How to win on a budget

The Angels and Marlins showed winning the World Series doesn't require a big budget or a "Moneyball" formula.

Originally Published: November 10, 2003
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

The team that won the World Series this year didn't lead its league in dollars spent. It didn't lead its league in household names. It didn't lead its league in walks drawn, or home runs trotted out, or copies of "Moneyball" memorized.

Mike Lowell
The Marlins showed patience, keeping Mike Lowell when other teams came calling.

There's a lesson in there someplace.

Of course, the team that won the World Series last year didn't lead its league in dollars spent, either. Or in any of that other stuff.

So if it happens twice, there's really a lesson in there someplace.

In life, in sports and in baseball, nothing is imitated more than success. That may not mean you should start checking the best-seller lists for the arrival of that forthcoming blockbuster, "Fishball: How the Marlins won it all". But if you don't think there were general managers out there taking notes as they watched the Marlins and Angels win the last two World Series, you have some re-thinking to do.

There are lessons to be learned by everyone from the triumphs of the Marlins and Angels. We surveyed a half-dozen general managers to see if we could zero in on those lessons. And here they are:

Lesson 1: Keep your nucleus together
Obviously, recent baseball history has produced its share of rent-a-teams -- clubs that threw together a lot of disparate parts for one year and got to the playoffs. But that sure isn't the formula that either the Marlins or Angels followed.

"One thing that's been overlooked," said Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd, "is that the core of both those clubs was guys who were playing together for a lot of years. Anaheim had (Darin) Erstad, (Garret) Anderson, (Troy) Glaus, (Tim) Salmon, (Troy) Percival. Those five guys had been together six or seven years. In Florida, that whole infield -- (Derrek) Lee, (Luis) Castillo, (Alex) Gonzalez, (Mike) Lowell -- was together four or five years. That's a lot of homegrown players who went through a lot of winning and losing together before they ever clicked."

And the magic phrase there, class, was: "homegrown players." It's almost impossible, in this era, to buy a bunch of big-name players and keep them together, unless you're George M. Steinbrenner 3rd. Too expensive.

So this has to start at home. In the system. With a core group of players who arrive in the big leagues within a couple of years of one another and grow together until it's time to add the final ingredients to the casserole.

"What Florida did is what we're trying to do," said Indians GM Mark Shapiro. "They committed to those guys long-term, and then supplemented when the time was right. Unlike Anaheim, Florida just committed with playing time. Anaheim had to commit with long-term deals (because it took their core players longer to contend). But if you're just committing playing time and you make a mistake, what's the cost? There's very little dollar cost. You just make a change (to a different player)."

Look around, and you'll find that most contenders have actually followed this model: A's, Twins, Phillies, Astros, White Sox and, over a longer haul, even the Braves and Red Sox. Or the 1996-2000 Yankees, for that matter. The core of all those teams came out of their farm systems. And the rest of the parts just orbited around that core.

Lesson 2: Stay flexible
Flexibility.

That used to be a word you only heard from Richard Simmons and the cast of "Body Shaping." Now it's turned into baseball's official Favorite Word of the Day.

If a day goes by this entire offseason in which you don't hear at least one general manager utter that word, "flexibility," let us know. We'll report it to Bud Selig immediately, so proper disciplinary action can be imposed.

"Flexibility" in baseball is no longer a word GMs use in connection with physical conditioning. It's a sign-of-the-times financial term now. It's a euphemism for: "Don't expect us to spend all our money in the next 15 minutes."

" ... It's almost like empowerment. If you stay flexible, it allows you to go where you want to go and maneuver more quickly. "
Indians GM Mark Shapiro

"Flexibility," in GM-speak, now means: Don't tie up too much of your payroll in a handful of players. Don't commit too many long-term dollars in players who can -- and probably will -- get hurt, get old and/or get comfortable. And keep some short-term dollars squirreled away, in case you need them in midseason to make a run or fill a hole.

So repeat after us, everybody: Flexibility.

"It's easier to say than do," Shapiro said. "But I think it's something that most general managers in this market are coming to an understanding of. It's almost like empowerment. If you stay flexible, it allows you to go where you want to go and maneuver more quickly. Unless you're in one of the major markets, where you can just pave over a mistake, or an injury, it's a must.

"There are six or seven markets," Shapiro goes on, "where an injury to a $4-million player is no big deal. But if you're in Florida or Minnesota or Oakland, if you're one of those teams, you need to stay flexible. You can't make any mistakes. You look at what Oakland has done, and you can see that some of the parts need to be interchangeable. And the only way they're not interchangeable is if you tie them up with long-term contracts."

The Marlins arrived at the World Series with exactly one player signed beyond this season. And that was Jeff Conine, whom they'd acquired in August only after he agreed to restructure his contract and take a lower guaranteed salary for 2004 ($3 million, instead of $4.5 million, plus an option) in exchange for a second guaranteed season in 2005 (also at $3 million).

That short-term flexibility has left them with signability challenges now, as they try to keep the champs together. But as last season unfolded, it gave them the freedom to make the deals for Conine and Ugueth Urbina that patched their most critical holes.

Lesson 3: Don't get starry-eyed
Before they suddenly turned into a whole team of Mr. Octobers, it's very possible there was only one Marlin whom most Americans would have recognized if he knocked on their front door -- Pudge Rodriguez.

Rodriguez
Rodriguez

But that's one more true "superstar" than the Angels brought with them to the previous World Series. Even their most established players -- Percival, Salmon and Anderson -- could probably plop down on the barstool next to you unnoticed, even now.

So what are we to make of that?

Well, don't oversimplify. The Yankees and Diamondbacks won with stars. And before the Marlins signed Rodriguez, they were chasing other star players -- including Roger Clemens. So repeat after us: It's never a bad thing to have great players.

Unless, that is, the rest of your team drops off a cliff from there.

"That team with one great player -- sometimes that's all you have," said Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi. "It looks great when you're selling tickets. But that isn't always how you win."

If your superstar plays by his own rulebook, that can be a problem. But if you're paying your superstar -- or superstars -- so much money that you can't afford to fill your other holes, that's a bigger problem. (See our "Flexibility" chapter above.)

"There are many examples of teams with four or five stars that have not been successful," said Astros GM Gerry Hunsicker. "Seattle of the mid-90's. The Rangers of two or three years ago. Etc. Our sport is truly a team game, where depth is important."

Think about how deep the lineups of the Angels and Marlins were. Lee was Florida's cleanup hitter. By the World Series, he was hitting seventh. And the 2002 Angels got a three-homer game out of their No. 9 hitter (Adam Kennedy) during the ALCS. So what they sacrificed in star power, they made up for in depth.

Lesson 4: Major in chemistry
The ingredient that had the most to do with landing a World Series trophy in Jack McKeon's hands was a quality you can't run through a calculator, program in a computer or buy on anybody's open market.

Some things in life are just more ethereal than that. Chemistry is one of them.

The Marlins had the best chemistry of any postseason team we've ever been around. Bar none. To those who were paying attention, it was so obvious, it jumped off the field or burst through the TV screen at you.

And if the Marlins were No. 1 all-time in the chemistry standings, the Angels might have been No. 2.

"You want to talk character, chemistry -- both of those clubs were very tight-knit teams," said Padres GM Kevin Towers. "They checked their egos at the door. They played hard, and they had fun. So I think the lesson is that when we go out and acquire players, we have to think about the type of people we're bringing into our club.

"I think people need to put a higher priority on character, not just on numbers. We get too caught up sometimes in looking at numbers, and not looking at the individuals -- how they gel with other players, how they gel with the coaching staff."

It's always hard to say which comes first -- the chemistry, the fun or the winning. But several GMs couldn't help but be struck by how much fun the Marlins and Angels had during what should have been the most pressurized games of their lives. And while you can debate whether it's necessary to have a "players' manager" to create that atmosphere, someone has to set that tone.

"It's difficult to create that overnight," Towers said. "But I'm a strong believer in chemistry. I know in '98, when we got to the World Series, we had that. ... And I think it starts at the top, right at the ownership level on down to the general manager and the manager -- in making guys feel comfortable. You look at Trader Jack. You think he felt any pressure?"

Lesson 5: It's only Moneyball
Again this year, the teams that built their offenses around the Billy Beane philosophies espoused in "Moneyball" -- walks, on-base percentage, extra-base hits and homers, etc. -- had to sit back and watch the World Series on their 55-inch flat screens.

Meanwhile, the last two World Series champs did it their own way. The Marlins were 13th in their league in walks and 11th in home runs. The 2002 Angels were 11th in their league in walks and 10th in home runs.

Which doesn't necessarily mean that that "Moneyball" approach doesn't work. It just tells us there are, in fact, other ways to score -- and to win.

"I look at it this way," says Ricciardi, Beane's former assistant GM in Oakland who left to build a north-of-the-border Moneyball operation in Toronto. "In football, you can win the Super Bowl with no running game. Or you can be a team like the Ravens and win the Super Bowl with absolutely no quarterback. There are different ways to win."

"Every situation is unique," said another GM. "There's no one way to build a ball club. And if someone tells you there is, they're full of it."

For the Marlins, playing in one of baseball's most Grand Canyon-esque pitching parks, it made no sense to build an offense around three-run homers. What made sense was what they did -- adapting their team to the stadium it plays in.

Pierre
Pierre

"The Marlins did a good job of tailoring their club to their ballpark," said O'Dowd, who traded them Juan Pierre last winter. "Juan Pierre's skills didn't work here in Denver. But they worked in Florida. They work in L.A., San Diego, San Francisco and Florida. A leadoff guy with a low OPS doesn't fit everywhere. But he's a great fit in pitchers' ballparks."

If you thought "Moneyball" was just about walks and decimal points, though, you missed the point. What it's really about is working with what you have. So in that sense, the Marlins were following that model. They just wrote their own chapter.

"The Marlins paid for performance," said Pirates GM Dave Littlefield, a former assistant to Dave Dombrowski in the previous Marlins regime. "They didn't have too many bad contracts. They had no true superstar (except Pudge), so (they got) return on their investment. The key to the whole Moneyball model, to me, is: You get value for the dollars you spend."

And the Marlins sure did. They started the year with a lower payroll (about $48 million) than the Tigers. They won the World Series with a team earning $54 million. No team has started a season below $50 million and won a World Series since 1995.

The Angels won with a $62-million payroll. So both of those teams did as much to validate Moneyball as they did to discredit it. After the last two Octobers, you never hear anyone calling the A's "an aberration" anymore. Do you?

Lesson 6: Run out the marathon
It was a good thing for these Marlins and those Angels that the season lasts six months. The Marlins were 10 games under .500 on May 22. The '02 Angels had buried themselves eight games under -- and 10 games out of first place -- by April 23.

But neither team pushed the ejector button. And there's a lesson in that, too.

When the Angels started 6-14, the word their manager, Mike Scioscia, kept repeating was: "Patience." When the Marlins careened to 19-29, right after the hiring of McKeon, McKeon's message was: "You guys don't know how good you are."

So neither of those ships was allowed to sink. But in the Marlins' case, it took more than patience.

As late as June 18, this team was still in last place. But as other clubs began dialing GM Larry Beinfest's number, assuming it was time for him to start selling, Beinfest was still calling them, talking about adding players. Only three weeks later, he made the trade for Urbina that made it clear to everyone what management thought this team was capable of.

"I think there was a sense of: 'We've got to do something to send a message to the players that we still think we can win,' " Towers said. "And they got the message."

Lesson 7: It still takes luck
As brilliant as it all seems in the rear-view mirror, you can't plan everything. Some of it, you just fall into.

Remember, both the Angels and Marlins inherited big chunks of their nucleus from previous regimes -- Bill Bavasi's in Anaheim, Dombrowski's in Florida.

And does anyone think the Angels knew, when they called up Francisco Rodriguez in September, that he was about to turn into a mini-Mariano Rivera? No way.

Think it was some grand plan by the Marlins to have A.J. Burnett get hurt and Todd Hollandsworth flounder, so they could call up their secret weapons, Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera, from Double-A? Be serious.

"That's no formula," laughs one GM. "Players who come to the big leagues at 20-21 and contribute right away -- those guys are once every five or 10 years."

Right. Some stuff just happens. That's the nature of the baseball biz, because human beings play it.

So are there lessons to be learned from the Marlins and Angels? Absolutely. But have they taught us there is some magic formula for winning? 'Fraid not.

"The fact is," Shapiro said, "the game is not an absolute. It's a game of grays. No one has figured it out in over 100 years. And no matter how smart we think we are, we're not going to figure it out, either."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com