Every year, some Major League Baseball team ends the season with far fewer wins than they expected and goes into the offseason with few options on how to improve. They likely have a few established players, already in their prime, and not a whole lot of young studs coming up through the system. The solution? Spending money in free agency.
But so often, trying to stock your roster with high-priced free agents doesn’t pay off. There is always a time and place for a team to grab a guy at a high value — like the Cubs did with Jon Lester last year — but the list of teams that have tried to build through free agency and failed is as long as Jacob deGrom’s hair. The White Sox and Padres in 2014, the Yankees and Mariners in 2013, the Blue Jays in 2012, and Marlins in 2011 all opened up the checkbook only to miss the playoffs the following season.
There’s obviously an appeal to the instant gratification of free agency, and it appears that so many teams and fanbases don’t want to be patient to deal with the process of putting together a contender, much less a contender with a sufficient window to sustain longterm success. On the other hand, the World Series this year has been nothing else if not a showcase for how to build your team the right way.
From the American League, you have the Kansas City Royals. This is their second straight trip to the World Series after not making the playoffs since winning the World Series in 1985, and the first year since 1989 that they’ve won 90 or more games. In other words, they were more or less the laughingstock of the AL Central for about 20 years, without so much as finishing above .500 most seasons. Now they’re World Series winners.
But a few years ago, people started to notice how they were doing baseball operations. They traded off popular star Zack Greinke and prospect Wil Myers and replaced them with talented players such as Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Wade Davis, and James Shields.
Over the course of a decade, the Royals have drafted Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, Luke Hochevar, Eric Hosmer, and Christian Colon in the first round of the amateur draft. All of those players are on the World Series roster, as well as players that originally signed with the Royals such as Salvador Perez and Yordano Ventura.
From the National League, the New York Mets existed in a similar zone as the Royals. The Mets haven’t made the playoffs since the heartbreaking NLCS loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in 2006. They followed that up with an equally heartbreaking 2007 season in which they finished one game out of first place — and they’ve been fairly mediocre since.
But during that span of mediocrity, the Mets have amassed a ton of talent. With third baseman David Wright as the lone roster holdover from the 2006 team, the Mets have surrounded him with position players they’ve drafted, signed as amateur free agents, or acquired via trade, such as Daniel Murphy, Lucas Duda, Michael Conforto, Ruben Tejada, Wilmer Flores, Juan Lagares, Yoenis Cespedes, and Travis d’Arnaud.
While they may have finished the series with four losses and just one win, the Mets are standing at a point where the team is no longer an embarrassment (or “the other New York team” at least not so derisively) and their in-house talent looks primed to make another deep run next season.
But the Mets’ strength comes through their pitching staff, which is anchored by deGrom, Matt Harvey, and Steven Matz, all originally drafted by the Mets, as well as Noah Syndergaard, who was acquired from the Blue Jays in the trade that sent R.A. Dickey to Toronto.
None of this is a big secret around baseball, either. There are other teams that have gone about assembling their roster this way, and it’s no surprise that they’ve seen success as well. The Chicago Cubs — the team that the Mets beat in the NLCS — spent the last three seasons building their roster around draft picks and cost-controlled players that were acquired in exchange for aging talent. The Houston Astros, who also made the playoffs, have undertaken the same type of rebuilding process.
That certainly beats paying top dollar for free agents with the hope that you can create a one- or two-year window to win. With the solid foundation of cheap, young players and the ability of both teams to fill in free agents and trade deadline acquisitions around their core (Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto this season with the Royals; Michael Cuddyer and Curtis Granderson with the Mets), both of these teams could have a long, extended run of sustained success.
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