fter the arms race between the Oakland Athletics and Detroit Tigers escalated at the July 31 trade deadline, giving both teams an argument for having put together the best starting rotation in baseball, fans and pundits pretty much penciled them in to meet in the American League Championship Series.
Then they spent the next three weeks getting passed in the standings.
Had the postseason begun this weekend, the A's would've been relegated to the wild-card game, three great starters hoping for another chance to pitch, while the Tigers would've been holding four aces at home watching playoff baseball.
Meanwhile, the Baltimore Orioles, who did nothing to improve their rotation at the deadline, have the biggest divisional lead of any team in Major League Baseball.
Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris, Kevin Gausman and Miguel Gonzalez remind no one of the likes of Jon Lester, David Price or Max Scherzer. Of course, the five combine to make a shade under $11 million this year – less than Lester, Price or Scherzer each make individually.
The ace, the No. 1, the front-of-the-rotation guy remains one of the most glamorous and well-paid positions in all of sports. Justin Verlander, for example, is slated to make $28 million per year from 2015-19.
But while starting pitchers are making more money than ever, they're being asked to do less than ever.
Forty years ago, the expectation for a top starter was to finish what he started more often than not, even pitching on three days' rest.
Pitchers were counted on to throw upwards of 250 innings on a yearly basis. The relief corps was somewhat irrelevant given that 34 pitchers threw for more than 250 innings in 1974. Orioles Hall of Famer Jim Palmer averaged 288 innings from 1970-78, topping 300 four different times.
In 2014, starters are expected to go seven innings. Or six. Or even five. A workhorse is a guy who throws 200 innings. The major league leader in innings pitched in 2012 and 2013 tossed right around 240. No one has thrown as many as 260 innings since Roy Halladay in 2013.
It all begs the question, is starting pitching overrated?
Is it possible that because the Tigers spend so much on Verlander, Scherzer and the rest, they didn't have the money to focus on their bullpen or their defense, two major flaws holding back the team?
Is it possible that because the A's were so desperate to add Lester to an already stellar staff, they depleted their offense far too much by dealing power hitter Yoenis Cespedes for him?
With shorter and shorter outings by starters, a deep and reliable bullpen is more important than ever.
With defensive shifts all the rage and scoring at a premium, slick fielders may be more important than ever.
With strikeouts at an all-time high and home runs way down, power hitters are as important as ever.
Baltimore has all that those teams don't (although the Orioles clearly were in much better shape before Manny Machado's season-ending injury).
Spending so little on their five current starters allowed them to build a great bullpen and defense, and to bring in a powerful bat in Nelson Cruz in the offseason. (It also has allowed them to survive a horrible year by Ubaldo Jimenez, the highest-paid mop-up man in baseball).
Tillman, Chen, Norris, Gausman and Gonzalez might not strike fear into opposing lineups, but here's what they do: They give the Orioles a solid outing pretty much every night.
Each of them carries an ERA between 3.55 and 3.81. That means each almost always leaves the game having surrendered three runs or fewer. That's plenty good enough, thanks to a bullpen, a defense and a lineup that rank favorably with any team's.
The Orioles are headed for their first division title in 17 years. They even have a shot at finishing with the best record in baseball.
Is there a danger that they're built for the regular season while the Tigers or A's are built for the postseason? Definitely. A staff with four great starters as each of those teams has would be exceedingly difficult to beat in a short playoff series.
Problem for them is, there's no guarantee either will make it to a playoff series. The Orioles will.
Bob Blubaugh is the Times' sports editor. His column appears every Sunday. Reach him at 410-857-7895 or firstname.lastname@example.org.