Effective organizations already have laid the groundwork for a successful season by the time the first pitch is thrown on Opening Day. The offseason — not the July trade deadline — is when successful teams establish a winning foundation. One doesn’t have to look any further than the eight entrants from this past postseason to see the evidence.
A comparison of Opening Day and postseason rosters for the eight clubs that reached the division series illustrates that each team changed 4-7 players from their Opening Day 25-man roster amounting to 51 in-season changes from the original 200 players who broke camp in April. On the surface, that may sound like significant upheaval until you take a closer look at those transactions.
Over half of all changes made by playoff teams — Baltimore Orioles, Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Angels, Kansas City Royals, San Francisco Giants, St. Louis Cardinals and Washington Nationals — were organic in nature (minor league recall or DL returnee). Few external additions were impactful and were used to add role players, replace injured players (especially in Baltimore), and augment pitching staffs. Not surprisingly, pitchers composed all of the notable additions because no one ever has enough pitching. The most recognizable names were the Giants’ Jake Peavy, Cardinals’ John Lackey, Angels’ Huston Street, Tigers’ David Price, and Orioles’ Andrew Miller.
As noted earlier, Baltimore suffered significant losses during the regular season, which may explain why they executed the most in-season trades (five). They suffered the injury loss of C Matt Wieters and suspension loss of 1B Chris Davis. On top of that, they lost 2013 All Star 3B Manny Machado, who had a season defined by injury and suspension. Despite losing these three key players, Baltimore added only one front line performer; relief pitcher Andrew Miller. This is certainly a testament to the team’s roster depth and strong leadership within the organization and the clubhouse.
Two teams risked trading starters to upgrade for their playoff run. St Louis, who’s been the NL representative for two of the last four World Series, acquired playoff experienced John Lackey from Boston in exchange for 1B/OF Alan Craig and P Joe Kelly. Detroit made a three-team blockbuster deal that brought them David Price, while dispatching Austin Jackson to Seattle and Drew Smyly to Tampa Bay.
The Angels improved their bullpen by trading deposed closer Ernesto Frieri to Pittsburgh for Jason Grilli and acquiring San Diego closer Huston Street. The other team in LA improved organically. The Dodgers’ biggest upgrades were the return of Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw from the disabled list. Similarly, Washington’s biggest improvement came with Doug Fister’s return from injury.
The most significant move by the team that has won three of the last five World Series was getting the playoff-tested Jake Peavy. Otherwise, the Giants called upon rookie Joe Panik, who became their starting second base man after being recalled from Triple-A Fresno. Travis Ishikawa’s acquisition (via minor league free agency) wouldn’t generally be considered significant, although he did have a memorable NLCS.
The most impactful of Kansas City’s three trades was the addition of Jason Frasor to an already strong bullpen. Organically, they added relief pitcher Brandon Finnegan, who also pitched in the 2014 College World Series and starting pitcher Danny Duffy. And who can forget the speedy Terrance Gore who may have evoked memories of Herb Washington.
Amazingly, the Royals had the same starting ten in game 1 of the World Series as they did on Opening Day. The order was different, but the names were the same. Certainly, that success could be attributed to superb organizational foresight. On the other hand, it certainly helps to have the great luck of no unplanned losses due to injury or suspension.
Each of the eight 2014 MLB playoff teams had strong Opening Day rosters with minor league options ready to contribute in the big leagues needed. Measured use of trades and free agency can be used either to improve an underachieving aspect of the roster, like pitching, or to respond to injury losses. No team that reached the postseason did so because of what they added in July.
Right now is when postseason bids are won, during the cold months when gloves and bats are stored away and executives text and email their way into October.