Pitching is the key, and Torii Hunter knew it
Long before the Yankees were wiped out by injuries, the Angels turned into a $140-million flop and the Rangers self-destructed toward the end of this season, Torii Hunter looked at the list of supposed 2013 contenders and found one that stood out from the rest.
This was way back in November, and shortly after Hunter filed for free agency, the 17-year veteran knew he was going to Detroit. To him, it was a no-brainer. Having never played in a World Series, Hunter sized up the rosters of the teams in the market for his services and quickly made a decision.
He didn't need to talk to scouts or players or other team executives. Even with the Yankees and Red Sox looking to bid for his services, Hunter quickly settled on the closest thing to a lock in his mind.
"I looked at that rotation,'' Hunter said before Sunday night's Game 2 of the ALCS at Fenway Park. "I know in my past, all my failures in the postseason, that pitching and defense means a lot. The reason I probably failed in the past in the postseason is because we didn't have the pitching.
"I looked at that rotation this offseason and said, 'Hey, this is where I want to be.' I'm a veteran guy. I made my money. I'm about winning a World Series championship.''
At this point, Hunter is feeling pretty smart. He guessed right. And in signing that two-year, $26-million contract with the Tigers, Hunter seems well-positioned for another run at the title next season.
Tigers owner Mike Ilitch not only spent $154 million on this year's AL Central champ, he already has $107.8 million invested in six players for 2014.
Those half-dozen make up a solid nucleus: Hunter, Prince Fielder, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez. Max Scherzer is eligible for arbitration this winter, so he'll get a sizable raise from his current $6.7-million salary before becoming a free agent after the 2014 season.
But does that roster, presumably with Jim Leyland again as manager -- he prefers to go year by year -- guarantee a sustainable playoff run?
The Yankees have been the gold standard since 1995 with 17 postseason appearances in 19 seasons. Obviously, money has been a big factor. But as we've learned in recent years, it's not the end-all to winning it all, or even qualifying for October.
In the middle of last season, Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington felt compelled to jettison $260 million in payroll by sending Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett to the Dodgers. With an All-Star core in place, he made former Sox pitching coach John Farrell the manager and tuned up the roster with some midrange free agents.
The Sox went from worst to first, but they also face potential defections this winter with integral players Jacoby Ellsbury, Mike Napoli, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Stephen Drew headed for free agency.
Boston has the farm system as well as the financial resources to recover from those types of losses. But trying to clone a division winner -- or even a contender -- is not as routine as the Yankees have made it look for the past two decades. While Brian Cashman is stuck with an older stable of expensive returnees -- he has five players accounting for $74.5 million, including Alex Rodriguez -- there's no telling exactly how the Yankees or the rest of the competition will look on Opening Day 2014.
"If you break down championship-caliber teams, they're all very similar,'' said Jonny Gomes, who has been to the playoffs with the Rays, Reds, A's and Red Sox. "You talk about a couple Cinderella teams that kind of get late into the postseason. But when we talk about a champion, they're all very similar. They pitch. They play defense. Team chemistry. Situational hitting.''
Staying on top can be tricky. The Red Sox ended a three-year playoff drought this season but haven't won a first-round series since 2008. The Tigers have three straight division titles but went 23 years without one, and qualified for the postseason only once in that stretch. Success can be fleeting.
"We know there's quite a bit of randomness in this game,'' Cherington said. "When it does go well and the team wins games, you try to appreciate those moments because you can't take that for granted.''