November 15, 2002
A Chat with Dave
Since the reader response was copious and positive last time I published a rambling conversation with "Dave", I thought you all might enjoy this. Sorry about the infrequent updates, but it is the offseason, and more importantly, the BP staff is up to their collective neck in writing Baseball Prospectus 2003. Thanks for your patience.
Below is an encapsulated conversation between myself and a close friend who's an insightful guy and dedicated baseball fan. Since I've mentioned him before in this space, and he's fond of his privacy, we'll call him "Dave" for purposes of this column. Dave is not affiliated with BP.
Obviously, this is paraphrased, but has been run by Dave to make sure everything's on the up and up as far as he's concerned. I hope you enjoy this edited transcript as much I as enjoyed the conversation. It's long, and it's rambling, so perhaps you should check it out in small bites.
Dave: So. The A's hang onto respectability by the skin of their teeth. Good thing. The idea of the Red Sox actually winning and having a well-run front office just doesn't align with my view of the universe.
Gary: Well, you're oversimplifying, but for now, yes. Although there's a lot of depth in the front offices of both organizations. Theo Epstein in Boston is extremely promising, and they should probably just give him the job.
Dave: He's too young. Lucchino would fill the room, and it'd take him a long time to build up the gravitas to be effective.
Gary: Maybe. It's all speculation for now. The worst thing the Sox could do is go out and get someone with experience who doesn't have any convictions, and is just kind of "one of the guys."
Dave: What did you think of the Giants' signing?
Gary: Alou? I guess he's fine. I think the Giants have more pressing and structural problems that need to be addressed. I think managers' influence on a club is kind of overrated, and clubs tend to hire a manager too early. The Giants need to worry about doing something to their player development and drafting systems first, so they can actually develop a reasonable offensive player from their own system. I can't remember the last good one. Rich Aurilia, I guess, but it's a capability the club desperately needs.
Dave: Do you know why Baker left?
Gary: I can only speculate. I think that he's walking into a pretty good situation though, much like John Hart did in Texas.
Dave: How can you possibly think that John Hart walked into a good situation in Texas?
Gary: The Texas farm system was completely stocked when he got there. Hank Blalock, Teixeira, Hafner, and even some depth on the offensive side of the ball, and a few live arms to boot, although those are both less impressive and less predictable. But be fair. Being a less impressive prospect than Blalock and Teixeira isn't exactly a mortal sin. In addition, he's got a pretty good shortstop down there. He had a tremendous opportunity, and he's lucky enough that it'll be fairly durable.
Dave: Blalock hit nothing in the majors. You guys talk about potential, but when he had the chance, he came up, and he hit miserably. Herbert Perry came in, was healthy enough to perform well, and took his job. He should have it for some time.
Gary: As an A's fan, I couldn't agree more. The Rangers should immediately trade Blalock to the A's for say, Esteban German. As someone who's aware that Blalock's going to play next year at 22 years of age after shredding the minors, I would advise you to lay off the crackpipe.
Dave: What do you think about the Phils' signing of Jim Thome?
Gary: They haven't done it yet. I only know the publicly available reporting on that. I have heard of a slightly smaller deal than the one publicly reported, and that made a lot more sense, but 5 years, $75 million is a lot of money and risk to throw at one guy, particularly for the ages of 32-36. Add in the fact that the club already has Jeremy Giambi, and if they put a tenth of that money into figuring out how to unscrew his head, they could end up with a slightly inferior player who's still really good for a lot less money. Then again, I don't know what's up with Jeremy. At some point, you have to assume there's some reason behind the dearth of playing time and consistently weird reports on him.
Gary: Yep. That's a pretty vicious 3-4-5. But I still don't think it's a good signing. 1B just aren't that hard to come up with. You pick up a Scott Hatteberg there, a Greg Colbrunn there, you spot them properly, and you save a bunch of money that can be better used elsewhere, either in player development, other contracts, or just as good, old-fashioned liquid cash. It's a question of maximizing the return on your resources.
Dave: No, it's not. You still don't get it. It's about winning. Everything else follows from there. Yes, you might get lucky with a Hatteberg or Colbrunn, but you pay in terms of roster flexibility, and if you don't get lucky, Thome's banging dingers for someone else against you. Also, you always forget that people will come to see a guy like Thome, but what kid's going to go to sleep with visions of Greg Colbrunn in their head? There's more to the bottom line, and to the attraction of baseball, than simple efficiency. God, you're annoying.
Gary: You're right on one count.
Dave: Yes. You're annoying.
Gary: Ok, two. But it is about winning. It's better for clubs to make players into stars than to pay the inflated price for an existing star. The Braves have made a habit of pulling high-upside relievers out of the scrap heap and turning them into very valuable members of the bullpen. It costs next to nothing, and yet some clubs, Texas and Kansas City leap to mind, go out and spend a bunch of money on this dubious name recognition you're so fond of. What does it get them? In the case of the Rangers, an expensive bullpen of overpaid middlemen that hamstrings their ability to put resources in other place. For the Royals, a "proven closer" that isn't really all that great to begin with, and whom costs about 30x what the Darren Holmes/Mike Remlinger/Kerry Ligtenberg/Rudy Seanez/Chad Bradford of the week costs.
Dave: Seanez is part of the Texas pen!
Gary: He was, but when he was with the Braves, he was good and cheap. When he got expensive, they let him move on to become someone else's expense.
Dave: Ok, so how do you find these good, cheap players that no one else is interested in?
Gary: By doing your homework. Know what's important. Look at the performance metrics, and use the stuff that's actually indicative of future success, instead of stuff that isn't as strong.
Gary: Well, peripheral numbers for pitchers, for example. Guy with a mediocre ERA with an AAA club might be a good bet, if he's got a great strikeout rate, played with a miserable defense behind him, or in a hitters' park. K rate is a part of a very good model for predicting future performance for pitchers.
Dave: So you wouldn't sign Tom Glavine?
Gary: Not for the money he's going to get. But I've been prematurely writing Glavine's obituary for nearly a decade. Some guys can just get the job done. You're not always going to be right. Some guys will flame out and not be a success story. Other guys will buck the odds and be successful, usually for a short time, despite having poor peripherals. That's why you've got to have some confidence and conviction, and ideally, that conviction should come from the knowledge that you're stacking every percentage on your side that you possibly can. I think that's the biggest mistake in most front offices. They can't tell you what they believe in, why, or how that translates into the decisions and actions the club takes. Then they get impatient and indecisive.
Dave: Come on. Every GM will tell you that they want great players, and they want them inexpensively, and they want pitching, and they want good clubhouse guys.
Gary: First, that's not true. That's not what they say, with a few exceptions, and all of them understand that they need to prioritize where they're going to put their money and their best people.
Dave: I have to get on the road. What's your take on the Angels? Repeat, collapse, or what?
Gary: I don't even know what the team's going to look like yet. My instinct is to say that they'll win 85-90 games and be on the fringes of the wildcard race, but there are a few guys on that team who can expect to play better. Hard to maintain that level of bullpen success, though, and they're in a very tough division. Who knows? At this point, I'd have to say they're second in the AL West behind Oakland, and behind the Red Sox for the wildcard. I thought the Wakefield signing was fantastic for them.
Dave: Have a good Thanksgiving.
Gary: I'll pass that sentiment on to our readers.