Creating an MLB winner now requires cleverness, not just capital

By Declan Schroeder

Everyone loves a sports underdog story — it’s one of the most popular tropes around. There’s no better feeling than witnessing the disadvantaged, put-upon team full of everymen triumph over the seemingly insurmountable, heavily-favoured, elitist monolith.

Take that, Team Iceland!

Suck it, Globo Gym!

The good guys won!

We’re starting to see this play out in Major League Baseball, except it’s not Gordon Bombay’s scrappy squad or Peter LaFleur’s ragtag crew claiming crowns. It’s teams with middling, even modest, payrolls.

Over the last few years, World Series winning organizations have proven it takes more than cold hard cash to make a terrific team. The era of buying your way to the top in the MLB is over.

The MLB has no salary cap and the disparity between teams’ spending can be in the hundreds of millions.

This year, for example, the Los Angeles Dodgers spent $155-million on player salaries while the Milwaukee Brewers spent just $50-million.

In the past, whoever had lots of lucre had a good chance of blowing everyone else out of the water. The team guiltiest of ‘paying to win’ is the New York Yankees — the “Evil Empire” had the highest payroll during their last five championships in 1996, ‘98, ’99, 2000, and ’09.

The strategy was simple. Offer a good player an exorbitant contact and rake in the wins.

The last three World Series winners — the Houston Astros, Chicago Cubs, and Kansas City Royals — have proven that the means of a team no longer equals automatic success.

This year, the Astros, only 18th in terms of spending, beat the teams with the top three payrolls — the Red Sox, Yankees, and Dodgers.

Last year, the Cubs, 14th in spending, triumphed over the Indians, who actually spent even less — 24th in spending.

In 2015, the Royals, 16th in spending, won against the Mets, who were also near the bottom at 21st in spending.

Economically disadvantaged teams rise to the top through a more nuanced approach than simply tossing money around. They draft and develop within their own farm systems. It involves, swing smart, timely trades, and endure a whole lot of suffering.

They don’t just not just pry superstars from other teams with superior buying power.

The Astros were led by Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer, and Dallas Keuchel, players they drafted and developed. Success didn’t come quickly, though. For the last decade, the team had been a consistent laughingstock.

When that base of home-grown talent finally matured, it was only then they acquired Justin Verlander, who pushed the team over the top.

In 2015, the major players in the Royals’ title were Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez, Mike Moustakas, and Lorenzo Cain — once again all players who were drafted by the Royals and came up through their minor league system.

In that season, they acquired Johnny Cueto, who bolstered their pitching staff and complemented the foundation they’d already built.

These teams were able to win with smaller payrolls because draft picks and up-and-comers can be signed for a lot less than bona fide hotshots.

Finding them requires boots on the ground and scouts in the stands of ballparks all around the world, watching, analyzing and recording.

The rich organizations are high rollers, but the little guys are card counters and they’ve evened the odds.

It’s made baseball so much more exciting.

The guy with the deepest pockets can buy the most bling — but he can’t always buy a World Series ring.