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Baseball’s off-season calendar is something of a mess now, with the deadline to offer arbitration to your free agents coming before the Winter Meetings, the deadline for the free agents to accept coming during them, and the deadline for tendering contracts to players on your 40-man roster coming after everyone leaves town. (In this year, that deadline was a Saturday, which is something that should really be avoided if possible.) There should be some top-down effort to align these dates in a way that dovetails better with the meetings-even if they are something of an anachronism given modern telecommunications. If you’re going to bother bringing everyone together, you should do so when teams have the best set of information for making trades and signings. Having a major deadline two days after the meetings is at best counterproductive, and at worst, silly.

As it turned out, Saturday didn’t yield any big news. The best players who might have been non-tendered, such as the MarlinsDan Uggla and Josh Johnson, were offered contracts. For the most part, the best players who were not, such as the A’s Jack Cust and the PiratesMatt Capps, were cut loose for good reasons having to do with expected performance and expected price.

Among the others, I get most excited about Kelly Johnson, who had a lost season while Martin Prado had a strong one, making Johnson a luxury. Johnson didn’t hit as well as he had in ’08, with line drives turning into fly balls, but the result, a nearly 100-point loss in BABIP that destroyed his rate stats, wasn’t entirely reflective of how he played. Given the wrist injury he played through and loss of his regular status early in the year, I’m inclined to look at his 2009 and give him a mulligan. Johnson is a .270/.340/.440 guy who can play second base at about an average level. He does have experience in left field and can play some third base, so he’s useful as a bench option. Of the newly-minted free agents, he strikes me as the one likely to have the most value in ’10. The Dodgers need a second baseman, and any number of bad teams like the Padres, Nationals, and Pirates could be improved with the addition of Johnson.

It doesn’t seem like that long ago that Ryan Garko was a highly-regarded prospect, and even at last year’s trade deadline, the Giants wanted him enough to deal a prospect to the Indians for him. At the time, Garko was hitting a serviceable .285/.362/.464 and had been better than that when getting regular playing time in the month leading up to the trade. Garko didn’t get off to a great start with the Giants, however, and saw his role reduced in September, with Travis Ishikawa getting most of the playing time. The Giants may want to sign a third baseman and use Pablo Sandoval at first, and even without that would be inclined to play Ishikawa’s glove, so Garko was turned loose. Garko is just 29 and has a career .313/.392/.495 line against left-handers; I’d certainly rather have him than, just to pick one name out of a hat, Mike Lowell. Heck, I might prefer to stick him back behind the plate twice a week-Garko was drafted as a catcher but last played there regularly in 2005-instead of signing Jason Kendall.

If anything, I suspect teams were a bit generous in handing out contracts. I’m not sure that tendering Mike Fontenot got the Cubs anything they couldn’t find elsewhere. Johnson’s value is shaped differently, but he’ll probably be a better, less expensive player in 2010. The Twins tendered both Jesse Crain (who finished the season strongly) and Francisco Liriano (who did not), and while they should get a revenue boost in ’10, they have a lot of spots on the roster for which the inputs are greater than the outputs. Crain and Liriano could well add to that. The Royals kept Brian Bannister, although I suspect Joe Posnanski is financing that one, especially after the ridiculous Kendall contract.

I keep coming back to the trend line of the last few offseasons. The industry is getting smarter, valuing things that matter-expected on-field performance, applied skills, proper evaluation-over a knee-jerk preference for experience. Teams are coming around to the idea, first expressed by Bill James in the 1980s, that talent in baseball is not normally distributed, that for every great player there are multiple above-average ones, and for every above-average one many average ones. There’s no reason to pay extra money for average performance, and the vast majority of players are at that level or below. The majority of baseball players, even major leaguers, are fungible. If you pay $4 million each for three players who will produce $2 million worth of value, you’ve wasted six million that could be better spent on high-impact players. The key mistake that continues to be made-and we’ve seen it with Kendall and the Royals, Ivan Rodriguez and the Nationals, Brandon Lyon and the Astros-is money wasted in dribs and drabs on players who are fungible by teams that have no reason to chase wins.

At the same time, most teams are correctly assessing that keeping a good player eligible for arbitration but not free agency is a good deal for them. For all of the industry complaints about arbitration, teams are well aware that a good player will make less in arbitration-and have corresponding trade value-than he will on the market. Arbitration does not inflate salaries above what the market would pay, it merely inflates them above the good ol’ days of “play for this or stay home.” The illusion of huge raises through arbitration is an innumerate construct sold by teams and bought by the media, which will report only that Bobby Fireball got a 600 percent raise by losing his arbitration case, and not that that salary represents about half his market value for next year, or that he was making maybe five percent of his market value the previous year. Even the Marlins, theoretically paying front-office employees in scrip while asking that everyone use both sides of the toilet paper, know that offering Uggla and Johnson arbitration is better for the franchise than letting them walk away.

The exclusive rights to employ good baseball players without competing for their services and the exclusive rights to stage Major League Baseball games within a particular geographic area are, in fact, 99 percent of the value of a franchise. You don’t just give some of that away, no matter if your fan base can cater a meeting with a bag of microwave popcorn and a six-pack of Squirt.

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Richie
12/15
'The Principal Agent Problem' creates $$$ for the likes of Kendall and Lyons. I'm GM of a lousy team. The media and the casual fan base expect me to at least make them somewhat less lousy. Starting now. I can put $$$ into the minor league system, pay down debt, etc., do all sorts of useful things with the money coming in. And leave a nicer foundation for my successor, who will replace me after the media and fan base force my firing after a couple of seasons. Even if the owner's in my corner, a deteriorating bottom line will still force him to bring in a 'new face' so as to sell season tickets, radio + cable + local TV, and so on. Or I can try to catch lightning in a bottle. Fill the gaping holes with guys who will come here provided I give them a few extra bucks. If not sell a few extra tickets and ads doing so, at least stem the financial bleeding. And hope that a whole bunch of guys have good years. And of course most guys ultra-rich enough to own ball teams think their genius will enable them to turn it around right quick anyways. So odds are the ego-monster owner won't be in my corner, won't hire me unless I promise him I can show results pretty quickly. I quite properly have a short-term time span. Getting lucky is the only way I can personally succeed. So I sign Kendall/Lyons/so on and hope.
KevinS
12/15
Richie- that is an excellent post. I have stated (less coherently) often some of the same points. What many of those who criticize the small market GM's ad nauseum for every move that doesn't pan out don't understand is that these guys aren't doing "franchise mode" on an XBox, they don't work in a vacuum. They have to show real results which often means in reference to FA's- plan F (cause plan A, B, C, D won't even return a call and sign with NYY/Bos/NYY/NYM). The mlb economic system is set-up for the second tier teams to fight over and inflate the price of mediocre talent.
dcoonce
12/15
The problem is that a guy like Jason Kendall - a 37 year old catcher who hasn't hit in years - offers no possibility whatsoever of improving a team. He's not "lightning in a bottle" - he's a known commodity. "lightning in a bottle" would be signing somebody like Ben Sheets or Rich Harden or Khalil Greene or letting Kila Ka'aihue play first. Yes, all of those moves might fail. But they're not guaranteed failures like the signing of Kendall proved to be. I've written this before and been mocked, but I should point out that the Royals spent as much money last year on Jose Guillen, John Bale and Mike Jacobs as the Yankees spent on CC Sabathia. You wanna guess who got more value?
dcoonce
12/15
Sorry typo: "like the signing of Kendall will prove to be."
pferrington
12/15
Not that I disagree with you about the general idea - but you have to consider this? why would CC Sabathia sign with the royals for anything close to what he'd be willing to sign with the Yankee's for? He looses personal revenu hocking local products, he loses national recognition to improve the money he gets for hocking products, he gets lambasted in the press for valuing money more than winning for taking the exact same amount of money from a bad team vs a good team, and he kills his chances as a follow on big contract because a bad team will lead to worse numbers for him, mediocre win totals and no bidding war in his mid to late 30's. Not that signing those FA's was a good idea for the royals but there was no way they got Sabathia for amount the Yankee's got him for.
pferrington
12/15
And yes I know that is full of bad grammar and typoes. ;-)
dcoonce
12/15
I think players like Sabathia are mercenary; they go to the team that offers the most money, period. As far as press reaction, I suppose you're right, but the opposite is also true: Sabathia got blasted in the media for the contract he signed with the Yankees, too. And suppose he made the Royals good enough to compete in the weak AL Central? (Imagine a rotation featuring Greinke and CC). Wouldn't that give him all kinds of media brownie points? I don't know how much money Sabathia makes "hocking" local products. I can't imagine it's much more than a drop in the bucket. The point I was making, though, isn't really about Sabathia. It's more about terribly managed teams, like the Royals, who cry poverty while spending their money unwisely. Like, on Jason Kendall.
havens
12/15
It really realistic to refer to Josh Johnson as someone who might have been non-tendered? C'mon.
drewsylvania
12/15
It's the Marlins.
DrDave
12/15
I'd kill for a 6-pack of Squirt. Is it still available where you live?
jaykang
12/15
Not to nitpick (but I guess I am anyway!), but aren't you arguing that player distribution is normally distributed as opposed to "evenly" distributed (or whatever you'd call it). I think you're saying there are few great players and a lot in the middle, which is what a normal curve looks like? Obviously the nuance is how "peaked" the curve is (i.e. kurtosis).
ScottBehson
12/15
More like a bell curve cut in half. You're looking at the median through the right-tail.
jsheehan
12/15
Further along, actually, the right edge of the tail.
baserip4
12/15
You're actually looking at the extreme right end of the tail. MLB players are the top <1% of all world-wide baseball talent. For every level you go down (All-Star -> Regular -> Replacement -> Minor Leagues -> College -> High School) there are more and more players that fit the talent profile. You probably still aren't coming close the median, even at that level.
brucegilsen
12/19
This is yet another example of the genius of the NFL owners. They set up a free agency system based on the idea that all but the top stars are fungible and change teams all the time.
Oleoay
12/15
While teams might be getting smarter about how talent is distributed and less likely to overpay for it, they still have problems properly evaluating talent. This is most evidenced by the idea that some teams consider themselves contenders and take on payroll in exchange for prospects when, in reality, they're a fourth place team. Does it really matter, in any sense, that the Royals or the Nationals have a "name" catcher instead of a Rule 5 pick/minor league vet/otherwise free talent? Does acquiring Cliff Lee for a prospect or two put the Mariners in a position to win the AL West or Wild Card?
rawagman
12/15
"Does acquiring Cliff Lee for a prospect or two put the Mariners in a position to win the AL West or Wild Card?" Yes. Very much so
Oleoay
12/17
I'm not sold on that. They have a better chance at winning the AL West than the AL Wild Card, but we're still talking about a team without a cleanup hitter. That's a heck of a lot to wager on a team built solely on pitching and defense.
jdtk99
12/15
Every win has some value. Long periods of losing can cause a fan base to become apathetic. It can then be difficult to draw fans even when a team becomes good, ie Rays.
jtrichey
12/15
It is certainly possible that Cliff Lee could help Seattle into the playoffs.
SaberTJ
12/15
Especially with that outfield. He's going to do amazingly well there.
Richie
12/15
Baseball playing ability is normally distributed, with professionally capable players making up the far right end. Ergo one ARod for every 5 Burnetts for every 25 Jose Molinas (he's the bad Molina, right??) for every 125 single A league minors capable players for every 600 guys like us. The athletic usses. For every 3000 of you wuss types.
chartjes
12/15
Have to agree with Ritchie -- very few owners stay out of the way and don't interfere with the baseball operations side of things.
dhcohen
12/15
Don't you think that in the overall population, baseball playing ability is distributed like a power-law? There are proportionally more worse players than better players at every level of ability. Most of the third- and especially fourth-tier players in terms of baseball playing ability are in the minors (or out of professional baseball). So if we consider just major league players, sure it's probably normally distributed, but that's the point - there are tons of third-tier players out there, in the minors; you shouldn't pay a lot for one.
baserip4
12/15
This is exactly right. 100% of the population is capable of performing at a zero level, while only a very, very tiny percent can be Major Leaguers. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Power_law
crperry13
12/15
Joe, I'm annoyed by the Lyon contract also but the one question I can't get answered is, if the contract was so bad, why were there so many teams (reportedly) competing with the Astros for Lyon? From a fan's perspective, regardless of how bad they are I am glad when a team that has "no reason to chase wins" tries to improve in small ways, especially if they are financially and contractually hamstrung from improving in large ways.
sunpar
12/15
Not that it effects his value much, but I've never seen Kelly Johnson play 3B.
jsheehan
12/15
Never in the majors, but he played it in the minors. Looking now...yeah, sort of. Fifteen games, none since 2005. I thought he spent more time there. I'd be willing to bet he could go back there, or be a utility guy, but the evidence for this is hardly compelling.