HOUSTON — The last teams standing — MLB’s Final Four — represent two distinct ways to chase championships.
The Astros and Cubs went the total teardown route — gut payroll, accumulate high draft picks, build slow and steady. As recently as 2012, both lost more than a hundred games in the same year, and Houston would do so again in 2013.
The Yankees and Dodgers tried to live in both worlds: keep attempting to win while honoring the reality that their way of doing so in the past — notably bludgeon the opposition with swelled payrolls and veteran stars — no longer was a successful motif, perhaps because of more regular testing for illegal performance enchancers.
Both coastal powers have more and more turned over key elements of their roster to youth while continuing to enjoy the benefits of financial might, notably because they believed their histories, fans/markets and ownership would not tolerate triple-digit losses and long-range goals.
Los Angeles continued to win divisions doing it this way — five in a row now — but still have yet to get back to the World Series since winning it in 1988. The Cubs beat the Dodgers in the NLCS last year and validated their strategy by winning their first title since 1908. The two teams meet again in the NLCS beginning Saturday.
The Astros have never won a championship and in an attempt to assemble a roster strong enough to take multiple shots, they put together the worst three-year record from 2011 to 2013 (162-324, .333) of any team since the 1963-65 Mets (154-332, .317) — and, of course, the Mets were born in 1962, the same year as the Colt .45s, the future Astros. The benefits included landing their starry left side of the infield — Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman — with either the first or second overall pick in the draft as surely as the Cubs secured Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber with top-four selections.
Brian Cashman presented this tear-down plan to his bosses, worried that trying to win and rebuild could “have you wind up in the middle and that normally makes the rebuild last longer.”
The Yankees won between 84 and 87 games from 2013 to 2016, made the wild-card game against the Astros in 2015 and were at some level of contention each season in September. All the time, though, Cashman was diligently overhauling the roster, particularly the past few years, injecting youth in the majors and depth in the minors whenever possible.
He pushed for even more, notably trying to convince ownership to let him trade Robinson Cano in his walk year (2013) and David Robertson in his (2014), but it wasn’t until the 2016 trade deadline with notably Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller that Cashman was permitted to make those kind of veteran-for-big-time-prospect maneuvers.
“We never fell off the cliff,” Cashman said. “Ownership was not willing to follow that (total rebuild) kind of strategy. You put in front of them all the various actions we can take and what their appetite is for each and their appetite was never to fall off the cliff. So, we plotted a different course and thankfully it has worked out.”
The Yanks made winning trades for players in their prime such as Didi Gregorius, Starlin Castro, Aaron Hicks and Chad Green. They protected the best of their system and stuck with players such as Greg Bird, Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and Luis Severino when questions arose about their health, skills and/or diligence.
“When you draft more toward the back end, it is not a place you are usually going to find quality like in the first few picks,” Cashman said. “So you better make quality trades, have a quality international plan, have a quality development program and draft well when you get your shot. I think you have to have a good performance science group, terrific professional scouts, terrific analytic people, terrific people working on your amateur side and mainly you have to have players who have the self-desire to be their best and be good teammates.”
The benefit that the Yankees — and, really, all the Final Four teams — have is the ability when the right time comes to use cash. Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Houston are the four largest population cities in the country and all but Houston are a top-three TV market (Houston is eighth).
So, when it was time to win, the Cubs could give lavish contracts on Jon Lester and Jason Heyward. The Astros could take on most of Justin Verlander’s big pact at this year’s trade deadline. The Dodgers could live with a bunch of dead money belonging to guys no longer with them such as Carl Crawford and Matt Kemp without sacrificing quality on the 25-man roster.
And to give themselves a puncher’s chance this year while they were really pointing more toward 2018 and beyond, the Yanks could hand Chapman the largest contract ever for a reliever (the Dodgers’ deal with Kenley Jansen is No. 2) and Matt Holliday a one-year, $13 million deal to be a DH/mentor.
Still, they had their lowest Opening Day payroll since 2007 and plan to have it even lower next year, all the while continuing the dual path of take down the age and cost of their roster while trying to win now.
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