There’s No Right Way to Build a Playoff Rotation

If there’s a story of the two League Championship Series so far, it’s dominant pitching. Saturday was the first time in baseball history that there were two 1-0 playoff games on the same day, thanks to Michael Wacha, Anibal Sanchez, and friends. Just last night, Max Scherzer¬†became yet another Tigers starter to take a no-hitter deep into a game, at least before David Ortiz ruined Detroit’s evening.

Look at the Dodgers, who rolled out Zack Greinke & Clayton Kershaw in their first two games. In 15 innings the co-aces combined to strike out 15 and allow two earned runs… but Los Angeles still lost both, because they couldn’t solve the outstanding St. Louis pitching. The Cardinals are hitting .134 as a team, and they’re up 2-0. Baseball is a weird game sometimes.

But if there’s a narrative that’s building, particularly on the NL side, it’s that building from within is “the right way” to put together a team, especially when you’re facing the supposed big-money mercenaries from Hollywood. That stance can be seen both in this well-publicized St. Louis Post-Dispatch cartoon, or in this TBS graphic from Game 1:


And sure, drafting and developing is the ideal way to win. You get players on the right side of 30, you retain them through their criminally-cheap pre-arb and arbitration years, and then you can, if you so choose, let someone else pay them big dollars on the open market. That’s the most efficient way to do it, and the Cardinals are certainly seeing the dividends there thanks to contributions from Wacha, Joe Kelly, Trevor Rosenthal, and others.

But it’s not exactly the only way, is it? The four remaining teams all feature dominant rotations, and all four finished among the top six as far as starting pitching value this season. And all four put together those rotations — we’ll focus on the top four pitchers, since the fifth guys aren’t relevant in October — in very different ways.


Dave Dombrowski focused on trades, collecting Scherzer¬†from Arizona, Sanchez from Miami, and Doug Fister from Seattle to go along with 2004 draft pick Justin Verlander. (Sanchez could arguably be listed under “free agent” here since he very nearly left for the Cubs last winter, but we’ll stick with “how initially acquired”.)

Boston drafted both Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester, though Lester remains with the Red Sox due to a five-year deal he signed before 2009 that bought out several free agent years. Jake Peavy was of course acquired via trade this summer, and John Lackey was a formerly-disastrous free agent signing who surprisingly provided value this year.

In the NL, the Cardinals are indeed getting great rotation value from the draft, and that doesn’t even include Shelby Miller, who’s likely to get a top-3 placement in the Rookie of the Year voting. (That the Braves collected 8.6 WAR in 2004 out of J.D. Drew doesn’t begin to make up for the folly of losing Wainwright, who has been among the top pitchers in baseball for more than half a decade now.)

And of course the Dodgers, flush with cash yet held back by the farm system that Frank McCourt neglected, had to improvise, being the only team with a starter developed from all four methods — draft (Kershaw), trade (Ricky Nolasco), free agency (Greinke), and international posting (Hyun-Jin Ryu).

The Cardinals, it’s fair to say, have done this in the most effective manner, because their current foursome makes around $13.5 million this year — nearly all of it Wainwright — and that’s less than Lackey, Greinke, Verlander, or Peavy are making on their own this year. If you can make that work, then you’re in good shape, since you use that money to fill in other holes.

Yet while that may be the preferable way to build a playoff-caliber rotation, it’s not the only way. As we’re currently seeing, what’s important is getting the pitching talent on your team, not worrying about how that talent arrived.

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Mike Petriello lives in New York and writes about the Dodgers daily at Dodgers Digest, as well as contributing to ESPN Insider. He wrote two chapters in the 2014 Hardball Times Annual as well as building The Hardball Times and TechGraphs, and was an editorial producer at Sports on Earth. Find him at @mike_petriello.

15 Responses to “There’s No Right Way to Build a Playoff Rotation”

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  1. D says:

    What was Wainwright’s WAR during his first 6 seasons? Presuming the Braves would not have signed him…

    Also, is it standard to presume an A-level pitcher will become a Cy Candidate?
    Of course, Smoltz for Alexander has been covered to death.
    Should Alex Meyer for Span also be considered a folly?

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  2. Todd says:

    *Reese’s peanut butter cup joke here*

    There’s a significant difference between trading for Wainwright and trading for any of these other guys, in that Wainwright was still a prospect at the time, whereas all the others were established big leaguers. As such, if anything I think that picture makes the Cardinals’ approach look more similar to the others’ than it really was.

    The funny thing about the cartoon and all the stuff about the ‘Cardinal Way’, though, is that this isn’t really a long running trend for them. In recent years you had guys like Chris Carpenter, Kyle Lohse, Jake Westbrook, Brad Penny, Joel Piniero, Todd Wellemeyer, Jeff Suppan… the approach was more ‘sign cheap FAs and make them serviceable’ (or awesome in Carpenter’s case) than it was to sign marquee FAs, but it’s not like the Cardinals weren’t spending money on their rotation, or were only drafting it. Going forward, though, they’re certainly well set up to steer clear of free agency.

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    • semperty says:

      Carpenter, Westbrooke, and Piniero were all trades, not free agent signings.

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      • Todd says:

        You’re right about Westbrook, you’re definitely not right about Carpenter, and I’m not sure about Piniero.

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      • Todd says:

        But the point was less that they were FA specifically and more that the draft-heavy approach is a recent phenomenon for StL.

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        • semperty says:

          It’s definitely a recent approach. According to John Mozeliak (GM) and Jeff Luhnow (former VP of scouting/player development) they started to focus on building from within after 2006, and that’s when they basically killed the friction between their scouting and analytic departments. Producing mainly from within is only about 7 years old in St. Louis.

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    • olethros says:

      That change in focus was specifically directed by Dewitt, and eventually led to Walt Jocketty being fired because he wasn’t on board with the “build from within” philosophy, or much of the analytical approach championed by Mozeliak and Luhnow.

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  3. semperty says:

    I know Wainwright it technically considered a trade…but he’s not like most trades. Every other trade on the list involved the Major League pitcher heading to their current destination, while the Wainwright trade the Cardinals got a player they still had to develop. They’ve developed all five pitchers in their rotation, even though one was technically by trade.

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    • Shauncore says:

      Wainwright was 22, in AAA, and a Top 20 prospect. There wasn’t THAT much development needed. Braves put in 3 years of work in the low minors.

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  4. Anon says:

    Of the eight players on the Cardinals roster by FA or trade:
    Three of them spent time in the Cardinals minor league system (Wainwright, Freese, and Martinez).
    Three are currently middle relievers (Choate, Mujica, Axford).

    That leaves Beltran (FA) and Holliday (trade).

    Seems like a better split would separately identify international FA and trades for prospects. These types of acquisitions are not much different than a draft and develop philosophy.

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  5. channelclemente says:

    Then there is that synergy thing, huh.

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  6. CJ says:

    As a Braves fan I hated the Wainwright trade the day it happened, and I hate it more with each passing year.

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