It’s still about the pitching, not the cash

I guess the moral of the story is $537 million just doesn’t go as far as it used to.
That figure is the approximate sum of the collective payrolls of the New York Yankees (a Derek Jeter bloop hit short of $203 million), Philadelphia Phillies (within the Phanatic’s footprint of $173 million) and Boston Red Sox (a Pesky Pole homer shy of $162 million).
Those are baseball’s three highest payrolls, with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Why Aren’t We Just California coming in a distant four at $138.5 million.
The other thing those teams have in common: one-run losses to end their seasons early, the Sox in the final game of the regular season, and the Yankees and Phillies at home in deciding Game Fives in first-round playoff series.
Not what any of those teams’ owners had in mind when they opened their checkbooks, for sure, and not what most fans and many observers expected (hello, mirror) when the season started.
But really, is it a surprise each team flopped? Probably that case could be made for the Sox. Season-ending injuries to two-fifths of a starting rotation and to two starters in the field, plus baffling ineffectiveness by Carl Crawford all season and their best reliever, Daniel Bard, in September, cannot be reasonably predicted. On the other hand, John Lackey being an ineffective jerk at this point of his career, well, sure, not hard to foresee.
But many observers believed even before the season that the Yankees would show their age. And when free agent ace Cliff Lee signed with the Phillies instead of the Yankees, and Andy Pettitte stayed retired, many wondered if the N.Y. pitching staff would hold up. It did, surprisingly well, but their high-priced free agents and most of their aging veterans did not come through at the plate in the postseason.
And the Phillies are the third-oldest team in the Major Leagues, at an average of age 29.8. Almost all of their key players — Rollins, Victorino, Utley, Howard, Ibanez, Polanco — range between 30 and 39. They, too, came up short in the playoffs at the end of a long season.
It’s not like these teams are failures. Each has won a World Series in the past four years, and Boston has won two of the past 10. 
But in the past decade, these teams with lower payrolls have also won the Series: the Arizona Diamondbacks, Angels, Florida Marlins, Chicago White Sox, St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants.
What do all but one of those teams have in common? What was their formula for success?
They developed or traded for starting pitching and didn’t rely on free agents. 
•  The 2001 Diamondbacks traded for Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson.
•  The 2002 Angels either developed or traded for their top four starting pitchers: Jarrod Washburn, Ramon Ortiz, Lackey and Kevin Appier.
•  The 2003 Marlins either traded for or drafted their top four starting pitchers: Brad Penny, Mark Redman, Dontrelle Willis and Josh Beckett.
•  The 2005 White Sox either drafted or traded for their top four starting pitchers: Mark Buerhle, Freddy Garcia, Jon Garland and José Contreras.
•  The 2006 St. Louis Cardinals won a weak NL Central Division after winning 83 regular season games and then got hot in the playoffs. Only two Cardinal starters had earned-run averages under 5.00, and both signed as free agents: Chris Carpenter and Jeff Suppan. Yes, the Cardinals are the fluke in any number of ways. 
•  The 2010 San Francisco Giants rode their homegrown starting pitching rotation of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner to the title; all were drafted and developed by the organization. Their fifth starter? Barry Zito, signed to a seven-year, $126 million deal five years ago. Zito has gone 43-61 for the Giants with an earned-run average of 4.55. Oops.
While athletes from the top-payroll trio are checking their tee times, the teams that are still ticking in 2011 are:
•  Detroit, 10th-largest payroll, three top starting pitchers drafted or traded for.
•  St. Louis, 11th-largest payroll, two of top four starters are free agents (Carpenter and Kyle Lohse), third drafted, and the fourth traded for. Still the exception and making the playoffs by playing in a weak division. Put the Cards in the AL East and they get smoked by Toronto, never mind Tampa Bay.
•  Texas, 13th-largest, four-fifths of starting rotation drafted or traded for.
•  Milwaukee, 17th-largest, three-fifths of starting rotation drafted or traded for.
So, yes it is possible for the Yankees, Phillies and Sox to spend piles of cash on free agents and buy championships. But the smart, efficient teams that identify good pitching and then draft or trade for it will still always compete.
Meanwhile, it sure looks like the teams that hand out big money to free agents are often overpaying for past performance, not future results. Hello, Lackey and A-Rod.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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