Two of Major League Baseball’s most storied franchises will meet with a World Series berth at stake when the St Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers open the best-of-seven National League Championship Series in St Louis on Friday.
The Cardinals, whose 11 World Series crowns is the most for any National League team, and the Dodgers, winners of six and losers in a dozen other Fall Classics, remodeled their teams in distinctly different ways to get within one last hurdle of contesting MLB’s pinnacle prize.
NL Central champions St Louis, who host the first two games of the series, dramatically changed their cast of characters since winning the World Series in 2006 and 2011, retooling in the Cardinal way – by relying on the next wave of young talent percolating up through their envied minor league system.
The West winners from Los Angeles have gone the opposite route, executing their makeover by opening the deep wallets of new owners emboldened by a rich regional television contract and intent on becoming Southern California’s glamour team.
St Louis advanced with a 3-2 series win over Cinderella wild-card Pittsburgh Pirates, while the Dodgers prevailed in four games over the NL East champions Atlanta Braves.
Of the 25 players on the Cardinals’ Division Series roster, 18 were homegrown, including a rash of 2013 rookies.
They have played a key role in the St Louis success story, including starting pitchers Michael Wacha, who nearly threw no-hitters in his last two starts, and Shelby Miller, and four bullpen arms led by Trevor Rosenthal, who took over as closer late in September.
On offence, the Cardinals scouting and development system delivered an ideal replacement for first baseman Allen Craig, the team’s top clutch hitter. When he went down to injury they inserted stocky rookie Matt Adams, who homered in Wednesday’s game five clincher against Pittsburgh.
The rookies join seasoned veterans including Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran and homegrown All-Star catcher Yadier Molina to help make the Cardinals the National League’s top seeds.
A massive transfusion of talent enabled a dramatic about-face for the Dodgers.
Early in 2012 the Dodgers’ fortunes literally changed when an ownership that included NBA great Magic Johnson took over from bankrupt Frank McCourt with a US sports franchise record bid of US$2.15 billion.
The Opening Day payroll topped US$216 million this season compared to US$105 million in 2012 and resulted in a runaway victory in the race for the West Division crown.
Of the 25 players on their Division Series roster, 13 were not with the organisation when the new owners took over.
Trades included a mega-deal late last season with the Red Sox in which the Dodgers took on almost US$265 million in salary commitments in adding players including Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, and another deal with the Miami Marlins that brought them Hanley Ramirez.
Los Angeles did not stop there, doling out a six-year, US$159 million free agent deal to starting pitcher Zack Greinke, who formed a formidable one-two with Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw.
The Dodgers also spread the wealth internationally, handing out a US$12 million bonus and seven-year, US$42 million contract to Cuban defector Yasiel Puig, whose combination of speed, power and youthful enthusiasm sparked the Dodgers this summer.
Last offseason the Dodgers deepened their rotation by paying US$25.7 million for negotiating rights to Korean left-hander Ryu Hyun-jin before giving him a six-year, US$36 million deal. Ryu has slotted in admirably as number three starter.
The Cardinals are in the postseason for the 10th time in 14 years and looking for their third World Series title in seven years, while the Dodgers aim to return to the winner’s circle for the first time since 1988.
One edge for the Dodgers is that due to their earlier finish in the Division Series, and manager Don Mattingly’s decision to bring ace Kershaw back to start game four, Los Angeles have Greinke available for game one and could have Kershaw for game two.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, were forced to use ace Wainwright for their game five decider and will likely look to their youth brigade to hold the fort until Wainwright is able to return.