A week before representatives from all 30 teams descend upon New Orleans for the annual winter meetings, a collection of equally knowledgeable but considerably less experienced men and women–our readers–gathered at a restaurant in Chicago with the same purpose: to craftily mold their teams’ rosters, through canny trading and judicious use of the free-agent market, into the best team that money–a strictly budgeted amount of money–could buy.

And like any good reality TV show, there were a couple of twists along the way.

The mechanisms of the event were simple. The first 30 attendees to sign up were assigned a team in advance, and instructed to pore over their team’s roster, look over the free-agent market, and come to the event prepared to wheel and deal. Each team was also given a firm budget number in advance that they could not exceed. The event began with each team announcing its list of non-tendered players, who then immediately went into the free-agent pile. All free agents were then represented by the remaining attendees, along with myself and Nate Silver. Will Carroll presided over the event, playing the unenviable role of Bud Selig.

To their immense credit, our competitors approached this event not only with an eye towards “winning” the contest by improving their teams, but also behaved within the spirit of the contest to make it as realistic as possible. No team offered a 10-year contract to a free agent in an effort to lower his payroll figure for 2004. No team tried to trade Barry Bonds for an entire roster of talent.

If anything, my only complaint to our competitors was that they tried to make things so realistic that they completely overwhelmed our preparations for the event. The plan from the outset was to divvy up the 30 prime free agents among five player agents, and I took on the additional responsibility of negotiating for any “minor free agent” that we didn’t think was worth representing. Two minutes into the event, after I had already been besieged by offers for the likes of Seung-Yeop Lee, Wayne Gomes, and Brent Butler, and it was clear we needed to tinker the format a little.

This grand social experiment certainly was only an approximation of the real thing, and there were a number of unrealistic happenings during the event. We had to approximate salaries for arbitration-eligible players. We ignored things like deferred payments and incentive clauses, and had to empirically decide how much insurance money covered certain contracts (the Mets filed a protest after we denied Mo Vaughn‘s claim.) The GM of the Diamondbacks spent money like a bat out of hell, which taught us little except that we probably gave him an overly generous budget to begin with. The Yankees made almost no moves to speak of. And the GM of the Royals seemed to have the singular ambition of giving me an aneurysm.

Nevertheless, while the precise details of the event may not be played out next weekend, the broad conclusions appeared realistic indeed. Two main themes came out of the event: There wasn’t enough time, and there wasn’t enough pitching.

Generals speak of “the fog of war.” General Managers ought to speak of “the fog of competition.” With less than three hours to make their moves, teams (and player agents) had to weigh their options quickly, make bold decisions, and move on to their next plan of action. When moves are being made so quickly, invariably a free agent is going to miss out on an opportunity to make more money with a team he didn’t talk to, and a team that had its heart set on trading for a certain player might find that he was already traded before he had a chance to speak to the opposing GM.

Andy Pettitte‘s agent–that would be me–negotiated a four-year, $34 million contract with the Rangers about midway through the event–and then was accosted by representatives from the Yankees and Astros moments later. Arizona and Montreal announced a trade that sent Scott Hairston to Quebec just as Toronto’s GM was literally tapping the D-Backs’ GM on the shoulder to inquire about Hairston.

With five days to talk in New Orleans, and plenty of time before and after to finalize deals, the time crunch is not nearly as acute for real-life general managers. But the fog of competition remains. Teams will trade players that other teams didn’t even realize were available; teams will offer contracts to free agents with no idea what the rest of the market is offering. Baseball players are not stocks, whose price is determined by an exact measure of supply and demand as determined by thousands of independent decision-makers. They’re more like real estate; everyone has a general idea of their worth, but with only one buyer and one seller for each commodity. Inefficiencies, to use a Moneyball word, can occur.

And as for the pitching…early on in the event, teams were reluctant to spend too much cash, too soon, and the market for pitchers was tepid. Sidney Ponson asked for $9 million a year and was laughed at. Finally, there was some movement as most of the top free agents started signing for about what was expected: Pettitte, Kevin Millwood for four years, $42 million; Maddux for three years, $27 million. Ponson ended up at four years, $28 million.

And then the talent well dried up, and teams still had money to burn–and holes to fill. The Yankees, desperate after missing out on Pettitte, offered Kenny Rogers two years, $3 million. Teams wandered down the aisle, asking each of us agents, “do you have any pitching left?” A true bidding war failed to ensue only because, by that point, the only answer to that question was a clear no.

The event was a resounding success, judging by the fact that about 90% of the participants polled said they’d like to do it again next year. With more preparation time and the lessons learned from this year’s event, hopefully next year the event will be even more realistic: Our salary data should be better, arbitration salaries will be more realistic, factors like deferred payments and insurance payouts will be accounted for, and we may even schedule a full-day event to give everyone enough time to seek out the best deals.

Tomorrow, we’ll provide a team-by-team recap of every transaction, and their implications. I’ll end today’s column with a final piece of advice for my colleagues running Pizza Feeds in other cities: Make sure everyone enunciates. I quickly found Mark Redman, who had been non-tendered by the Marlins, a new home in St. Louis for three years and $10.5 million. Twenty minutes later, after trying to sell the Marlins’ GM on a pitcher to fill the hole made by Redman’s departure, I received a rude awakening.

“I didn’t release Mark Redman.”

“Yes you did, it says so right here.”

“I said Mike Redmond.”

Unfazed, I quickly informed the Cardinals’ GM that he was SOL, then found my newest client a home in Baltimore, for one year, $800,000. Hey, I’m good.

Thank you for reading

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