Originally written on Waiting For Next Year  |  Last updated 6/29/14

This has been, for me, one of the more exciting playoffs in memory.  The games have been tight.  There’s been a nice mix of offense and pitching.  Managerial decisions have played a huge role.  In other words, I’m enjoying these games about as much as I’m able, considering the Indians aren’t participating.

And while I wouldn’t put too much stock in the crapshoot that is the MLB playoffs, I find it interesting that the two teams that have made the World Series happen to be teams that don’t spend gobs and gobs of money—at least not relatively speaking.

The St. Louis Cardinals opening day payroll this year was about $110 million, up from $94 million in 2010 and $88 million in 2009.  The Rangers were at $92 million on opening day 2011, up considerably from 2010 and 2009 where their figures were at $64 million and $68 million respectively.

In other words, these two teams have averaged about $86 million in payroll over the last three years.

Granted, that’s considerably more than the Indians payroll has been these last couple of years.  But it wasn’t all that long ago that the Dolans were able to pony up $82 million in payroll of their own in 2009.  Will that be the exception more than the rule?  Probably, yes.  But the Rangers made the World Series last year too with a payroll of only $64 million.  I wonder: is there anything we can learn from these “mid-market” teams that can’t afford to compete with the deep pockets lining the Eastern and Western seaboards but who still field competitive teams?

In looking over the rosters, here are some of the lessons I think the Indians might be able to glean from the construction of these two teams.

Fear the Mid-Rotation Free Agent.  The Rangers second-highest paid pitcher is Scott Feldman, whom they signed to a two year, $11.5 million contract before the season.  He makes more than Matt Harrison (4.2 WAR), Derrek Holland (3.6 WAR), and Alexi Ogando (3.5 WAR)—combined.  Scott Feldman pitched 11 innings in the rotation this season, before the Rangers realized he had to be moved to the bullpen.  For the entire season, he contributed 0.3 WAR.  In other words, the Rangers paid Scott Feldman $4.4 million for almost no value, while the previous three $1.2 million combined for 11.3 wins.

The Cardinals, similarly, paid Jake Westbrook $8 million this season.  For that money, he produced 1.1 WAR and was left off the NLCS roster altogether.  Their second-best pitcher was, on the other hand, Jaime Garcia, a home-grown pitcher in his second full season still making the league minimum.  Sure, their best pitcher was Chris Carpenter, who was locked into a pretty hefty contract, but beyond him, they got as many wins from Jaime Garcia and Fernando Salas (4.6 WAR for $850,000) as they did from Westbrook and Kyle Lohse (3.6 WAR for $20.1 million).

THE LESSON: Free agent, middle-of-the-rotation pitchers are rarely worth their cost.  Most teams are likely able to simulate their production for a fraction of the cost with homegrown or pre-arbitration players.  Big money should be spent elsewhere.

Closer Schmoser. Interestingly, both these teams have closers making the league minimum.  They also did not come to their role in the traditional manner.  The Rangers couldn’t seem to decide between Alexi Ogando and Neftali Feliz during Spring Training.  The smart money had them trying Feliz in the rotation (to replace Cliff Lee) while letting Ogando close games.  Of course, they eventually flipped these roles, sending Feliz back to the ‘pen and Ogando to the rotation—to great success on both counts.

The Cardinals, after suffering through the death throes of Ryan Franklin’s tenure as closer, couldn’t settle on anyone for most of the season.  Eight different players recorded a save for the Cardinals before (informally) settling on Jason Motte in September.  I wrote about Jason Motte earlier this week, especially in regard to Chris Perez.

THE LESSON: don’t be afraid to think outside of the box when it comes to the closer role: flexibility is a good thing, and re-imagining how a bullpen and rotation might be managed can uncover some hidden value.  Also, DON’T OVERPAY CLOSERS.  Which is to say, don’t pay for closers.  If you do, I’m gonna go all Kerry Wood on you, and nobody wants that.

Cornering the Market. The old cliché goes that good teams are built up the middle of the diamond, meaning that the best teams invest in the middle infield positions, catcher and center field.

These teams seem to be calling poppycock on that one.  The Cardinals three most expensive position players are Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman—all corner guys (these were also their best players, by WAR).  Texas’ three highest paid position players are Michael Young (DH), Adrian Beltre (3B) and Josh Hamilton (CF/LF).  Rather than investing heavily in the middle of the diamond players, both teams have focused resources on corner spots.

THE LESSON: This one is deceiving, with some chicken and egg issues.  The older a player gets, the more likely he is to move to an easier defensive position.  Also, the older a player gets, the more money he makes due to free agency and arbitration.  Therefore, more money is spent on the corners than up the middle.  But I think there is still something here worth noticing: good teams fill the middle of their diamond with young (and therefore, cheap) players because young players are—by and large—better defensively than old players.  As players get older and less able to play the more difficult positions, you shift them to corner spots and rely on their bats to produce most of their value.  Does this make me think twice about trying to keep Grady?  Yes.  Yes it does.

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I don’t think that we should read too much into any one facet that I’ve mentioned, apples being different from oranges and whatnot.

But the Indians should be taking notice of what good teams are doing, especially when those strategies are easily transferrable.  No, the Indians can’t just add “Draft Albert Pujols” to their strategy list, but there are little things that good teams do that the front office can emulate.  Where and how should we spend on free agents?  What is the most valuable use of pre-arbitration years?  What age do you want to bring someone to the majors to maximize his impact on your club?  I think the Rangers and Cardinals have mastered some of these more nuanced moves, and one of them will be rewarded with a pretty nifty trophy for it.

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