It obviously seems way too simple to distill the NLCS that kicks off tonight between the Phillies and Padres as two teams that just traded for or signed a bunch of good players. It’s a damning statement on where MLB is at the moment that this seems such a radical fucking idea. It’s the easiest thing to conclude that you need better players to be better than you were. And yet here we are.
Neither the Padres nor Phillies are terribly “homegrown,” as it were. The one player the Padres have who came up through their system, kinda, can’t decide whether he wants to fall off his motorcycle or not read the labels on whatever he’s taking, or both, but he definitely wants to do either more than he wants to play baseball. So the Padres are completely constructed from the outside.
The Phillies have a couple more players who they can claim as one of their own, such as Aaron Nola or Alec Bohm, or Rhys Hoskins. But they’re also heavily composed of imports, such as Bryce Harper, Nick Castellanos, Zack Wheeler, Kyle Schwarber. While neither of these teams’ win totals are going to get the LA Times to respect them, they are unquestionably teams that are giving just about everything to be here.
What MLB doesn’t want anyone to notice is that eight of the 12 participants in the playoffs this year are in the top 11 in payroll. And the Mariners and Jays probably won’t wait around too long to join those ranks to supplement the developed core of their rosters. The Mariners especially get a pass here as this was the first season they were supposed to be anything, and you can probably expect them to be major players in free agency for whatever they feel that they might need. While MLB has definitely tried to push the narrative that teams have to be built with only cheap labor (that’s how they think of it, don’t fool yourself), the reality is that teams generally don’t get here without buffeting the top of the roster from outside their organization. Maybe you can be a production line like the Astros or Braves (and the Braves’ championship last year had a huge role played by an outfield they had to throw together midseason via trade), and yet they still felt the need to trade for Justin Verlander or Gerrit Cole once upon a time.
There probably isn’t anything to be learned from the postseason. It’s simply too weird and random to give you any clue as to what can be done to control it. You build a team for 162 and just hope that all that mattered over six months continues to matter in the following three weeks. But what is lying right there is that top of the rosters matter, and that you have to make them as good as you can.
While there is still far too much caterwauling days later about the Dodgers’ 111-win team not getting past a round, the truth is that when it gets to the playoffs, the Dodgers aren’t facing the same versions of teams that they boat-raced in the regular season. For instance, the Padres basically got to cull their 4th and 5th starters for this series. Mike Clevinger threw 2.2 innings, and Sean Manea was thrown out of the car in the woods upstate. What makes the Dodgers win 111 games over six months is that there is little difference between their first and fifth starters, and relievers 1-27 or however many they burn through during the season.
This doesn’t matter in October. Teams can just lean on three starters essentially, and maybe three or four relievers. The Padres only need four relievers to throw more than two innings in four games, getting 9.2 innings from just Suarez, Hader, and Martinez. The Dodgers learned about this in 2019 when the Nationals could just smash the Corbin, Scherzer, or Strasburg button throughout five games. Or in 2018 when the Red Sox just threw whatever starter was upright right back out of the pen. These condensed versions of teams are probably a lot closer to the 111-win Dodgers than their regular season form.
Same goes for the Phillies, who basically had to use four relievers to send the Braves into that good night, while the importance of Aaron Nola and Wheeler taking half the starts in the series is an outsized advantage than it is the percentage of starts they take over a regular season. Especially when the Braves’ best starter was hurt and their manager was asleep.
But that’s only the pitching staff. The Phillies and Padres needed more than that to get here. Neither has actually hit all that well throughout the lineup, but the guys they count on have. Bryce Harper hit .500 against the Braves, and they got series-turning moments from J.T. Realmuto and Hoskins. Ditto the Padres who were carried just long enough by Manny Machado (1.113 OPS in the division series) to allow others to have their moments here and there. Yes, there’s been unsung heroes Trent Grisham or Auston Nola, but their contributions only matter if Machado is carrying the flag up front.
It’s not that the Dodgers or Braves don’t have a great top of the roster either. Ditto the Yankees should they lose in a couple of hours (actually, wait a sec, they have Aaron Judge and not much else. But we’ll save that for another day). It’s just that in the playoffs they are far more likely to see players as good as the ones they have, and they get a lot fewer looks at those who fill out the bottom of the roster. Teams are compressed to look like the Dodgers or Braves or Mets for five or six days.
Which means it’s good to have really good players, however you get them, as simple as that is and yet as complicated as MLB teams have made it. And seeing as how so few can produce them all themselves, it means more teams should be doing whatever they can to get the ones that are already around. Difference makers don’t grow on trees, and the Phillies and Padres are here because they accepted that and did something about it. They didn’t wait around for the maybes and hopes of prospect development. They got the actual thing. Hopefully it’s a lesson.