Playoff Pinch Hits: National League Dominated Lately By Exclusive Group

By Sam McPherson

No National League team has won three straight pennants since the St. Louis Cardinals did it from 1942-44, but only three teams have represented the NL in the World Series since 2008.

It’s an exclusive club in the NL now, and it is also a hard one to crack for teams outside of Philadelphia, St. Louis and San Francisco. The Phillies took back-to-back league flags in 2008-09, and they were denied a three-peat by the Giants in 2010. The Cardinals took the NL in 2011 and 2013, while the Giants grabbed it again in 2012.

Now, the NL Championship Series once again gives us… drumroll, please… St. Louis and San Francisco.

Considering the Cardinals previously won NL pennants in 2004 and 2006, as well, in the last 11 seasons, only the Houston Astros (2005) and the Colorado Rockies (2007) have broken through this tight grip on the league championship and a berth in the Series.

Go back a few more years: San Francisco also represented the NL in the 2002 World Series, with the then-Florida Marlins taking the flag in 2003.

To recap, by next week, 9 of the last 12 NL pennants will have been won by Philadelphia, St. Louis or San Francisco.

Reason #1: Money Rules the Day

In the end, it still does come down to spending money — and spending it wisely. The Phillies still have a huge payroll — $180 million on Opening Day in 2014 — but they haven’t made the postseason or finished above .500 since 2011 now, thanks to bad contracts.

But the Cardinals and the Giants are big spenders, of course, and St. Louis’ success has been the most consistent with 11 playoff berths in the last 15 years now. That’s an amazing run San Francisco cannot match: the Giants have only six playoff appearances in the same time frame—coinciding with their move into AT&T Park, and S.F. actually went from 2004-09 without making the postseason—despite a high payroll.

The Giants also missed the playoffs in both 2011 and 2013 after winning the Series, so the Cardinals are the best model for the other NL teams that want to get into the exclusive group at the top.

St. Louis spends a lot of money, of course, but they also spend it wisely.

Reason #2: Spending Money the Right Way

One thing you’ll notice about St. Louis is they don’t often sign players to bad contracts. The perfect example would be Albert Pujols, their homegrown star who was the centerpiece of the Cards’ lineup for the 2004, 2006 and 2011 pennant winners. The organization actually let him leave via free agency after the 2011 World Series win, rather than sign him to a bad contract like the one the Los Angeles Angels gave him.

Baseball is a business, and you have to treat the players like employees — even with the public relations hits that may come with those decisions. The Cardinals have a plan, and they stick to it.

This is one main reason why the Giants can’t match the Cardinals’ sustained excellence: S.F. General Manager Brian Sabean doles out a lot of bad contracts, including two last offseason. For example, he gave the declining Tim Lincecum $35 million for two years (2014-15), and the Freak isn’t even in the rotation any more. The Giants are on the hook for $18 million still next year for that contract, and Lincecum hasn’t been a good pitcher since at least 2011.

Sabean also has done what the Cards have not: rewarded older vets for past success. See the contracts given to Aubrey Huff, Marco Scutaro and Hunter Pence, for example, after World Series wins. And remember, Sabean also is the one who signed Barry Zito and Aaron Rowand to disastrous contracts back in the mid-2000s.

Considering all these puzzling signings and reckless spending, it’s actually pretty amazing the Giants have been able to win two NL pennants in the past five seasons—and might win a third next week.

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Reason #3: Replenishing the Farm System

This is where the Cardinals truly separate themselves from the Giants, in terms of sustained excellence and staying competitive year after year. St. Louis’ farm system keeps churning out good players to replace the ones who leave, meaning the Cardinals don’t need to overspend on free agents — whether their own or other teams’ players.

Pujols left, and St. Louis replaced him with Matt Adams — the guy who won the NL Division Series for them with his three-run home run off the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw in Game Four.

The Giants’ recent success was built around some key draft picks panning out on the mound: Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, etc. Also, they did well with Buster Posey, obviously. Those six seasons without a playoff spot produced some high draft picks for S.F.

But the farm system is dry right now in a few ways, and they’ll have to restock eventually — where Sabean likes to overpay to keep his roster intact, St. Louis replenishes the farm system year after year, with great success, via the draft and via smart trades.

For 2015, Look for Los Angeles and Pittsburgh to Break Through

In both the 2013 and 2014 NL postseason, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Pittsburgh Pirates have been sent home earlier than their talent levels may have warranted. That can change in 2015.

L.A., of course, is taking the Philadelphia route; their payroll is the highest in baseball, and it will remain so. They have some holes to plug, and they will. Here’s a wild prediction: Look for the Dodgers to acquire Alex Rodriguez from the New York Yankees to play third base in 2015. The Yankees probably would be happy to rid themselves of his contract, and the Dodgers can afford it. Also, A-Rod bought a house in Los Angeles recently. Convenient, for sure.

Pittsburgh has the ability to take the St. Louis route, and they’ve been modeling themselves after their NL Central brethren, anyway. With a little more luck, the Pirates can push deeper into the postseason in 2015 while sustaining their existing financial structure.

St Louis is the model NL franchise, really; the Giants have been a little lucky to escape their bad contracts, thanks to a few younger players who panned out. The Phillies’ approach isn’t for everyone, and it has buried them in the end after their five-year playoff run of excellence.

Look for more teams — like the Atlanta Braves, the Milwaukee Brewers, the Cincinnati Reds and the Rockies — to imitate St. Louis’ blueprint for future NL success.

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Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering all things Oakland A’s. His work can be found on Examiner.com.

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