They say there’s more than one way to skin a cat. While morbidly accurate, this truth can also apply to building a World Series contender in Major League Baseball.
Sports is generally a copycat industry, where teams that want to win do their best to mimic what they see working with other teams. We saw it in 2018 when the Boston Red Sox adopted the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing system that worked so well in 2017. While effective, stealing signs hasn’t been the only model that’s worked over the years.
The New York Yankees were despised during the 1990s and into the 2000s for famously overpaying stars to win titles. It worked for a time, to the tune of four World Series titles in five years and three American League pennants through 2009. It worked for a while, but the rest of baseball found a way to level the playing field, as evidenced by the fact that no team has won back-to-back titles since those 1999 and 2000 Yankees.
The current MLB landscape consists of many different philosophies to build a championship contender. Some teams continue to try to buy a title by offering massive contracts to some of the best players in the league for immediate impact. Others have taken a more conservative approach by using homegrown talent to get to the promised land with sustainable winning. Still, a third with a hybrid seeks to find a balance between sustainability and boom or bust with homegrown talent supplemented by top-tier talent via trades or free agency. Just for fun, let’s look at what the Atlanta Braves did to win a title this year and see if it’s sustainable. Let’s look at a few specific teams with their respective strategies for creating winners.
The LA Dodgers had the second-highest payroll in MLB in 2021. The roster was loaded with expensive stars who included Mookie Betts, Clayton Kershaw, Trevor Bauer, as well as Max Scherzer and Trea Turner after the trade deadline. LA has taken the approach of bringing in stars via free agency and trades while sticking to a philosophy that long-term deals don’t pay off.
The Dodgers have been at the top of the National League for the better part of the last decade, then finally reached the mountain top and won the 2020 World Series after a 60-game season. While the title should be considered legitimate because the playing field was even, many were looking to see if LA could repeat in 2021. It wasn’t meant to be, as the Dodgers still posted a 106-56 record and were eliminated by the Braves in the NLCS.
Much of what the Dodgers have done with their massive payroll over the last 10 years is win regular-season games. They haven’t finished with a losing record since an 80-82 campaign in 2010 and have made the playoffs every year since 2013. The big-money strategy has given the Dodgers years of quantity and quality, with the payout coming only in 2020.
The Houston Astros have been considered the cream of the American League since they won a World Series in 2017. After three 100-loss seasons from 2011 to 2013 and a 70-92 record in 2014, the Astros climbed out of the cellar of the AL West and became a dominant force.
Houston developed multiple first-round draft picks in George Springer, Carlos Correa, and Alex Bregman into their anchor with being an amateur free agent signing in Jose Altuve. In addition to homegrown talent, the Astros recognized a need for clubhouse leadership and consistency on the field to win a title in 2017, so they traded for veteran pitcher Justin Verlander minutes before the trade deadline. Since winning the title, Houston has made two trips to the World Series and two more to the ALCS.
Houston has developed a pipeline of talent with up-and-coming stars in Jordan Alvarez, Kyle Tucker, and Luis Garcia, so it appears there will be less of a rebuild in the future and more of a reload, which will attract top free agents to help build a winner. The Astros have found a middle ground between developing talent and paying stars looking to win.
Tampa Bay Rays
The last time the Tampa Bay Rays were considered a threat to anybody beyond the AL East, Joe Maddon was the manager and Evan Longoria was at the hot corner. The Rays had some pretty bad seasons between then and now, where they were nowhere near contention in their competitive division. Although, their patience in developing talent and laser focus on analytics has produced three trips to the playoffs in the last three years, including a World Series run in 2020.
The Rays have taken a stark approach to win in a division with the financial giants of the Yankees and Boston Red Sox. They’ve lived in the bottom five of all MLB in payroll yet managed to produce four winning seasons in a row and continue to be a looming force in the AL.
The problem that looms with the Rays is sustainability. Yes, Rays seem to have established a plug-and-play system that works. However, the lack of loyalty to star players like pitcher Blake Snell, Joey Wendle, and possibly Kevin Kiermaier (once the lockout is over) can distract players. Of course, they’re professionals and it’s part of the business, but there’s something to be said for stability in a clubhouse when you’re trying to find long-term success.
Atlanta has owned its division for four years running. While the Braves were picked by many as favorites in the AL East heading into the 2021 season because of a strong offensive core and smothering pitching, it all seemed like it would fall apart as injuries piled up before the All-Star break. A series of trades to fill in some holes put the Braves back where they wanted to be as they remained in the hunt with an anemic division, which ultimately paid dividends in a World Series title.
The Braves will continue to be the favorites in their division if they re-sign the 2020 NL MVP. Even if he signs elsewhere, Atlanta has Ronald Acuna Jr. returning to the outfield from an ACL tear and Ozzie Albies anchoring the infield. Atlanta’s pitching staff will continue to be a force to be reckoned with. The Braves built their team from the ground up and understood the necessity to stay consistent when it comes down to it. Freeman, Albies, and Acuna were all on second contracts with the team in 2021 and are direct results of their farm system.
Which is best the best model?
From what we’ve seen with these four examples, the best model is a hybrid of developing talent within the farm system then filling in with veterans. The Astros and Braves have talent that wins in a full season (sorry, Dodger fans) and look to be sustainable for many years. Fans of the Astros and Braves have a lot to look forward to as they’ve established the most sustainable models for winning games.
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