January 7, 2004
Can Of Corn
For quite a while now, teams with little hope of contending have been rightly ridiculed for throwing cash at high-end free agents despite a roster full of surrounding chaff. The Mets of the early '90s and Devil Rays for most years of their miserable existence as ball club-cum-novelty act are prominent examples of this phenomenon. Teams that indulged in this approach often squandered precious draft picks by signing free agents that had been offered salary arbitration by their former employers and also provided themselves with plenty of disincentive against trading high-salary veterans off for prospects. As you can see, in previous years, such an off-season approach would strike a pair of potent blows against the rebuilding process. Well, this may no longer be such a ham-fisted way of operating.
As has been detailed here and elsewhere from various and sundry angles, baseball's economic landscape is now altogether different. Whether it's collusive in nature or merely a market correction isn't my concern at this time, but it is a market that bears scant resemblance to the one only two winters ago. A new wrinkle is that teams aren't offering arbitration to those free agents that, even a year ago, would've been no-brainers: Vlad Guerrero, Gary Sheffield, Mike Cameron, Greg Maddux, Bartolo Colon, Ivan Rodriguez, Javy Lopez, among a host of others. The idea being that the market for free agents is so depressed that there's now a substantive chance the player will accept arbitration and take his team to the cleaners, at least relative to what he'd command on the open market. The upshot of this development is that the overwhelming majority of free agents can now be signed without forfeiting high compensatory draft picks to his former club.
Another side effect of the economic sea change in baseball is that the days of swapping veteran performers for vast swaths of minor league talent are largely over; now, the calculus is one that involves trading one cumbersome contract for another slightly less cumbersome contract and a grade-C prospect or two. In other words, in the current environs, this is no longer part of the rebuilding arsenal.
Two teams that have been active on the free agent market despite only nominal hopes of relevance are the Orioles and Mets. They've not done things perfectly. The Mets, for instance, have lessened the long-term value of their best prospect, Jose Reyes, by shifting him leftward along the defensive spectrum. The Orioles, meanwhile, signed Miguel Tejada, one of the few high-end free agents to be offered salary arbitration (leave it to Oakland to be perhaps the only club to correctly read the arbitration tea leaves), to a deal that will extend well beyond his usefulness, and in the process coughed up a high draft pick. The Mets have inked Kaz Matsui and Cameron, but what they're really doing is engaging all with an inspiriting drive for 80 wins. The O's, if rumors are any guide, might wind up signing Vlad Guerrero. If they do that, they'd win the Central by 10 games. As things are, however, they're in the AL East, easily baseball's toughest division, and they'll be battling for third place. But that's OK.
As I've explained, I don't think the Mets and Orioles have gone about this properly, but it is possible, in this market, to aspire to respectability and simultaneously rebuild. Sign players who aren't blocking legit prospects ready for the highest level, and don't squander draft selections by signing players who've been offered arbitration. What's more, the bear market means that many of these free agents are available, in terms of money and contract length, at a reasonable cost. The reconstruction process isn't derailed--and who knows, maybe luck allows you to back into the playoffs a few years ahead of schedule?
Respectable showings take the whiff of failure away from the organization, and fans and media who don't know better are sufficiently titillated by winter goings-on and the thought of contention. It may be that the outlay of cash required to sign free agents who can sufficiently improve an otherwise miserable team (this point is critical, and it's why I'm not tossing any verbal bouquets Detroit's way; for all their off-season machinations, the Tigers have maybe added three wins--maybe) is made up by increased ticket and merchandise sales. It may be that the current front-office regime using such a strategy, and thereby winning 80 to 85 in the rebuilding years rather than 60 to 65, buys itself more time to implement fully its long-term vision.
And in public-relations terms, it's much easier to feign contention than to handle the onerous task of selling rebuilding to fan bases and pundits who take it as some sort of mortal affront that the team can't compete every year. In past seasons, this sheep-in-wolf's clothing act would exact serious costs down the road. Now, maybe it won't, provided the "quest for mediocrity" is handled most carefully.
On a holistic level, this approach is better for the game. Fewer hopeless rebuilding projects mean better competition throughout the league. Team performances are squeezed at the margins, and that makes things more interesting for everyone.
The idea that total commitment to rebuilding means completely abandoning the free agent market in favor of three, four, five years of listless ticket sales and bottom-feeding rosters is no longer true, and the opposite approach can no longer be dismissed out of hand. It's not as costly to sign free agents, and it's not as beneficial to trade off veterans. You may rightly ask: What are the Orioles doing? Fair enough, but unlike in years past, that question is no longer snarky and rhetorical in nature.