move that's propelled the Amazins to an NL East title.

The Toronto Blue Jays dipped into their farm system to acquire ace David Price, among other assets.
The Toronto Blue Jays dipped into their farm system to acquire ace David Price, among other assets.John Bazemore/Associated Press/Associated Press

Again, that's not to say big-ticket free agents can't make an impact (they can) or that a healthy budget isn't an enviable luxury (it is).

This paradigm, though, isn't going away, because it allows more clubs to grab a seat at the playoff table provided they invest in scouting, drafting and development. And it pushes MLB closer to the parity that outgoing commissioner Bud Selig touted in the waning days of his tenure.

Rick Burton, a sports management professor at Syracuse University and ex-commissioner of Australia's National Basketball League, broke down that legacy, per Thomas Barrabi of the International Business Times:

Selig has moved baseball to a situation where you do have competitiveness by small-market teams in an age where dollars should drive everything. You want every team to believe that this year they can contend. I think baseball has that now, but I don’t think they had that back in 1998 or back in the mid-to-late 90's.

Barrabi credits two watershed moments: the revenue-sharing agreement reached in 2002 and the luxury-tax threshold enacted a year later. Baseball doesn't have a salary cap, but the league has made moves to help small-market teams become and remain competitive.

Then there's the advent of the second wild card, also enacted on Selig's watch. Simply put, with more postseason slots available, more general managers and decision-makers are motivated to get creative, pushing forward and adopting new, innovative methods to put a winning product on the field.

Parity and the emphasis on prospects and player development we've been discussing aren't one and the same, but they appear to be driving each other, and putting the lie to the notion that a few big-budget bullies will win every year, regardless.

Whether you want to heap credit on Selig or some collective shift in strategy and perception is beside the point. Whatever the catalyst, it's happening. 

As Ben Rogers put it, writing for CBS DFW about the Texas Rangers' resurgence, "a front office that can contend year after year over an extended period while simultaneously restocking the cupboard with high-end homegrown prospects is the sports equivalent to a money tree."

So money still makes the baseball world go 'round. It's just that we're living in a different world.

All statistics and standings current as of Sept. 29 and courtesy of unless otherwise noted.