The San Francisco Giants won the 2012 World Series. The Seattle Mariners did not. The Giants won it all for the second time in three years, while the Mariners continued to not do the same thing they have been not doing since the dawn of their existence. Though San Francisco and Seattle have a lot in common, and though I think the majority of Mariners fans with a rooting interest were pulling for the Giants, this has all been the source of some dissatisfaction. The Giants have built what passes for a miniature dynasty without following a roster-management strategy one would consider remarkable. The Mariners have in the past drawn considerable praise under the leadership of Jack Zduriencik, but under Zduriencik the Mariners have finished in third, last, last, and last. There are teams that have gotten fewer breaks, but it feels like the Mariners have gotten a below-average number of breaks.
What's important isn't so much how the Giants won the actual World Series in four games over the Tigers. The Giants won the actual World Series in large part due to nonsense. Barry Zito out-dueled Justin Verlander, and even came through with an RBI line-drive single against Justin Verlander. The Tigers mysteriously just stopped hitting, like at all, and while some of that was because of the Giants, a lot of that was not. Gregor Blanco put down an impossible bunt. Prince Fielder was thrown out by an impossible relay. Angel Pagan doubled off a base. The Tigers stranded everyone. Octavio Dotel didn't throw Hunter Pence a slider. This was a weird series that told us little about baseball except that baseball is harder when it's really cold out.
But the Giants won the World Series, meaning the Giants had to get there first before winning it. Everybody wants for the Mariners to win a World Series. At least, everybody who roots for the Mariners wants for the Mariners to win a World Series. As was the case the last time the Giants did this, one should feel pretty good about the fact that the Giants were able to do this.
This year's Giants had a pretty big payroll. It blew the Mariners' payroll out of the water, after it didn't do that at all in 2010. But the Giants' highest-paid player posted an 84 ERA+. The Giants' second-highest-paid player posted a 67 ERA+. For the sake of reference, Kevin Millwood posted an 88 ERA+. The Giants' fourth-highest-paid player posted a 77 OPS+ over 95 plate appearances. The Giants' fifth-highest-paid player threw two innings before getting injured. The Giants' sixth-highest-paid player got suspended for steroids. The Giants' seventh-highest-paid player was injured all season long and never played. The Giants' eight-highest-paid player was a non-elite lefty reliever. Now that's actually going by Opening Day payroll, and it doesn't take into account the expensive Hunter Pence, but Pence hit .219 after arriving from Philadelphia so there you go with that. The Giants spent a lot of money and got very little back from their most expensive players.
It's important for a front office to be efficient, because of course efficiency is all about maximizing wins, but as the Giants have demonstrated, you don't actually need to be that efficient to win the championship. You can afford to miss on many of your expensive players, so long as you have a core of really good cheap players to balance things out. Buster Posey is probably going to win the MVP, and he didn't make a million dollars. Madison Bumgarner made even less. Sergio Romo was pretty cheap, Ryan Vogelsong was pretty cheap, Pablo Sandoval was pretty cheap, and Angel Pagan was pretty cheap. Clearly, some of those expensive contracts did the Giants few favors. But at the same time, clearly, they weren't crippling. Individual contracts can pretty much never be crippling. A small handful of contracts can pretty much never be crippling. You can make mistakes and win -- the Giants made mistakes and won.
Of course, by having a higher payroll, the Giants were better able to survive inefficient contracts. That's one of the bonuses of having a higher payroll. That's one of the reasons people want to see the Mariners spend more on their product. It isn't just that a higher payroll allows one to purchase more wins; it's that a higher payroll allows one to be less efficient. Being efficient as a front office is incredibly difficult to do, such that it isn't impossible to succeed as the Tampa Bay Rays, but it's a lot easier to succeed as someone else. More money means more margin of error, and you like to have more margin of error when dealing with something as unpredictable as baseball seasons.
Let's leave the payroll topic behind, now. You know what the Giants did? They won the World Series while playing half their games this season in an extreme pitcher's park. At home, the Giants hit 31 regular-season dingers. 31 dingers, 81 games. The average Giants road game featured 9.7 runs. The average Giants home game featured 7.2 runs. MVP candidate Buster Posey went deep seven times in San Francisco and 17 times in not-San Francisco. The Mariners are already adjusting Safeco's fences to make it more hitter-friendly, but clearly, playing in an extreme home environment doesn't preclude a team from going all the way. This year, AT&T Park was similarly frustrating. The Giants didn't let it get in their heads. The Giants are an argument for why the Mariners don't need to adjust the fences at all.
You know what the Giants did? They won the World Series while starting Brandon Crawford at shortstop. This year, Crawford batted .248 with a .304 OBP and minimal power. For his career, Brendan Ryan has batted .244 with a .306 OBP and minimal power. Anyone who's watched Ryan knows he's an elite-level defender, and anyone who watched Crawford now knows he's also an elite-level defender. The Giants basically won the World Series with Brendan Ryan, meaning it isn't impossible for a team to win the World Series with Brendan Ryan. It isn't impossible for a team to win the World Series with pretty much anyone -- I always hate this sort of thinking -- but there you go. Punchless, glove-first, 80s-era shortstop. World championship.
You know what the Giants did? They won the World Series while getting 37 regular-season home runs from their outfielders. Over nearly 2,200 regular-season plate appearances, Giants outfielders went deep 37 times, the lowest total in baseball and way, way below Oakland's league-leading 120. Yet the outfield posted an above-average combined wRC+. By UZR, it ranked #4. By baserunning, it ranked #2. By WAR, it ranked #7. The Giants got Melky Cabrera for Jonathan Sanchez and another guy. The Giants got Angel Pagan for Andres Torres and another guy. The Giants got Gregor Blanco for free. The Giants got Hunter Pence for a package, but it wasn't an overwhelming package, and after coming over, Hunter Pence was bad. Hunter Pence was as effective as it looks to the eye like Hunter Pence should be.
This was a season that the Dodgers went crazy spending money under new ownership. The Dodgers made a series of high-profile transactions, and the Dodgers finished eight games behind the Giants in the NL West standings. The competition is now only just beginning, as the Dodgers aren't going to stop spending money any time soon, but at least once, now, the Giants have gone further than the Magic Johnson Dodgers and won the World Series despite a financial disadvantage. Money's great! Money isn't everything. It's money + intelligence using that money + luck. The Giants had some of all three.
What did the Giants have that the Mariners don't have at least developing? Better way to put it: how far away are the Mariners from being able to field a roster like the Giants', really? Matt Cain is their answer to Felix Hernandez, if he's probably a little worse. What the Mariners don't have is a Buster Posey. The rest? there's nothing incredible about the rest. A healthy Franklin Gutierrez could be Angel Pagan, and has been before. There's nobody like Pablo Sandoval, but Sandoval himself isn't an actual superstar. It's not a team of superstars. It's a team of good players, and few bad ones. The Mariners obviously need to improve their crop of position players, and it'd be super if someone were to emerge as an All-Star talent, but the difference between the Mariners' crop and a championship crop isn't enormous. You just need to be good enough, then you just need to win in the playoffs.
There is no one way, no right way to build a World Series roster. There are better ways and worse ways, and there are things you can do to improve your odds, but one wouldn't have thought you'd build a two-time World Series-winning roster by signing Barry Zito for seven years. Zito's still under contract for 2013. For all I know the Giants could do it again. Already, the Giants have won the World Series for a third of the years that they've been paying Barry Zito.
The Giants should make Mariners fans feel better because the Giants should make all fans everywhere feel better. The Giants haven't done this by being perfect, or anything close to it. Brian Sabean used to be one of the most highly-criticized general managers in the league. Bruce Bochy used to draw the normal amount of ire. Between 2005-2008, the Giants won 75, 76, 71, and 72 games. Since then they've won 88, 92, 86, and 94 games, and two world championships. Things looked fairly bleak until they didn't. The Giants had hopes for players in the system and enough of those players turned out, supplemented by additions from elsewhere. The Giants have won with a pretty simple formula because it hasn't really been a formula at all.
Different people have different issues with the Mariners. All of them would go away if the Mariners won a World Series. How far away are the Mariners from winning a World Series? They're not that far away from being capable, because nobody is that far away from being capable. Here's a little secret: championship rosters don't have to be as amazing as you might think. They just have to be good, and at the end, they just have to be hot. Are the Mariners that far away from being pretty good? Of course they're not. And you never know which pretty good team will just refuse to start losing. Sometimes in the playoffs, a bouncer deflects off a base, or Barry Zito throws better pitches than Justin Verlander. It's all about just getting there.
One day, the Mariners will get there. Who's to say which day that'll be?