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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:

stl_lad_roster_construction

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.

2013_nlcs_alcs_rotations

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.