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April 4, 2002
The Daily Prospectus
UnderestimationOver the past three seasons, the National League West has been a royal pain to project. The teams with the best individual players have had incomplete lineups and rosters; the teams with the best pitching have had lousy offenses; the teams spending the most money have put on the worst performances.
In that time, the teams that have had the most success--the Diamondbacks and Giants--have been those with a few great players and a bunch of guys who appear to be better suited to bench roles or coaching jobs or accounting. In looking at those teams the past couple of years, I've been apt to conclude that the problems facing those teams outweigh the greatness at the top of the roster, and that the risk involved in having so much value concentrated in so few players is too great.
I've been very, very wrong.
The Giants, with Barry Bonds, Jeff Kent, Robb Nen, Rich Aurilia and a bunch of guys named "Al," have won at least 86 games each year, and a division title in 2000. The Diamondbacks, with a roster slightly younger than the cast of "Cocoon" and two of the game's best starting pitchers, have won two division titles and a world championship.
One of the tenets of baseball analysis is that the impact of a single player is limited, especially as compared to what one superstar can do in other sports. A starting pitcher only throws every fifth day; a position player bats just four or five times a game, and can't be sent up in big situations if it's not his turn. The best players in the game each year are worth seven or eight wins above a freely-available player, and the vast majority of players aren't worth more than a win or two.
Because of that, I tend to like teams that have balance, that project to be above average on both sides of the ball, and that have a roster full of players who will be positive contributors. It's better to spread risk across 25 guys than to be heavily reliant on the health and performance of one or two. I prefer teams with young players who can be expected to improve, versus older ones who can be expected to decline.
In general, these are good guidelines, reflecting a solid approach to building a winning baseball team. That doesn't mean that a team not built according to this tenets cannot win. These are guidelines, not absolutes.
You know, for about three months last year, I was supposed to write a mea culpa about the Diamondbacks, and I never did. The reason I missed them is simple, though: I saw a high-risk, high-reward strategy--building around two high-workload starting pitchers--and concluded that the risk was too high. Maybe it was, but dismissing the D'backs because of that ignores the "high reward" part of the equation.
Paying Denny Neagle and Mike Hampton $24 million a year to be a team's aces is a high-risk, moderate-reward plan. They're good pitchers, but at their best, aren't going to carry a team to a championship. Paying that money to Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson, however... that's an investment that, if it pays off, the flag flies forever.
The same thing applies to the Giants. Sure, the team looks like Bonds, a great middle infield, a dominant closer, and little else, but if those players are worth 19 wins combined, how good does the rest of the roster need to be? I've tended to give a lot of the credit for the Giants' success to Dusty Baker. Maybe Baker has had the horses all along, and my worrying so much about the lousy corner infielders or mediocre rotation has blinded me to the impact of four phenomenal players.
What might be interesting is a study that looks at teams whose resources are concentrated in N players, and see how those teams have performed relative to teams with greater balance or depth. I still believe that a balanced approach makes more sense, but the issue here isn't to debate strategies, but to make the point that I may be underrating the Giants and Diamondbacks.
I picked the Padres to win the NL West this year, and I'm now wondering if that was the best decision. Not because I don't think the Padres are a good team, but I wonder if the Diamondbacks and Giants--with the greatness of their core so evident in the season's first few days--represent a blind spot in my thinking.
Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.