ST. LOUIS -- The urge to win now, now, now was so great for the new owners of the Los Angeles Dodgers that they orchestrated a rewrite of the roster with a stimulus package unlike anything baseball had ever seen. They swallowed contracts whole to make trades. They poured money into international signings. They outbid everyone on key free agents.
They tapped into a broadcast fees jackpot and a fertile fan base to spend and spend and spend to speed up a rebuilding process.
That was Phase 1, president Stan Kasten explained Thursday.
Phase 2 is to be like the mid-market Cardinals.
"They are the model franchise and a formula that we would love to emulate, but that takes time," said Kasten, the CEO and part-owner of the club. "We hope Phase 2 will be a return to the roots of the Dodgers, one that is scouting- and development-oriented, one that provides a pipeline of players to the big leagues, year in and year out, like the Dodgers have always done. We didn't invent the formula. But it makes a team with a much lower payroll be able to compete with anybody at any time. That's what I consider the Cardinals to be."
Tonight at 7:37, those envied Cardinals host the Dodgers in Game 1 of a National League championship series that is a reunion of baseball royalty. For the first time since 1985, two of the oldest and winningest franchises in the NL will meet for its pennant. Closer-matched rivals are harder to find. In more than 100 years of playing against each other, the Cardinals and Dodgers have played to a virtual draw with the Dodgers leading the all-time series, 1,018 to 1,016. They are 7-6 in the postseason, and they are tied with 18 National League pennants apiece.
The winner of this series will tie the San Francisco Giants for the league lead, at 19.
This series could be billed as glitz for grit, Tinseltown vs. Our Town. But it really is a peek at the future of baseball -- where payrolls are going, how they're going to get there, and what teams like the Cardinals must do to remain competitive. The Cardinals have one of the highest payrolls in the league, at $115.5 million, and yet this NLCS will have the largest gap between the two payrolls since at least the advent of the wild card. The Dodgers have built their team through trades and free agency to an NL-record $227 million payroll. The Cardinals counter with a homegrown roster that has the youngest average age in the NL playoffs and 18 players on a 25-man roster who were drafted or signed as amateur free agents.
This isn't just a clash of cultures, but of architecture. Bankrolled vs. Built. The Best Team Money Can Buy vs. the club now being called The Best Organization in Baseball. One of the teams was built from the draft up, the other from the pocketbook down.
"I don't blame an organization like them. They want to win so bad that they're willing to do whatever it takes to win," said Cardinals outfielder Carlos Beltran, who has been on big-spending teams and on self-sufficient teams and is playing for his first World Series berth. "That's a good message to send. That's a good message to send to the players. That's a good message to send for even the younger players in the minor-league system. They had the money to do it. ... It's tradition here. The tradition with the Cardinals has been different and it creates that winning sense. You look around the young players contributing to what we've done. They do magic here."
The Cardinals are in their third consecutive NLCS and their sixth since 2004. The team has changed radically. The lineup Beltran faced while with Houston in 2004's NLCS was studded with Larry Walker, Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds, Edgar Renteria and Reggie Sanders -- all imports. Beltran called it an "All-Star team." This year's roster will have seven players who have been active for all three of the current run of NLCS teams, and only Matt Holliday didn't emerge from the Cardinals' system. Five of the seven three-timers were drafted by the Cardinals.
Seven members of the 2009 draft have appeared with this year's team; five will be on the NLCS roster, including Game 1 starter Joe Kelly (third round), leadoff hitter Matt Carpenter (13th round) and cleanup hitter Matt Adams (23rd round). Closer Trevor Rosenthal came in the 21st round.
"The success of the '09 draft and how it catapulted these guys has brought more emphasis to it," general manager John Mozeliak said. "We valued the draft. We didn't want to continue to lose draft picks by signing free agents. From a strategic standpoint we realized we were better off if our sustainable model was based on development."
This past December, on the eve of the winter meetings in Nashville, Cardinals Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. sat in a hotel lobby and described the moves the Cardinals started in 2004 to build from within and the inspiration for it. They saw the Dodgers, or a team like them, coming. On the horizon for baseball was the skyrocketing cost of free agents, fewer standout free agents to pursue, and baseball's version of the Powerball: broadcast rights fees.
The Dodgers' new owners, Guggenheim Baseball Management, purchased the Dodgers last year for $2.15 billion. The industry-shaking deal was followed by news that the Dodgers would have a television deal potentially worth $8 billion over 25 years. Kasten called his market size "an amazing advantage that the average franchise doesn't have." An increase in revenue has meant increased investment in an expanded scouting department and international acquisitions. The Cardinals don't have the population or the cable boxes to command that kind of windfall.
The Cardinals had to find their riches through scouting.
"It was clear that most teams were going to be able to afford to hold onto their players, to sign them to long-term deals," DeWitt said Thursday during the Cardinals' brief pre-series workout. "You weren't going to see many free agents come to the market. And the ones who did would be bid-up to the point where we weren't going to be in a position to beat the other teams. We had to do something else."
That something was what powered the Cardinals to a league-best 97 wins this season -- their farm system. Although outfitted with key imports like Holliday and Beltran, the Cardinals used 20 rookies this season. The division-title standard remained the same with no leniency for a learning curve. The Cardinals credit a core of postseason-sharpened players for doing what the Dodgers did with cash -- accelerating a group's competitiveness.
"It's a nice little formula we've got going here," said center fielder Jon Jay, who is in his third consecutive NLCS. "You look around the clubhouse, and in the 2011 World Series it was the 2006 and 2007 draft classes that helped the core, now it's the 2009 draft that's helping. The way Skip (Schumaker) and others helped us, is how we're helping them. You see this transformation take place without the step back."
Schumaker likened the Dodgers of this year to what the Cardinals were 10 years ago when this current pennant-chasing started. The costly stars are in place until the internal talent can fill in.
One of the high-priced trade acquisitions, shortstop Hanley Ramirez, will be batting third for the Dodgers tonight. ?The Dodgers' blockbuster offseason signing, $147 million righty Zack Greinke will start opposite Kelly, who makes slightly above the minimum in his second pro season. The Dodgers won three of four from the Cardinals at Busch this season and claimed the season series, 4-3. But neither team saw each other at its best. Ramirez didn't have an at-bat against the Cardinals this season. Yadier Molina missed the four-game series at Busch.
LA can start a lefty against the Cardinals, who struggled against lefties this year, in at least four of the seven games. The Cardinals have breakout rookie Michael Wacha and ace Adam Wainwright set to start four of the games, if needed.
The clubs may come from different designs, but they entered this season with the same expectation: winning a championship.?
"The best way to build a club, no matter what your financial resources are, is from within," DeWitt said. "I've often said payroll isn't going to win baseball games. It's talent. Talent ultimately does. Our guys are ready to meet that challenge."
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