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10/08/11 2:10 PM ET

East beasts depart, leaving balanced field

The heavyweights are home for the winter, and the decision-makers from those teams wonder why their big investments didn't amount to anything beyond spectator status for the League Championship Series.

Meanwhile, the four teams that are left -- the Tigers, Rangers, Brewers and Cardinals -- are gearing up for what should be a thrilling ride.

None of the LCS representatives are from the East. Since the current postseason format started in 1995, this is just the third time -- and first since 2005 -- there hasn't been an Eastern Division representative in either LCS.

The Yankees, with a payroll of about $207 million, were bounced in Game 5 of the American League Division Series.

Ditto for the Phillies, who had the second-highest payroll in the game at $165 million.

Then there are the Boston Red Sox, who had the biggest September collapse in baseball history and didn't even make it to the postseason with their $162 million payroll.

So, what you have for the rest of this October is great balance. The Tigers, Rangers, Brewers and Cardinals are all solid baseball teams who can execute in all three phases.

"This is probably, if the Commissioner would have drawn this up, other than the fact probably that the Yankees and Phillies aren't in it, I'm sure that he would have to be very happy with the way that it's gone," said Tigers manager Jim Leyland. "Five games in three of the four series. The other series with Texas and Tampa was a great series. They were great games. ... It's actually tremendous."

But none of the final four have that gaudy All-Star look that the Yankees, Phillies and Red Sox could have, when healthy.

In other words, in the LCS and World Series this October, there will be no talk about how one team might just look too strong on paper to beat.

"[On] any given night you can get beat," said Rangers manager Ron Washington. "Boston didn't make it to the finish line, Detroit had to deal with New York and we had to deal with Tampa Bay. It's not always the best team that wins but the team that plays the best."

Back in December, when the Red Sox acquired Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford in a span of 72 hours, the buzz was that an unstoppable juggernaut had been created.

Oh, it stopped alright. The Red Sox were stopped in their tracks, going 7-20 in September.

Of the four teams that are left, the Cardinals made the biggest investment in their payroll this season, spending about $109 million. The Tigers come in second at $106 million.

The Rangers might have been devastated when they couldn't keep Cliff Lee, but their $92 million payroll has them just four wins away from a second consecutive trip to the World Series while their erstwhile ace went home with his Phillies teammates Friday night. The Brewers are the most economical of the four survivors, getting this far with an $83 million payroll.

The Mets ($142 million), Angels ($141 million), Dodgers ($119 million) and Giants ($118 million) all have higher payrolls than the four teams who are still playing.

This dynamic might not just be some fluke. For as Red Sox owner John Henry notes, the game might be changing before our very eyes.

"I'll be the first to say the free-agency route over the last few years, over a number of years, hasn't' been that great," Henry said in a radio interview with WEEI on Friday. "There's something -- I think baseball is changing. There is something going on. We can talk about what the reasons for it are, but if you look at the manifestations of what's actually going on, young players are having a much larger impact on the game than older players are."

Young players, of course, come cheaper.

"Older players used to have a much bigger impact on the game," Henry said. "What are the reasons for that? We can discuss it. But the game is changing. I think there are clear statistical studies that show the signing of free agents at a certain age -- as they've already peaked in their career and they've started to decline -- is counterproductive."

This isn't to say the Tigers, Cardinals, Rangers and Brewers are like the Tampa Bay Rays, and just about all homegrown.

No, they've all used free agency or trading for marquee players to their advantage. But they've been able to pick their spots and make the right decisions.

In fact, when the Red Sox thought they would upgrade their team by replacing Victor Martinez and Adrian Beltre with Gonzalez and Crawford, the Tigers and Rangers swooped right in for those two players.

Martinez -- who signed a four-year, $50 million contract -- has been a big part of Detroit's run to the ALCS. Beltre belted three homers in one game for the Rangers in Game 4 of the Division Series and has made the Rangers look smart for their five-year, $80 million investment in him.

Brewers general manager Doug Melvin added to his already strong young core by trading for Zack Greinke and Francisco Rodriguez.

The Cardinals spent big for Matt Holliday (seven years, $120 million) two winters ago, after acquiring him in a trade from the A's. And they are still reaping the benefits of that five-year, $63.5 million pact they made to keep Chris Carpenter five years ago. This year, one of their best decisions was a modest one, inking Lance Berkman to a one-year, $8 million contract.

So with so much balance, what will be the deciding factor in the ALCS, NLCS and World Series?

As always seems to be the case this time of year, when all things are pretty equal, it generally comes down to who pitches the best.

Carpenter was a hair better than Roy Halladay in Game 5, and that's why the Phillies, a team that awes you on paper, isn't playing anymore.

Justin Verlander is the best pitcher in the game this season, so if he feels like putting the Tigers on his back these next couple of weeks, nobody from Detroit will complain.

The Rangers will need C.J. Wilson to fare better than he did in the ALDS if they are to get back to the World Series.

This unique pairing of teams needed a lot of things to happen for it to become a reality.

The Phillies, in hindsight, did themselves a disservice by sweeping the Braves in the final three games of the regular season. Because they helped make Atlanta's epic collapse complete, they had to deal with the Cardinals in the Division Series.

And in those zany late-night moments of the final day of the regular season, the Red Sox were one strike away from clinching at least a one-game playoff, while the Rays were one strike away from a loss that would have either sent them home or forced them into the one-game playoff.

But Jonathan Papelbon blew the save for Boston and Dan Johnson and Evan Longoria came up with season-saving homers for Tampa Bay.

Perhaps the Red Sox would have found their way again if they had advanced to the postseason, and might have even emerged into favorites with their loaded lineup.

Maybe the Cardinals were the only team capable of stopping the Phillies.

If the Rangers had lost their regular-season finale, they would have played the Yankees in the Division Series. Perhaps the Tigers were just the right team to knock off New York, whereas the Rangers might have had their hands full this year without Lee.

"If we played the Yankees again, three out of five, they might beat us -- who knows?" said Leyland.

But the answer to those what-ifs will never be known, giving baseball fans the treat of four LCS representatives who all seem to be on equal footing.

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brownie Points, and follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.