NLCS roster strategies

The two teams facing off in the National League Championship Series are each one step away from the World Series, but they’ve taken very different routes to get there. Of course, they’re the last two defending world champions, each having defeated the Rangers on their way to a title. The Cardinals hope to defend their championship while the Giants hope to put aside the disappointment of missing the postseason in 2011 and relive the glory of a year before.

The Giants clinched comfortably with more than a week to go, while the Cardinals were forced to sweat it out until the season’s final weekend and then beat Atlanta in the one-and-done Wild Card game that will forever be remembered for the infield fly rule call and trash-throwing that marred Chipper’s final appearance.

The teams also play two very different brands of baseball. The Cardinals managed to score 765 runs, second only to the Brewers on the Senior Circuit and three runs better than their total that led the NL last year. It’s simply incredible that the team’s offense has stayed in MLB’s upper echelons despite the loss of their leader and megastar Albert Pujols.

They pair their offensive juggernaut with a very solid pitching staff that missed longtime Chris Carpenter for the majority of the regular season with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. With Carpenter, as well as deadline acquisition Edward Mujica, in the fold, the Cardinals’ pitching may be as strong as it has been all year, although Jaime Garcia was recently removed from the team’s postseason roster after suffering a rotator cuff strain and getting pulled early in Game 2 of the NLDS.

Since the end of the Barry Bonds era, the Giants’ trademark has been an excellent pitching staff and a punchless lineup. This year’s team has been more balanced than in recent years, however, as their middle-of-the-league total of 718 runs scored is the most of any Giants team since 2006. Much of that offense was provided by Buster Posey, who seems likely to receive the NL MVP and has only gotten hotter as the calendar has turned to September and October.

While the team’s offense has improved, its once-untouchable pitching staff is now merely pretty good, as closer Brian Wilson missed the season after undergoing a Tommy John procedure and onetime ace Tim Lincecum probably wishes he could forget his 2012 season altogether. Lincecum’s been effective in relief in the playoffs; a promising development, but if you’d told any Giants fan a year ago that the team would be in the NLCS and Lincecum wouldn’t be a core member of the playoff rotation they might’ve cried. Without Lincecum, the team still has an ace in Matt Cain, and Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong are quality starters who should give the team chances to win ballgames.

The makeup of these teams at the major league level reflect the decisions each team’s management staffs have made in constructing them. While some of these players are free agent signings made in the offseason, many more are fruits of the efforts of the team’s scouting and development functions, signed as an amateur either through the draft or internationally. Because of the extent to which a player’s salary is controlled before and during his arbitration years, these players are extremely valuable to teams and can largely determine the construction of the team’s overall roster.

In terms of producing homegrown players, the Cardinals have a huge advantage in the NLCS, and it shows on the field in their ability to go after stars. The Cards’ current roster includes 16 players who were taken by the team in the draft and developed through St. Louis’ farm system, as well as one signed as an international free agent.

The team is particularly homegrown on offense, where 10 of their 13 players were St. Louis draftees. The three exceptions are Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran, both acquired on big-money free agent contracts, and David Freese, who was in just high-A as a Padres farmhand in 2007 before getting swapped to the Cardinals for Jim Edmonds. This illustrates an important point, which is the financial flexibility allowed by filling roster spots with young, cost-controlled players. Between the two of them, Holliday and Beltran make $30M this season. The only reason the team can keep payroll reasonable with those contracts on the books is because their other four outfielders (Jon Jay, Allen Craig, Shane Robinson, and Adron Chambers) make less than $2M combined.

Similarly, with Lance Berkman going down, the team’s infield is essentially all homegrown and cheap. Skip Schumaker, the elder statesman of the group, makes $1.5M this year, and the rest of the team’s infielders (including Freese) hover just above the league minimum. With so many roster spots filled on the cheap, the team had the money to lock up Yadier Molina and avoid losing a second franchise cornerstone.

On the mound, the theme of several key pre-arbitration contributors along with a few key free agent or trade acquisitions continues. 2003 draftee Jason Motte underwent a conversion from catcher to pitcher on his way to 42 saves this season, while Jaime Garcia, Lance Lynn and Joe Kelly were key contributors in Carpenter’s absence. Because they have so much of the bullpen filled on the cheap, the team has been able to spend over $40M on a rotation with four solid veterans in Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Kyle Lohse, and Jake Westbrook.

Instead of filling smaller roles with pre-arb talent, like the Cardinals, the Giants have mostly found their stars through the draft and international signings and supplemented those stars with lesser talent brought in through trades and free agency. The Giants are very international-heavy, with eight players originally signed as international free agents compared to the Cardinals’ two. Not all of those players were originally signed by the Giants, but Pablo Sandoval, by far the most prominent of the Giants’ internationals, was originally signed out of Venezuela by the team.

The team has four other Venezuelan players, acquired in every possible manner. Hector Sanchez followed in Sandoval’s steps as a Giants’ signee, Gregor Blanco has been a key contributor in the outfield since being signed as a free agent, Marco Scutaro came in midseason via trade, and Jose Mijares was plucked off waivers in August. However they arrived, all are now vital to the team’s success.

The team is led by three draftees, all of whom have developed into stars during their time under the watchful eyes of the Giants’ developmental staff. Cain and Bumgarner are the aces of the staff, while Posey is the team’s best offensive and defensive player behind the plate. The two homegrown starters are supported by Ryan Vogelsong, who spent over a decade and a stint in Japan between being drafted by the Giants and coming back to contribute to the 2011 team. The final spot in the rotation is at the moment up in the air between Lincecum and Zito. Lincecum has the talent to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Cain and Bumgarner in a dominant starting rotation, but is only beginning to prove he’s back to his Cy Young form. Zito is a cautionary tale, displaying what can happen when teams are forced to look for stars on the free agent market. The team hasn’t signed a free agent to a deal of more than three years since it handed out big contracts to Zito and Aaron Rowand in 2006 and 2007, evidence that the front office learned its lesson from those crippling deals.

Offensively, Posey and Sandoval form the core of the lineup, along with trade deadline pickup Hunter Pence. The team’s trade for Pence mirrors its pickup of Carlos Beltran last season, showing that the Giants are willing to give up prospect talent to supplement their offense with established stars as long as there is no long-term commitment required, limiting the risk on San Francisco’s part. Draftees Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford hold down two positions on the infield that were big question marks before the season. Both have shown their age but appear to be potential long-term pieces for the team.

The bullpen is led by Sergio Romo, who has taken over from fellow Giants draftee Wilson as the team’s primary closer. Romo is supported by a number of solid bullpen arms assembled by GM Brian Sabean over the years, many of them holdovers from the 2010 championship team.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Overall, the Cardinals have drafted and developed a much larger portion of their roster, while the Giants have relied on the free agent and trade markets to supplement the stars they find in the draft. Much of the credit for San Francisco has to go to Vice President of Player Personnel, Dick Tidrow, who has held that position for over a decade. Largely thanks to Tidrow, when the Giants have received a high draft pick, they haven’t missed, namely turning top-10 picks into Lincecum, Bumgarner, and Posey from 2006-08.

In St. Louis, with success more spread out throughout the organization, it’s hard to know who to credit, and maybe that’s the point. The Cardinals seem to have created a system in which good scouting and analytic information leads to more efficient use of draft picks and more consistent player development. GM John Mozeliak gets credit for putting that system into place, although clearly their success is a team effort. The rest of the league clearly has taken notice, as Jeff Luhnow, who used to run the team’s scouting and drafting operation, was given the GM’s chair in Houston.

While the draft has played a very different role in St. Louis and San Francisco’s roads to the NLCS, one thing is clear. For any team that hopes to play deep into October, effective drafting and the use of young and cost-controlled talent must be part of any winning strategy. Whether the draft is seen as a source of stars, bulk talent, or both, teams that can effectively fill positions on their big-league roster through the draft give themselves the flexibility to put the finishing touches on their roster that can make the team successful when October rolls around.

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  1. Bob says:

    Nice overview, Doug. Regarding St. Louis, a very nice overview, actually. But.

    But you missed out on the important point that the current StL general manager has done an exceptional job of trading mid-level properties for future, or immediately meaningful MLB performers.

    Old Jim Edmonds swapped for severely undervalued asset David Freese.

    This year, overvalued no-plate-discipline marginal commodity Zack Cox traded for Mujica, who was spectacular for 5-6 weeks (literally didn’t surrender a run for his first month on the team), when the team positioned itself to actually make the playoffs.

    And don’t forget the biggest:

    Overvalued minor leaguer Brett Wallace swapped (effectively a one-for-one deal) for an at-the-time-undervalued Matt Holliday. (Contrary to your portrayal, that’s how Holliday was initially acqired… and it likely had some later bearing on his being FA retained at a reasonable price.)

    Mozeliak is… the… best GM in baseball.

    Or at least, in the N.L. (Friedman has done amazing things down there in Tampa.) Consider this: when Mozeliak took over, his team had posted a -104 run differential in the preceding season. That’s bad. That’s very, very bad.

    His first year, the RD improved by 158(!) runs, to +54. And in the 4 years since, they’ve never been worse than +70. That’s uneffingbelievable. Truly.

    Having a +70 RD might not appear so impressive on the surface…but check how many teams have even had a +50, both last year and this. (In the N.L., it’s ONE. Mozeliak’s team. And he’s done it FIVE straight years… the only five years he’s been in charge. He’s smarter than me, he’s smarter than you, and he’s smarter than Billy Beane. And that’s pretty good.)

    Incompetent boobs like Jack Z, and his Canadian equivalent Alex Anthopoulos, are roundly considered some sort of standard-bearers for modernity (i.e. SABR-thought). They come across publicly as shrewd, cynical, and SABR-friendly. So Fangraphs groupthink clowns, and other superficial acolytes of New GM Syndrome have fawned over them; and despite their disgraceful records of failure, they still get scraps of stubborn support.

    We should all consider the Peter Principle verrry seriously, when we cast our eyes toward Seattle or Toronto. Because when the GM of St. Louis was called feckless and overmatched last July, when he dealt Rasmus for Edwin Jackson and seemingly anonymous spare parts… well maybe he already knew that Ryan Braun was 0-9 against O.Dotel lifetime, with seven whiffs. Maybe he knew that Rasmus was so freaking addled/troubled/cornfused, that he wasn’t giving up THAT much.

    Maybe, just maybe, folks at Fangraphs, and BP, and Keith Law, and elsewhere ARE smart. But. But not half as smart as they think they are—at least when it comes to Mozeliak, relative to his brethren.

    Please forgive my long-windedness. Believe it or not, that took me less that 45 minutes to type.

    Mozeliak is smarter than you. Maybe smarter than me. Certainly smarter than any other Senior Circuit GM.