2010 World Series offers hope for mid-budget franchises

By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 26, 2010; 11:10 PM

Perhaps the best part of this year's baseball postseason is that it gives hope. The way the Rangers and Giants have reached the World Series is a method within the grasp of almost any franchise.

It's hard. It takes several years of steady, patient progress. Having Yankee or Red Sox money would be easier. But it can be done.

In fact, in recent years, and especially this season, more teams than most fans think are already following this mid-budget method, including the substantially improved Reds and Padres, the under-construction Nationals and perhaps even the Indians.

Four teams show the trend most dramatically. Just three years ago, the Giants, Rangers, Reds and Rays all stunk. They averaged 91 losses apiece. Nobody predicted big gains for any of 'em. Yet Texas and San Francisco will start the Series on Wednesday night. The Rays were already in the '08 World Series and beat the Yanks in the AL East this year. The Reds just won the NL Central.

How did they do it? None have been among the 10 biggest spenders in baseball in the last three years combined. In fact, the Rangers, Reds and Rays all have stringent bottom-half-of-the-sport budgets.

In every case the answer is the same. All these teams allowed tons of runs and paid too little attention to developing young pitching, constructing a deep bullpen and improving their defense. Why? It's a bit boring. It takes multiple years. And if you fail, it seems to fans that you weren't doing anything, except being cheap.

But when the plan works, the progress is melodramatic. How huge an improvement? Just two years ago, the Rangers (in a hitters' park) and the Giants (in a pitchers' paradise) allowed 967 and 759 runs, respectively. They were just awful. This year, their totals fell to 687 and the Giants to 583 (second-best in baseball).

Yes, it's amazing what giving up 175 to 280 fewer runs will do.

Pitching, defense, youth and team speed may sound old-fashioned. And it's probably more fun to run a team if you have a $125 million to $210 million payroll than a budget half that number.

However, for those who can't, or won't afford a higher price, lots of progress can be made simply in trying to prevent runs.

Which teams topped baseball in that category in '10? The San Diego Padres were the leaders, lowering their runs allowed by 188 with a dominating bullpen and young ace Mat Latos. The Pads got 90 wins and almost reached the playoffs.

And what team was the second most improved? To my surprise, it was the Nats who allowed 132 fewer runs in '10 thanks to a completely rebuilt bullpen, the (brief) arrival of Stephen Strasburg and the unexpected staff leadership of Livan Hernandez.

Are the Nats starting the kind of win progression we've seen from both Texas (75-79-87-90) and San Francisco (71-72-88-92)? Or maybe it's Cleveland, the only other team to chop off more than 100 runs in '10, that will be making noise in two or three years.

A common thread that runs through all these teams that have jumped from oblivion to 90-or-more wins is that none spent huge sums on free agent sluggers. If you wonder why the Nats are reluctant to give $13 million a year or more to re-sign a home run machine like Adam Dunn, look at the Rangers and Giants. Both are full of hitters who play important roles at a fraction that cost.

Vlad Guerrero, Aubrey Huff, Ian Kinsler, Cody Ross, Jeff Francoeur and others all make between $3 million and $6.5 million a year. Pat Burrell signed as a minor league free agent just to play, even though former employers were handing him $9 million this season.

Landing a 40-homer man is expensive. But NLCS hero Juan Uribe quietly hit 24 homers this year for $3.25 million.

So, we see a clear pattern. Give mega-deals to the players you've developed yourself who have become face-of-the-franchise types, like the Rangers gave to six-time all-star Michael Young and the Giants to two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum.

The Giants and Rangers have one other pattern in common. When they found themselves in contending positions this year, they made midseason moves to get over the top. Ross, acquired from Florida largely so the Padres wouldn't get him, turned out to be the MVP of the NLCS.

However, it's the Rangers who hit the mother lode in midseason trades to get southpaw Cliff Lee and catcher Bengie Molina. They're the reason Texas is favored in this Series and rightly so.

Bengie Molina? I've never seen a Series that had a central character who was so well concealed yet was such an obvious advantage for his team. Texas got Molina in a trade July 1. He'd been the starting catcher for the previous 31/2 years in - yes, San Francisco. Yes, the Giants. Who needs scouting reports? Bengie knows every wrinkle of almost every Giant hitter.

What vet was tutor and big brother for the Big Three starters for San Francisco in this Series? That's right. Much of what Lincecum, Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez know, Molina taught them. What Bengie, from the ultra-high baseball IQ family of Molina catchers, doesn't know about the Giants probably isn't worth knowing. The Giants know it. That ain't gonna help 'em.

Then there is the Problem of Lee. What does he have in common with these pitchers: Fernando Valenzuela, Jack Morris, Bret Saberhagen, Orel Hershiser, Dave Stewart, Livan Hernandez, Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez, Josh Beckett, Curt Schilling and Andy Pettitte?

None of them is probably going to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, though one or two may someday get into Cooperstown. But all of them took on a special glow in the postseason. They rose when others faded. The sweetest words they could hear were, "You're starting in the Series."

At the moment, Lee's postseason stats are being compared to those of immortals Sandy Koufax and Christy Mathewson. He may come back to Earth some. But, like a Schilling (11-2 postseason) or El Duque (9-3), when you see a rested Lee scheduled to start Games 1 and 5 of the Series, you know which way to lean.

Lucky for this Series, Lee's opponent will be Lincecum whose own ERA in this postseason is 1.93. The lefty-loaded Phils hit Lincecum a bit in the NLCS. But the Rangers, except for Josh Hamilton, are mostly a right-handed hitting bunch. That plays into the Freak's hand. That's why Game 1 carries extra weight.

In another twist, the Gaints will start Cain, a pronounced fly-ball pitcher, at home in Games 2 and (if necessary) 6 in a big park that kills right-handed power hitters like much of the Texas lineup. By moving Sanchez, who gave up the fewest hits per inning of any NL starter, to Game 3 in Texas, the Giants are using a pitcher who "misses the bat" in a park that's famous for giving up home runs. Smart.

Right now, experts may love the Rangers too much. They see that 38-19 total-score beatdown of the aging Yanks. They see Lee, Hamilton and Guerrero as charismatic leaders that the Giants can't match with their "misfits and castoffs." And San Francisco is asking a rookie, Buster Posey, to catch against a speedy lineup and carry the burden of batting cleanup, too. So, you're going to hear "Rangers in five" a lot with Lee closing the show.

But who has home field? Which closer would you rather trust, Giant vet Brian Wilson after a 0.00 ERA in nine innings this postseason or 22-year-old Neftali Feliz, who's looked his age so far.

Pretending you can pick a Series that promises so much surprise almost spoils the fun. But not quite: Senators in seven.

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