Formula for making playoffs: There's not one
An analysis and comparison of how the postseason teams were built
There's no set formula for making the playoffs.
The Braves led the National League East for all but one day this season, while the Dodgers languished in last place in the NL West at the end of June before rallying. The Cardinals advanced to the postseason for the 11th time in the past 17 years, and the Pirates made it for the first time and posted their first winning season since 1992.
In the American League, the Athletics and Tigers repeated as division champions. The Red Sox rebounded from their worst season in 47 years to tie the Cardinals for the best record in baseball. The Rays scrapped their way to their fourth playoff berth in the past six seasons, though they needed a 163rd game to get in.
Likewise, there's no set formula for building a playoff team. The eight clubs that advanced to the Division Series followed different blueprints and different budgets. The Dodgers had the most expensive Opening Day payroll at $216.7 million, nearly four times more than the Rays' initial payroll of $57.9 million.
The Cardinals have easily the most homegrown Division Series roster, as they signed and developed 18 of their players, more than double the average of the other seven teams. Seventeen of those players arrived via the Draft, and with the exception of 2000 fourth-rounder Yadier Molina, all of them came aboard in the past seven years. St. Louis has hit on first-rounders such as Shelby Miller (2009) and Michael Wacha (2012) and late-rounders such as Matt Carpenter (13th round), Trevor Rosenthal (21st) and Matt Adams (23rd) -- all products of a banner 2009 Draft.
On the other end of the spectrum are the Athletics, who have just four homegrown players (Yoenis Cespedes is the most notable) but acquired 16 members of their playoff roster via trades and another via waivers. General manager Billy Beane swung three key deals in December 2011, giving up his most recent All-Stars, in Andrew Bailey, Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez, and getting Ryan Cook, Derek Norris, Jarrod Parker and Josh Reddick among 10 players in return. Other key trade acquisitions include Brett Anderson, Josh Donaldson and Jed Lowrie.
The Red Sox and Tigers relied more heavily on free agents than other clubs. Both clubs have key homegrown players and trade acquisitions, but the Red Sox signed 10 free agents who made their Division Series roster, and the Tigers have nine. Last offseason alone, Boston grabbed quantity and quality, signing Shane Victorino, Ryan Dempster, Jonny Gomes, Stephen Drew, Davis Ross, Mike Napoli and Koji Uehara for a total of $100.5 million in guarantees, including $53.1 million in 2013 salaries.
Prince Fielder signed with Detroit for $214 million after the 2011 season, and the Tigers also filled two more spots in their lineup with free agents Torii Hunter and Victor Martinez. Detroit also re-signed Jhonny Peralta and Anibal Sanchez to free-agent deals after initially acquiring them in trades (we count them in the latter category for purposes of our "How they were built" series).
The Braves ranked second among the eight Division Series participants with both 11 homegrown players and 12 trade/waiver acquisitions. Atlanta has had tremendous success in the first three rounds of the Draft with Brian McCann in 2002, Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman in 2007, Craig Kimbrel in 2008, Mike Minor in 2009 and Andrelton Simmons in 2010. GM Frank Wren's biggest trade came in January, when he shipped four players to the D-backs for Justin Upton and Chris Johnson.
The Dodgers, Pirates and Rays built their playoff teams with a more blended approach, balancing homegrown talent, trade/waiver pickups and free agency. Los Angeles has spent heavily since Guggenheim Baseball Management bought the franchise for $2.15 billion in March 2012, acquiring the likes of Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez via trades and Zack Greinke in free agency. But the Dodgers also have more impact homegrown international players than anyone (Kenley Jansen, Yasiel Puig, Hyun-Jn Ryu) and drafted the best pitcher in baseball (Clayton Kershaw ) with the seventh overall choice in 2006.
First-round choices Neil Walker (2004), Andrew McCutchen (2005), Pedro Alvarez (2008) and Gerrit Cole (2011) have been instrumental in Pittsburgh ending its string of losing seasons and its postseason drought, both of which had reached 20 years. The Pirates also have made a splash on the trade market with A.J. Burnett, Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau, and they've found huge bargains on the free-agent market in Jason Grilli, Francisco Liriano and Russell Martin.
Tampa Bay was in the right place at the right time to snare Evan Longoria with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2006 Draft and David Price with the No. 1 overall selection in 2007. It also found key contributors with mid-round choices in Jeremy Hellickson (fourth round, 2005), Alex Cobb (fourth round, 2006), Desmond Jennings (10th round, 2006) and Matt Moore (seventh round, 2007). The Rays had only one pick reach the Majors in their last six Drafts, so they've picked up the slack with astute trades for Chris Archer, Wil Myers and Ben Zobrist, among others, and low-cost free-agent investments such as James Loney and Fernando Rodney.
By the end of October, just one team will be left standing as World Series champion. But as the diversity of the Division Series participants shows, there are many different roads a club can take to get there.