Avoiding the O-fer

Mike Trout's Opening Act

Christian Petersen/Getty Images Yasiel Puig

The 30: Spark Puig

The Dodgers were dead in the water until a Cuban rookie brought his game to Hollywood

We’ve come a long way since the first week of this column this season. Back then, the Nationals looked destined to fulfill their promise as repeat NL East champs, while the Pirates figured to languish near the bottom of the league. Now, we’ve reached the final week of the season, and also the final week of 2013 for this column. All that’s left are a few teams competing for the American League wild-card spots, an NL Central race with modest amounts of drama, a retirement ceremony or two, and a bunch of teams waiting till next year.

So when we next meet on a Monday, we’ll look back at the season that was, and look ahead to the postseason that will be. Until then, thanks for riding along all year. October should be a blast.

It’s Week 25 of The 30.

Many of the stats and facts below are courtesy of the indispensable ESPN Stats & Info.

6. LOS ANGELES DODGERS

Through the first 55 games of the 2013 season, the Dodgers went 23-32, mired in last place in the NL West. Almost nothing, other than the incomparable Clayton Kershaw, was working. The next day, Yasiel Puig made his major league debut. Puig stroked two hits, and the Dodgers beat the Padres, 2-1.

That win launched an incredible hot streak. Los Angeles has won 67 games and lost just 34 since then. That run includes one of the greatest 50-game stretches by any team in major league history, with the Dodgers going 42-8 from June 22 through August 17. Since making his debut, Puig has been a force of nature. He is batting .327/.397/.544. He has cranked multiple game-winning hits. He has made inconceivable throws. He has pulled off spectacular plays on the basepaths. He could teach PhD-level classes on the art of the bat flip. It’s hard to look at the Dodgers’ in-season run, the one that propelled them from the cellar to the NL West title,1 and not chalk it up to Puig’s monstrous performance and the jolt of energy he gave to his struggling team.

That would be selling the rest of the team terribly short. Last month, we covered the under-the-radar contributors who played a role in the Dodgers’ success — players like Hyun-jin Ryu, A.J. Ellis, J.P. Howell, Paco Rodriguez, and even slick-fielding Nick Punto. But really the story of the 2013 Dodgers couldn’t be simpler: They spent a lot of money on a lot of great players, and those players finally produced the way they should.

It didn’t start out that way, of course. Andre Ethier (five years, $85 million) hit .240/.330/.366 with just four home runs in the two months and a day before Puig’s debut. Matt Kemp (Year 2 of an eight-year, $160 million contract) hit .251/.305/.335 with two home runs over that same span before hitting the disabled list. Zack Greinke (six years, $147 million) pitched well in his first three starts of the year, then got torched in his next three, adding up to a 4.80 ERA. And Hanley Ramirez (Year 5 of a six-year, $70 million deal) logged 11 at-bats before landing on the DL. When you have four players of that caliber making $68.25 million and performing at replacement level (or gathering splinters), any team is going to struggle.

No one was quite so philosophical about it on June 2, though. When a team carrying a $217 million payroll and the highest of expectations plays that poorly, even if it’s only for one-third of the season, the thought from many observers was that someone needed to take the fall. By someone, that meant Dodgers manager Don Mattingly. National writers called for him to be fired, while respected columnists wondered if Mattingly’s harsh comments about his own players would get him axed. Hell, I was a Mattingly detractor myself, though mostly for tactical reasons, such as him bunting his way out of multiple rallies and riding Brandon League while teams tore the then-Dodgers closer apart.

Like so many other misunderstood baseball phenomena, the Dodgers’ failures mostly came down to sample size. Even a great team can play poorly over the course of 55 games. Granted, a 55-game slump as bad as the Dodgers had can and often does derail entire seasons for teams unfortunate enough to go through them. But Los Angeles GM Ned Colletti and his bosses were secure enough in the team’s talent and introspective enough to recognize that Greinke wasn’t going to suck all year and Ramirez would eventually play — and contribute.

We know what happened next. Ethier has hit a solid .291/.378/.458 since the day Puig got his start. Greinke has delivered a microscopic 2.22 ERA. And Ramirez, who returned the day after Puig broke in, has outshone his more hyped teammate, mashing at a .346/.399/.643 clip and grading out as the second-most valuable shortstop in the league, despite playing in just 82 games. Kemp never stayed healthy enough long enough to make a significant contribution this year. But while the Dodgers and many of their stars were performing somewhere around the fifth percentile of expectations for the first two months of the year, the final four months looked a lot more like the powerhouse team most people expected coming into the season.

The best we can do now is internalize a lesson learned, that overreacting to a slow start can look really foolish. That and watch the Dodgers as they head into October with what might be their best shot at a World Series in 25 years.

25. SEATTLE MARINERS

Few other teams (really one other team) have the Dodgers’ resources and the will to spend on their level. So for virtually everyone else, buying the best players — even collecting multiple unwanted players from another team, because you’ve got unlimited resources with which to pay them — isn’t a viable strategy.

The trick, then, is to find a Plan B. This is, of course, baseball’s fundamental question. What wins games? Is it a loaded starting rotation or a killer lineup? Sparkling defense or an airtight bullpen? And even if you’ve identified what you want, how do you get it if you can’t cut big, fat checks every other day, and if you can’t snap your fingers and start churning out three Mike Trouts and two Jose Fernandezes a year from your farm system?

For inspiration, the Mariners can turn to the three teams with the lowest Opening Day payrolls this year, other than the tanking-on-purpose Marlins and Astros: the A’s, the Pirates, and the Rays. You can nitpick the differences between these three teams if you try hard enough. Oakland platoons heavily and isn’t afraid to target players with talent but also lengthy injury histories, such as Jed Lowrie. Pittsburgh has made a strong commitment to ground-ball pitchers (highest ground-ball rate) while deploying frequent defensive shifts to vacuum up those many grounders, all of that inspired by Baseball Prospectus alum Dan Fox and the team’s excellent group of analysts. Tampa Bay’s list of Raysisms runs a mile long, from pursuing players undervalued for character issues (Yunel Escobar) to striking gold on first-base pickups who don’t fit the traditional 30-homer profile (James Loney, Casey Kotchman) to targeting hard-throwing relievers with spotty track records, making a few tweaks, then reaping big benefits (Fernando Rodney, Kyle Farnsworth, Joaquin Benoit).

But there’s a common thread that runs through all three teams, one that has allowed them to compete and win despite relatively tiny revenue streams and payrolls: build rosters with 25 useful players, then squeeze every drop of value out of each of them.

The A’s in particular have followed that formula to two straight division titles. This year’s team features only one truly elite player, and Josh Donaldson was regarded as merely a pretty good prospect when Oakland acquired him five years ago. The A’s haven’t even drafted and developed players all that well, with none of the team’s nine starting position players coming up through that route. What Oakland has done is dish out bargain multiyear free-agent deals for useful players like Coco Crisp and Grant Balfour, make shrewd trades for flawed but promising players like Lowrie, and execute dirt-cheap pickups of hidden power sources like Brandon Moss.

In the NBA, if your team acquires LeBron James, you can go from top-three pick status to the playoffs immediately. That’s not how baseball works. For one thing, MLB still admits fewer teams to the playoffs than any of the other big three North American team sports. For another, you can’t just give the ball to Mike Trout at the end of a baseball game, clear out, and let your superstar go to work.2 Other than with relief pitchers and players off the bench, managers can’t just toss their best players into the highest-leverage situations. One superstar, or even two, doesn’t come close to guaranteeing success in baseball. That’s why Trout, the best player on the planet for the past two seasons, has also missed the playoffs for the past two seasons.3

And that’s why Oakland’s goal remains the same every year: Build a roster with as few weaknesses as possible. If every player you put on the field can hold his own, amazing things can happen. You can extend a big inning with a walk, get big outs from your bullpen in the sixth and seventh and not just the ninth, and keep your team in a game when your fifth starter gives you six solid innings. Though baseball is fundamentally a sport based on one-on-one matchups, it’s also a team sport in the sense that everyone gets a chance to be a hero at some point. Better, then, to have a squad stuffed with competence rather than a team consisting of a couple of stars and a whole lot of scrubs.

All of which is a long way of saying that the Mariners might not be as far from contention as you might think. Felix Hernandez was Seattle’s only star this year, same as he’s been for the past few years. But consider some of the players the M’s have brought up this year. Nick Franklin, Brad Miller, and Mike Zunino all made their big-league debuts. Maybe none of them becomes a star. But with the team’s patience in Justin Smoak finally paying off, and Kyle Seager being the Mariners’ best position player (by far), all of a sudden you might have an infield with no true weak links. Taijuan Walker and James Paxton may never approach Felix level. But if they can put up league-average numbers, suddenly Seattle has one of the best rotations in the league, with Hernandez and 2013 breakout Hisashi Iwakuma leading the way4 and supported by capable kids.

There’s still plenty of work to do, of course, given that only one Seattle position player will end the year as a two-win player or better (Seager), with only two pitchers being able to make that claim (Hernandez and Iwakuma).5 The free-agent market should offer plenty of affordable options, whether it’s a buy-low on Balfour after an iffy year to bolster the bullpen; Scott Feldman to provide league-average bulk innings for the rotation to take pressure off the kids; or Nate McLouth, who produced better than average numbers this year thanks largely to his baserunning and could be useful on a short-term deal. There are plenty of players with lower profiles who could make for solid signings or trade targets. If the Pirates can hit the jackpot with Francisco Liriano and Russell Martin, the Red Sox can get big bounce-back results from Shane Victorino, and the Royals can get Ervin Santana in a trade for basically nothing, there’s no reason the Mariners can’t leverage savvy scouting into offseason scores of their own.

If they do, and their own prospects continue to develop, there’s no reason they can’t become relevant in the near future. The Rays went from worst to first in ’08 and are now in their sixth straight season in the hunt, one of only three teams to post winning seasons in each of those six years. The A’s went from 74 wins to what’ll likely be two straight seasons of 94-plus. All the Pirates have done this year is shake off 20 straight losing seasons to charge into the playoffs, with more young talent still to come. It can happen, and it can happen quickly. Especially if they recognize one of baseball’s most obvious and most important advances: Players who don’t suck are the new market inefficiency.

Filed Under: Jonah Keri, MLB, People, Sports, Teams

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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