The Giants and Royals were an unlikely duo to form the best of baseball in 2014, but when the dust settled this October, it was those two clubs who faced off in an epic seven-game series to decide it all. MLB, like other pro sports, is a copycat league. That means that 28 other clubs, the Yankees included, will spend this off-season looking to mimic some of the traits that separated San Francisco and Kansas City from their competition.
Ask anyone what the most obvious contrast between the Giants and Royals and the Yankees is and they'll probably point out that both World Series competitors were largely homegrown. Six of the nine Giants in their Game 7 lineup came from the team's farm system, and six of Kansas City's were products of theirs. Two more key Royals - Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar - were acquired early in their careers for another homegrown product in Zack Greinke. We're not breaking any new ground here by stating that the Yankees aren't getting enough from their minor league affiliates, but it's worth noting that both the Giants and Royals have been proactive when it's come to getting their young stars under contract early.
While Pablo Sandoval's a free agent now, San Francisco's enjoyed his services for the last three years at a bargain basement $17.15 million because they bought out his arbitration years. Madison Bumgarner's inked through 2019 for a maximum of just $52 million and Buster Posey will be a Giant until 2021 at a sub-market $143.5 million. Kansas City struck early with Alex Gordon by signing him to a four-year, $37.5 million deal with a fifth year option before the 2012 season and then did the same for Salvador Perez, locking him up through 2019 for just $18 million if his club options are exercised.
It's impossible to find team-friendly contracts like these on the Yankee ledger because of the organization's rarely-strayed-from policy of letting its players go to free agency before negotiating long-term deals. Even when they pony up before it's too late, they do so only in a player's later arbitration years, which is why even their better deals, like the four-year, $52 million pact Brett Gardner will begin in 2015, are very close to market rate. With teams like KC and San Fran pinning down players for their prime seasons earlier and earlier, it's only going to get more difficult for big spenders to build through free agent classes that look paltrier with each passing year.
One consequence this year's World Series might have on the rest of baseball is that it may heighten the value of dominant relief pitchers - at just the wrong time for the Yankees. Though it was Bumgarner's five-inning save in Game 7 that people will remember most, the Royals' bullpen's lights-out back end got plenty of attention throughout the postseason. Greg Holland, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera, who would be called Her-Dav-Ho if John Sterling worked in Kansas City, combined this year for an ERA of 1.28, a WHIP of 1.00 and a K-rate of 11.36 in over 200 innings of work. The Royals' troika, to use another Sterling term, contributed to the second best save-conversion rate in baseball at 82 percent. San Francisco's 'pen, while not as flashy, was also highly efficient, holding opposing hitters to a .217/.280/.334 line as a group. All of that seems to suggest that the Yankees should go all out to re-sign David Robertson, but it also could get rival GMs thinking that the top free agent closer just might be worth $14 or $15 million per year after all. The Yankees have done a good job cultivating relief pitching cheaply from within. They'll try to do the same next year with prospects like Jacob Lindgren, Tyler Webb and Nick Rumbelow, but losing Mariano Rivera and Robertson in back-to-back years won't be an easy pill to swallow.
The Giants and Royals have made some wise moves over the past few years, but the most important takeaway from this World Series for the Yankees should be that they're not as far from baseball's Promised Land as one might think. Neither league champion was exactly a powerhouse this season. The Royals won 89 games and the Giants 88. Both teams had issues scoring runs - they finished sandwiched around MLB's runs-per-game average of 4.07, with the Giants clocking in slightly above at 4.10 and the Royals just below at 4.02. The Giants were 14th this season in OPS at .699 and the Royals were 17th at .690, both beneath the MLB average of .700. The two clubs finished 17th and 30th - yes, 30th - in home runs, respectively as Kansas City was the only team in baseball to not crack triple digits. Neither team featured a player in baseball's top ten in wRC+ or wOBA. Posey was 12th in the former at 144 and 16th in the latter at .371 and you had to go all the way outside the top 40 to find a Royal. Gordon placed 44th in wRC+ at 122 and 41st in wOBA at .346.
These teams must have made up for their so-so hitting with elite pitching, right? Not so much, actually. The Giants were 10th in baseball in FIP at 3.58 and the Royals were 16th at 3.69, just above the MLB average of 3.74 and just below the Yankees, who came in 15th at 3.67. That's even more interesting when you consider that Kansas City only needed eight starting pitchers this year, with five of them making 25 or more starts, while the Yankees started games with thirteen different guys and lost four-fifths of their starting rotation to injury. Not only do you not need a world-beating offense to go to the World Series these days - you don't need elite pitching either.
There's a strange belief held by many Yankee fans that if their team can't be a lock to win 95 games or more and an odds-on championship favorite, as they were for much of the '90s and 2000s, then it's not worth competing - that it's break it down and rebuild time, check back in a few years. If the 2014 World Series proves anything, it's the absurdity of that argument. Playoff-expansion and revenue sharing have made baseball more of a crap-shoot sport than ever before. If you get in - and getting in is something that a third of MLB now does - then you've got a chance, and not a bad one, either. It's not that Yankees shouldn't try and get better. We'll spend the next four months talking about where they need to improve and how they can do it. But while their roster flexibility is currently limited, that doesn't mean that their future necessarily is. With a few incremental improvements to the lineup, a couple of bounce-back campaigns and some better luck when it comes to health, we might be talking a year from now about the Yankees as the 88-win team who somehow went all the way.