There’s more than one way to build a contender


Each year, successful major league organizations assemble rosters using various approaches and achieve the same desired results – postseason contention. This year is no different, which can be illustrated by a review of ten projected “contenders” for 2015. So, which teams should be considered “contenders” in 2015?

Instead of using my own projections – or those of a national media outlet – to classify a team as a contender, I’ve opted to go “in-house” and use the Major League Baseball (MLB) projections of Prospect Insider founder and co-host of The Steve Sandmeyer Show on 1090 The Fan, Jason A. Churchill. The ten teams that I’ve chosen are the six division leaders projected by Jason and two second-place teams from from each league to represent wild card teams.

Before we start
The number of players in the categories listed below reflect how each team’s 25-man roster was configured on Opening Day. “Homegrown” refers to players who were selected and signed during the MLB amateur draft process or otherwise signed to their first professional contract. Free agents are players who were already professionals in the major leagues or internationally. Examples of international players are Los Angeles Dodger Yasiel Puig or Seattle Mariner Hisashi Iwakuma. “Rule Five” refers to players who were selected by their current team during the rule five draft this past December or in a previous year. The remaining category of players – trades and waivers – should already be understood.

There will be instances when significant contributors on the disabled list will be mentioned, although they’re not on the 25-man roster. Players such as Los Angeles Angel Josh Hamilton and Detroit Tiger Justin Verlander fit into that category. When that happens, their injury will be mentioned or there will be a (DL) after their name. Team payrolls and player salaries were obtained from the compensation page on baseballprospectus.com.

Boston Red Sox
The team that won the 2013 World Series was awful in 2014. Consequently, the Red Sox started retooling last July by dealing Jon Lester, John Lackey, Jake Peavy, Andrew Miller, and Jonny Gomes, while acquiring outfielder Allen Craig, starting pitcher Joe Kelly, and Yoenis Céspedes – who they flipped for pitcher Rick Porcello in December. After the season, Boston added starter-level talent by signing free agents – third baseman Pablo Sandoval, left fielder Hanley Ramírez and starting pitcher Justin Masterson – and trading for pitcher Wade Miley. Importing top talent isn’t a new practice for Boston – designated hitter David Ortiz, outfielder Shane Victorino, closer Koji Uehara (DL), and first baseman Mike Napoli are all imported and have contributed to the team’s championship success. The Red Sox have also been involved in the expanding Cuban import market by signing both outfielder Rusney Castillo and infielder Yoan Moncada, although neither player is on the 25-man roster. Despite the heavy dose of imports, several of Boston’s key contributors are homegrown – star second baseman Dustin Pedroia, Opening Day starter Clay Buchholz, center fielder Mookie Betts, and shortstop Xander Bogaerts were all developed by the organization and are considered key pieces to the team’s success in 2015 and beyond.

Cleveland Indians
In the mid-to-late 1990s, Cleveland was a powerhouse that won five consecutive division titles and had two World Series appearances. During that era, the team maintained a stable of homegrown players who were signed to long-term contracts. The 2015 team was primarily built through a trade market that landed them their best players – 2014 American League Cy Young award winner Corey Kluber, outfielders Michael Brantley and Brandon Moss, Silver Slugger award winner Yan Gomes, and first baseman Carlos Santana. Conversely, their big free agent acquisitions – center fielder Michael Bourn, designated hitter David Murphy and Nick Swisher – have underachieved. Despite the less-than-expected production from their high-cost free agents, Cleveland is considered a contender because the team’s management has sprinkled-in several homegrown contributors – second baseman Jason Kipnis, third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall, shortstop José Ramírez, and closer Cody Allen – to complement their key imports. Being successful with such a low payroll is made possible by having many relatively inexpensive players on their roster. Everyone on the team, except Nick Swisher (DL) and Bourn, makes $6.5 million or less. Their four best 2014 performers – Brantley, Gomes, Kluber, and Santana – earned a combined $14.2 million, less than Swisher’s $15 million salary.

Detroit Tigers
Detroit is a “win now” organization willing to spend money and the heart of its line-up – second baseman Ian Kinsler, perennial Most Valuable Player candidate Miguel Cabrera, designated hitter Víctor Martínez, plus outfielders Yoenis Cespedes and J.D. Martinez –  have arrived via trades and free agency. None of the current starting pitchers – including trade acquisitions David Price and Anibal Sánchez – were originally signed by the team. However, former Cy Young award winner Justin Verlander (DL) is a product of Detroit’s system. The Tigers have the fifth largest payroll in the majors, although their highest paid free agent is designated hitter Victor Martinez, who is earning $14 million and just re-signed with the team after his original free agent deal expired. A second-order effect of trading for proven stars is adding their large salaries to the inventory. Four players acquired in the past three years – Price, Sanchez, Cespedes, Kinsler – account for $63 million, while contract extensions for Verlander and Cabrera account for another $50 million.

Los Angeles Angels
Although the most notable stars on the Angels’ roster came from within the organization or by way of free agency, over half the roster arrived via trades including third baseman David Freese, catcher Chris Iannetta, outfielder Matt Joyce – all starters – and Huston Street who is closing games. Including the currently injured Josh Hamilton, the team has four free agents – first baseman Albert Pujols, starter C. J. Wilson and reliever Joe Smith – that accounts for 50-percent of the team’s payroll. Among the team’s significant in-house contributors is one of the best players on the planet – center fielder Mike Trout. Other key homegrown players like shortstop Erick Aybar, designated hitter Kole Calhoun, and starting pitchers Jered Weaver, Matt Shoemaker, and Garrett Richards (DL). This hybrid roster of players helped the Angels win 98 games last year and make them a contender once again.

Los Angeles Dodgers
Since 2012, the Angels’ crosstown rival has almost tripled their payroll, including $28 million for two players – Matt Kemp and Dan Haren – no longer with the team. The Dodgers have five other players making more than $18 million, including three-time Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw at $32.5 million. The franchise has delved into the international free agent market by acquiring Cuban defector, Yasiel Puig, to a seven-year/$42 million dollar deal and Korean Hyun-Jin Ryu (DL) to six-years/$36 million. Hiring former Tampa Bay Rays general manager Andrew Friedman to take over the team’s baseball operations may signal that the organization, which has deep pockets, is interested in balancing short-term success with long-term sustainability. Going into 2016, the team has $166.3 million committed to 12 players – including $3.5 million to Kemp – although that could shrink if pitcher Zack Greinke decides to opt out of his contract after the 2015 season and spurns the $26 million that he’s owed in 2016.

New York Mets
With the team reportedly enduring financial difficulties, general manager Sandy Alderson has relied heavily on homegrown players and complemented his organization’s talent with a few high-paid free agents and assets cleverly picked up in trades. The Mets’ best players – third baseman David Wright, pitchers Matt Harvey and 2014 National League Rookie of the Year Jacob deGrom, gold glove center fielder Juan Lagares, all-star second baseman Daniel Murphy, and first baseman Lucas Duda – were all developed internally. The veteran free agents that Alderson has chosen to augment his homegrown foundation are pitcher Bartolo Colon and outfielders Curtis Granderson, and Michael Cuddyer. All are signed to relatively inexpensive short-term contracts that helps the team control cost. His best trades garnered him catcher Travis d’Arnaud and top pitching prospect Noah Syndergaard for a Cy Young award winner – R.A. Dickey – and pitcher Zack Wheeler (DL) for pending free agent Carlos Beltran. The Mets rebuilding process is well underway after enduring six consecutive losing seasons. How far they go in 2015 will depend on how far their homegrown players can take them.

Pittsburgh Pirates
General Manager Neal Huntington and his staff have restored an organization that went two decades without a winning record by building a strong farm system, acquiring young talent when trading veterans, retaining their own young talent by locking up players early in their careers, and judiciously signing affordable free agents. The foundation of this team is their homegrown talent, which includes one of the best players in baseball – Andrew McCutchen. The perennial MVP candidate is joined by a core of young players that includes position players Starling Marte, Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, Jordy Mercer, Gregory Polanco, and starting pitcher Gerrit Cole. He’s supplemented his homegrown core with affordable imports such as third baseman Josh Harrison, starting pitchers Francisco Liriano, A.J. Burnett, Vance Worley, and Jeff Locke, closer Mark Melancon, reserves Corey Hart, Sean Rodriguez, and Andrew Lambo, plus Korean infielder Jung-ho Kang. Every starting position player is under age-30 and the team has locked-up McCutchen, Harrison, and Marte to long-term extensions that rewards the player and promotes organizational stability.

Seattle Mariners
When Jack Zduriencik took over general manager in late-2008, he set out to improve the team’s minor league system and use it as a foundation to build a winner. Homegrown contributors include gold glove third baseman Kyle Seager, catcher Mike Zunino, left fielder Dustin Ackley, and three starting pitchers – perennial Cy Young award candidate Félix Hernández, along with youngster James Paxton, and Taijuan Walker. Seattle has incrementally increased its payroll by 32-percent since 2011 by retaining their two best homegrown players – Hernandez and Seager – with seven-year extensions. Their free agent acquisitions include second baseman Robinson Cano, all-star and Cy Young award finalist Hisashi Iwakuma, closer Fernando Rodney, slugger Nelson Cruz and outfielder Rickie Weeks. Though the outcome of some of Zduriencik’s trades haven’t yielded the desired results, he’s been able to add veterans Austin Jackson, Seth Smith, Justin Ruggiano, and first baseman Logan Morrison without losing any assets that the team was going to need at the major league level.

St. Louis Cardinals
This franchise is often referred to as one of the best organizations in the baseball for good reason; they have registered seven consecutive winning seasons, been to four consecutive League Championship Series, and made two World Series appearances during that time frame. The Cardinals continue to stay committed to developing their own talent in order to control cost and maintain roster stability, including eight MLB amateur draftees who are vital to the team’s lineup – infielders Kolten Wong, Matt Carpenter, and Matt Adams, catcher Yadier Molina – and their pitching staff – Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha, and Trevor Rosenthal. Although the focus of the organization may be on developing their own talent, St. Louis has strategically imported key elements to their lineup, rotation, and bench. Starting pitchers Adam Wainwright and John Lackey and outfielders Jason Heyward and Matt Holliday have all arrived via the trade market and shortstop Jhonny Peralta was signed as a free agent.

Washington Nationals
2015 is a pivotal season for Washington, which has four key players – shortstop Ian Desmond, outfielder Denard Span (DL) and pitchers Doug Fister and Jordan Zimmermann – who are likely to leave the team via free agency at season’s end. General Manager Mike Rizzo’s squad is loaded with players developed by his organization – Zimmermann, Desmond, infielders Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon (DL), plus outfielder Bryce Harper, closer Drew Storen, and starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg. To fill-in their roster, the Nationals have added several valuable pieces with trades – Fister, Span, infielder Yunel Escobar. Plus, they’ve demonstrated a willingness to occasionally go after big-ticket free agents when it makes sense. Most notably, outfielder Jayson Werth in 2010 and pitcher Max Scherzer this year – both players will earn a combined $38.6 million in 2016. Although the team is looking at losing key players after 2016, they’re not abandoning their future as evidenced by trading some of their minor league depth for prospects the team believes will help them in the future – one of the San Diego Padres top pitching prospects, Joe Ross, and reportedly the Padres’ 2014 first-round draft, shortstop Trea Turner.

Final thought
Regardless of each contending team’s motivation to use a certain blueprint for constructing a winner, they all have two things in common – good players on their major league roster and an increased chance to compete in the postseason. All that’s left is for them to do is perform on the field.

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Luke Arkins

Luke is a native New Yorker, who grew up a Mets fan. After the US Navy moved him to the Pacific Northwest in 2009, he decided to make Seattle his home. During the baseball season, he can be seen often observing the local team at Safeco Field. You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins
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