The Postseason Window of Opportunity

When front-office minds sense that the time is right, they pull out all the stops to seize a championship

October 25th, 2017

Royals General Manager Dayton Moore had seen his team's window of opportunity opening some years earlier. He saw it in the waves of talent in his Minor League system -- not just talent, but special talent, the kind that can change the course of an entire franchise.

His young catcher, Sal Perez, was going to be special. His entire staff was convinced of that. They believed the same thing about first baseman , and third baseman Mike Moustakas, and pitcher Yordano Ventura and… well, you get the picture.

Moore did not know exactly when the Royals' window would open, and he did not know how long it would remain that way. He just knew he would do his best to be prepared when it did. "You owe it to your fans and your city," he says. "You owe it to your ownership and all the people who've worked so hard to get your franchise to a certain point."

That's the thing about these windows: Almost every franchise has them in some form, but they do not stay open forever. It's critical to take advantage of the moment -- and that's what Dayton Moore did. He arrived in Kansas City in 2006 committed to building a model franchise. He'd worked closely with John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox in Atlanta during their turn-of-the-century dominance in the NL East. They provided him with a blueprint for sustained success. Perhaps the key was that Royals owner David Glass was completely on board with giving Moore the resources and, more importantly, the patience to do things right.

This is what happened: The Royals rode all that talent -- Perez and Hosmer, Moustakas and Ventura -- to American League championships in 2014 and '15. And on a chilly night in Queens in 2015, the Royals hoisted a World Series trophy amid a clubhouse celebration that showcased a mixture of joy and gratitude.

In those two seasons, the window had opened wide as Hosmer, Perez and others emerged as key players. Moore worked relentlessly to surround them with veterans to fill in the holes in his roster. In a wave of deals, he acquired , , , , , and others. He got some of them by trading his farm system depth, and others through free agency.

By the time the Royals won the 2015 World Series, the sport had been reawakened in one of the best baseball cities on the planet, as attendance and television ratings soared. And so, the Royals stand as the best example of a franchise that did masterful work in taking advantage of its window.

Through the years, though, there are dozens of other examples. At some point, a general manager or an owner senses his team is in a certain place, that it is ready to win with, maybe, just maybe, a little push that can come in the form of one or two more roster tweaks.

That's what the Chicago Cubs did in 2016. President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein had accumulated an impressive talent base in , , and other young players who were ready to contribute.

He added the finishing touches in the offseason by signing super-utility man Ben Zobrist and right fielder to go with catcher , who signed on in 2015. At that point, the Cubs became the consensus choice to win the 2016 World Series, and they proved pundits right, winning their first title in 108 years.

Epstein wasn't content with keeping the roster as it was, though. He surprised his players earlier that year by bringing an old friend, center fielder , back into the fold. And he added one more dramatic touch at the Trade Deadline by getting closer from the Yankees, cementing the Cubs' historic roster.

When Epstein talks about that championship season, he sounds almost exactly like Moore discussing the 2015 Royals; they had both spent years accumulating talent. "There was a time when we'd look at our depth charts and wonder where the impact players were going to come from," he says.

When that talent began to arrive, he did everything in his power to end the team's championship drought. "We thought we had an opportunity to do something pretty special," he says. "You don't see these openings every season."

Giants General Manager Brian Sabean was thinking the same thing when his team won its third championship in five years in 2014. He had a core of players from his system -- , , etc., and a tremendous bullpen, all managed by one of the greatest skippers ever, Bruce Bochy.

Sabean saw his job to fill in some holes, which he did with the acquisitions of outfielder and pitchers Tim Hudson and . His most under-the-radar move was signing first baseman to a Minor League contract after he was released by the Pirates.

He spent most of that season in Triple-A, but ended up with one of the biggest hits in the storied history of the Giants: a walk-off three-run home run in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series that sent San Francisco to yet another Fall Classic.

Later, after the Giants had won Game 7 of the World Series in Kansas City, Sabean simply shrugged and said, "Sometimes, you sense your group has a chance to do something special." That's why he'd added Peavy, Hudson and the others. If the window was indeed open for the Giants, he was going to do everything he could to put his guys in position to win.

That's what Cardinals General Manager John Mozeliak did in 2011, when he improved upon a roster that was already one of the best in baseball by signing outfielder Lance Berkman during the offseason and then adding starter and relievers Arthur Rhodes, and at the Trade Deadline.

With , , and Chris Carpenter in the prime of their careers, Mozeliak believed a window had opened for the Cardinals. "We had a special group," Mozeliak says. "Sometimes you're just able to do some things that you feel will give you a better chance. In that season, we just felt our bullpen had to be better."

Is there a risk? Sure, there is. That's the beauty of baseball. Even the smartest deals do not come with guarantees. For instance, in 1987, the Tigers traded a Double-A pitcher with a 5.68 ERA to the Braves for veteran right-hander Doyle Alexander. Plenty of people thought the Tigers won that deal when Alexander rolled up dazzling numbers -- a 9-0 record and 1.53 ERA -- in 11 starts down the stretch to help win the American League East.

Had the Tigers won the World Series that season -- or even the AL pennant -- that deal might look different today. But the Twins eliminated Detroit in the ALCS on their way to a championship of their own. And that Double-A pitcher with the 5.68 ERA -- his name was John Smoltz -- helped the Braves finish in first place 14 years in a row while crafting a Hall-of-Fame career.

In the end, though, almost no baseball person should criticize the Tigers for that deal. Had they not gotten that 9-0 run from Alexander, they might not have even made the postseason, and what message would that have sent to their players and fans?

The Red Sox made a trade like that in 1990, when they shipped a Double-A third baseman named Jeff Bagwell to the Astros for reliever Larry Andersen. The Red Sox won the AL East that year but were swept out of the ALCS by the Athletics.

Bagwell? He hit 449 home runs, helped the Astros to six playoff appearances in nine seasons, and now has a plaque near Smoltz's in Cooperstown. Again, though, the point is that the trade sent a message to every Red Sox fan and player that the 1990 season amounted to a chance, and that opportunities like it don't come along all that often.

Who can fault an executive for going for it? What fan wouldn't want that kind of person -- competitive and unafraid -- in charge of their own team?

Perhaps the most recent example of this was the Athletics in 2014. General Manager Billy Beane emphatically slid his cards onto the table that July with two trades that reshaped his rotation: the additions of , Jeff Samardzija and .

These blockbuster risks sometimes hang by a thread. When the A's took a 7-3 lead over the Royals into the eighth inning of the American League Wild Card Game, it appeared the deals had paid off -- or so everyone thought. The Royals rallied and won it in the 12th inning and got as far as Game 7 of the World Series.

Beane is unapologetic about any of this, though. He wanted to give his team a chance to win a World Series and does not believe it would even have made the postseason without the trades. Sure, he'd depleted his Minor League system, but given a chance to do it all over again, he absolutely would.

"When you see a chance to win," he says, "you go for it. I think that's the way people in this business are wired."