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December 1, 2003
Making Better Use of A-Rod
Alex Rodriguez can't win. When he signed with Texas, there were a lot of jokes about how for that kind of money, he should do everything but lay out the clubhouse spread. But now that he's actually doing it, he should know his place and play the game.
I'm surprised Rodriguez isn't stopping fans on the street by now and trying to give them money. "Take it!" he'll cry, as they run away, frightened. "If that's what you want, I want you to have it!"
He couldn't get the same deal today. For one, if MLB's exchanging information the way some allege, that would have meant that Texas' offer would have only been modestly more generous, though much longer, than the second-best offer. For another, he's a couple years older. That doesn't mean the Rangers would be better off filling the Ballpark at Arlington with $100 bills and lighting them on fire. Even if you believe Rodriguez is overpaid, he's one of the few players where that's not a huge deal. He's durable, he plays good defense at a premium position and is one of the best hitters in baseball. One of the problems baseball teams struggle with is the knapsack problem: Given only nine lineup positions, how do you most efficiently arrange your resources?
By providing so much value so consistently out of one position, Rodriguez allows his team to platoon elsewhere, or take fliers on random players, or implement whatever insane roster plan they've had in a drawer for years, waiting for the roster flexibility to implement.
Plus, and here's the important part: Rodriguez's contributions don't stop on the field. A good general manager costs money (and a bad one costs more), but with Rodriguez, you've got a GM on the field. Texas should be happy he wants to take such an active role in roster and organizational management. Rodriguez wants to bring in Mike Cameron? That's a great idea--he'll come reasonably cheap because Safeco Field's eaten him alive over the course of his time in Seattle, and he plays great outfield defense, which will help the team finally develop some pitching. Has John Hart had an idea that good lately?
Of course, there's an issue here--players generally aren't good talent evaluators. They're as subject to the small sample sizes everyone else is. If they see someone teeing off on their pitchers in their six games that season, they'd be knocking on the GM's door in the off-season, advocating the immediate free agent signing of that player to shore up the lineup. Ken Griffey Jr. is still mad the Mariners never gave Craig Griffey a shot in the majors. The Kid was convinced his brother would produce, even though the Mariners were already indulgent enough to keep Craig around in the farm system for much longer than Ken should have hoped (the Mariners, by the way, currently support nepotism with the continuing minor league misadventures of Matt Boone). Many players seem to form cliques that move around the league in clusters--Blue Jays of the Gaston years, anyone attached to La Russa, and so on.
If he could overcome those limitations, Rodriguez would still have to walk a fine line between boosting the confidence of (for instance) double-play partner Michael Young while he tried to swing a deal to swap Young for a starter the Rangers desperately need.
Yes, so that would make for some awkward post-game banquets. Is there any better player at that kind of relationship management, though? He's a media-savvy guy who knows his way around the pitfalls of negotiation. If any player can pull the kind of two-minded double-thought that would be required of a player-GM, it's him. Even if Rodriguez is no good as a GM, he'd be no good at no additional cost. They're paying Hart millions to be no good.
We don't need to stop at player-GM though. Rodriguez can manage, becoming the first player-manager since Pete Rose. While small sample size is a limitation of evaluating other players, he gets to see the players on his own team 162 times a year. Plus he's with them in Spring Training and on the road, so he knows full well who's hitting the gym with him and who isn't. All the better to make decisions on who to play and who to rest.
What about in-game strategies? That's what the bench coach is for. You find some great baseball mind like Earl Weaver, stick him in a tank spiked with Melange, and every once in a while he'll hallucinate a great move for you, or warn you what the other manager's doing, or grow a tentacle or something. Managing a pitching staff? There's a coach for that too. Hire a good one and let him go to town.
Managers make a ton of money. Rodriguez can save the Rangers even more money if they're willing to take a chance. And why not? As everyone's fond of saying, they were in last place without him as the manager.
He isn't limited to being a player-GM-manager though. We're reading now that one of the sources of conflict between Rodriguez and manager Buck Showalter is that the player wants to call pitches, and the manager doesn't like that.
If you believe in the importance of calling a good game, think about the value added here. You're not only getting offense, defense, and roster management from a key defensive position, he's taking on some of the catching duties. This could do a couple of things: By concentrating on defense, maybe the catcher's able to set up better, block more. And perhaps it means that Texas can employ a durable catcher with a power bat, a cannon for an arm and great defensive abilities but who cannot for the life of him figure out how to put down fingers. That way, they can find a bargain catcher no other club is able to take on because of his limitation, and turn him into a potential All-Star. And because no other team could take that catcher, the team gets his services at the major league minimum.
It's going to take a truly visionary front office to go for it. I'd like to see Theo Epstein trade Manny Ramirez for Rodriguez, hire him as the manager (hey, and Francona's available for bench coach!), and then demote himself to some sweet consulting "Special Assistant to the General Manager" gig where he doesn't have to show up at work all the time but still gets to phone in his ideas ("Hey guys, I'm in Kiribati--have you thought about reverse-platooning Byers and Diaz? Call me back."). And isn't free time really the most valuable thing any of us can have? Alex Rodriguez is a bargain.