Winning at baseball is simple. It really is. I’ve been observing the game for a while and can prove that if you just follow a simple list of instructions, you can’t make a mistake. So here’s my free advice to all front offices in baseball, the perfect script to success. You’re welcome.
Steer clear of big-money free agents
People often talk about the bust rate of prospects, but go take a look at the monster free agents signed every offseason. It’s rare that a team doesn’t regret allocating such a large percentage of its funds to one megadeal within just a few years, if not sooner. The success stories are few and far between—Vladimir Guerrero, Manny Ramirez, and Carlos Beltran are among them, but even those came with some bumps, as Ramirez had well publicized makeup concerns and Beltran dealt with multiple injuries. Save your money. It rarely makes sense to handcuff yourself to one player and limit your flexibility to make future moves.
Sign big-money free agents
But then again, if you have the money, may as well spend it! Not many thought Jayson Werth was a smart signing for the Nationals, but four seasons into a seven-year deal, he’s proved to be quite valuable. Of course, he could struggle in the final three years of his contract, but considering how competitive it gets to sign upper-tier free agents, front offices need to be willing to sacrifice the back end of deals to secure the extreme value they get up front. Werth has provided that, Zack Greinke has so far. CC Sabathia did. The top tier of free agency is built on the premise that, in all likelihood, you’re going to overpay. Accepting that upfront will make things a lot easier in the long run. Of course, you could avoid the free-agent frenzy if you…
Focus on your farm. Building a strong farm provides you the opportunity to develop your own top-tier, cost-controlled talent, thus allowing you to be more prudent if you decide to go spend some money on the open market. It also creates cheap alternatives if you lose elite talent in free agency or one of your own big-money free agents gets injured or fails to live up to expectations.
Don’t rely on prospects
Prospects, just like big-money free agents, have a high bust rate. Relying on prospects is just as risky as investing in post age-30 free agents. If you’re putting the future of your franchise in the hands of a bunch of unproven kids, there’s a good chance you’re setting yourself up for failure. So you should probably just…
Trade your prospects
Trading prospects works out quite well. Cliff Lee was traded three times over the span of one year for a total of 11 prospects. Only one of those prospects, Carlos Carrasco, has shown signs of being a productive major leaguer, and that wasn’t until this past season. If you can get established, elite talent for unproven prospects, it will quite often work out in your favor.
Hold onto your prospects
Prior to the 2008 season, the Mariners traded for Erik Bedard and sent Adam Jones and Chris Tillman, among others, to the Orioles. Bedard was solid for the Mariners—that is, when he was actually on the mound, which wasn’t very often. He gave them 155 1/3 innings from 2008-2011 and missed the entire 2010 season before being shipped to Boston midway through the 2011 season. The Mariners haven’t made the postseason since 2001; meanwhile, Jones and Tillman lead a perennial postseason contender in Baltimore. Bartolo Colon netted the Indians Lee, Brandon Phillips, and Grady Sizemore and the Expos couldn’t even manage to exist for long after that deal went down. The Braves traded away Elvis Andrus, Matt Harrison, Neftali Feliz, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and a year later all they had to show for it was Casey Kotchman. Trading away the farm for the brief control of a star rarely pays off in the long run. It just forces you to dip back into the free agent market (see Rule 1) to fill the holes created by selling off prospects (see Rule 3). And if you’re going to rely on free agency (see Rule 2), you’d better…
Listen to Scott Boras
Boras has the best clients, so obviously that means you better do as he says and pay up. Besides, if you give the man what he wants, perhaps when you deal with him next time, he’ll give you a discou… Haha, I’m sorry, I can’t even finish that one. Most definitely…
Don’t listen to Scott Boras
Boras is amazing at his job. And that job, simply stated, is to get the most money possible for his client. In the majority of instances, players under his guidance should listen to every word of advice the man has for them. Front office execs probably shouldn’t waste their time. Boras job is to goad teams, especially those in big markets, into spending money. While front offices aren’t going to make drastic changes to their offseason or development plans just because Boras suggests it, he will rile up the fans—an unnecessary annoyance. Just ignore.
So, maybe not the perfect script for success. You can’t avoid free agency. On the other hand, you have to time your big deals perfectly and know you can survive even if a deal turns into an immediate sunk cost. It’s important to have a strong farm system, but it doesn’t guarantee anything. And yes, it’s okay to trade prospects, but the timing has to be right—just like with free agency—and your decisions ultimately will turn on a solid amount of luck.
Really, the only thing I’m quite sure of is to not listen to anyone who tells you he has all the answers.