10/31/12 7:02 PM ET
NL shows that building a roster is an art, not a science
By Richard Justice / MLB.com
At times the entire offseason seemed to be about the Red Sox or Yankees pursuing the most sought-after free agents. If you were inclined to look at things a certain way, you might decide that the AL was having all the fun.
There's still some of that going on.
Seven of baseball's eight highest-paid players in 2012 were American Leaguers, led by Alex Rodriguez, at $30 million.
Five of the six largest payrolls belonged to AL teams, led by the Yankees, at $198 million.
The AL won Interleague Play for a ninth consecutive season.
Baseball's two biggest free agents last winter -- Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder -- left National League teams to sign with AL clubs.
Now, though, the NL has won the World Series three years in a row. Likewise, the National Leaguers have won three straight All-Star Games.
Three seasons is a small sample size, so it would be a mistake to conclude that there has been a fundamental shift in power. After all, the AL did dominate Interleague Play in 2012, going 142-110. That's a .563 winning percentage, a 91-victory pace during the regular season. The NL has come closer than that some years, but still has a nine-year losing streak.
Yet those three World Series championships speak volumes about the components that go into constructing a winner.
Although Pujols and Fielder got the only $200 million contracts last offseason, the Giants ended up winning the World Series, in part, because of a couple of acquisitions that didn't raise many eyebrows.
One was last winter's trade with the Mets for center fielder Angel Pagan. The others were the Trade Deadline deals for Marco Scutaro and Hunter Pence.
These moves are a reminder that roster-building is more an art than a science. Those trades for Scutaro and Pence barely made a ripple, because the Dodgers were making blockbuster deals for Josh Beckett, Hanley Ramirez and Adrian Gonzalez.
Those trades aren't comparable on some levels. The Dodgers were trying to win, but they were also trying to show their fans that the new owners aren't afraid to spend money.
Regardless of whether the Dodgers won in 2012, they succeeded in changing the perception of the franchise. They also believe that those deals should be judged next summer, when Carl Crawford will be healthy.
The Dodgers believe all that star power will translate into playoff appearances. So there's that.
Yet in the deals for Scutaro and Pence -- and the trade for Pagan -- the Giants had something else in mind.
General manager Brian Sabean wanted Pence and Pagan, in part, because of the speed they'd bring to spacious AT&T Park's outfield. The Giants bucked conventional 2012 wisdom by hitting just 31 home runs at home, but they had a solid defensive club, which was perfect for a team built around its starting pitchers.
Scutaro has long been a favorite of the men who have played with him and managed him, for his contributions on the field as well as in the clubhouse.
Likewise, Pence became an inspirational figure with his rousing speech before Game 3 of an NL Division Series game against the Reds.
It's impossible for those of us on the outside to fully grasp it all, but the Giants won, in part, because the players believed in one another and because they played hard. They obviously don't win without all that pitching, but in a year when the talent difference between baseball's top 10 to 12 teams was minimal, little things are important.
That's how it was for the Cardinals in 2011. They had one of baseball's biggest stars in Pujols, but the players say there was a closeness and a trust inside the clubhouse walls.
When Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak tweaked his roster at the 2011 Trade Deadline, his moves were similar to Sabean's in 2012 in that they didn't rattle many coffee cups around the game.
Mozeliak settled his shortstop position by getting Rafael Furcal. He added Edwin Jackson to the back of the rotation, then he got a bunch of relievers who weren't exactly household names: Marc Rzepczynski, Octavio Dotel and Arthur Rhodes.
Since the Cardinals had baseball's best position player (Pujols) and best starting pitcher in the NL (Chris Carpenter), it would be silly to say they had less talent than other clubs.
But like the 2012 Giants had Bruce Bochy, the 2011 Cardinals had a great manager in Tony La Russa, and he'd be the first to say that the leadership in his clubhouse was off the charts.
When the Giants won in 2010, some of their biggest acquisitions went mostly unnoticed. Aubrey Huff was a January signing who became huge in the clubhouse and on the field. Cody Ross and Pat Burrell both made significant contributions after joining the Giants.
In the end, those three teams are a reminder that it's impossible to know when the various pieces are going to fit together so well. It's also a reminder that sometimes it's not about having the largest payroll -- three of the four highest-payroll teams (Red Sox, Angels, Phillies) didn't make the playoffs -- but about filling needs and having players who understand and accept their roles.
The Giants won because of their pitching and because of Pablo Sandoval and Scutaro and others. But the Giants are also a reminder for every GM this winter that winning a World Series is about acquiring more than just big names.
If it were that simple, everyone would do it.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.