“I don’t have the patience to build for the future. The future is the present, and the six months ahead of you.. . . A five-year plan is archaic, and is a cop-out.” - Billy Beane, 7/25/01
When evaluating a team’s offseason and strategy, there are two different approaches that can be employed:
- We should evaluate everyone on a level playing field and evaluate transactions solely based on the needs of teams and the players involved, not on the basis of the personalities and reputations of the front offices.
- We should incorporate the reputations and histories of the front offices in evaluating trades, in addition to the needs of teams and the players involved.
I firmly believe in the second approach. A general manager who has a history of innovative approaches and successful trades should be given the benefit of the doubt in analysis. Part of the equation is assuming that GM’s with track records of intelligent trades will continue to make intelligent trades. I might get burned sometimes with this approach, but more often than not, you can tease out interesting things about those GMs.
The analytical community praises Billy Beane, perhaps to a fault. I still respect the Oakland general manager’s acumen a lot, and I would rank him as the best in the business at this point. When he does things that go against the grain, I tend to try to see his point.
This offseason, Beane has employed a new approach. Let’s take a look at the body of work coming from Oakland this winter:
12/14/07: Traded RHPs Dan Haren and Connor Robertson to the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for LHPs Brett Anderson, Dana Eveland and Greg Smith, INF Chris Carter and OFs Aaron Cunningham and Carlos Gonzalez.
1/3/08: Traded OF Nick Swisher to the Chicago White Sox for LHP Gio Gonzalez, RHP Fautino De Los Santos and OF Ryan Sweeney.
1/14/08: Traded OF Mark Kotsay to the Braves for RHP Joey Devine, nonroster RHP Jamie Richmond and cash.
The A’s, a team short on veterans to begin with, dealt their two best players, both cost-controlled and in their primes, for a bucket of prospects to replenish a depleted and disappointing farm system.
Undoubtedly, the A’s are rebuilding. While Beane has always said that it’s better to rebuild a year too soon than a year too late, this is somewhat over-the-top, particularly when Beane last launched a “rebuilding” project as recently as the 2004-2005 offseason, when he moved rotation stalwarts Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson. That rebuilding project looked like a Beane-type program all the way around. He had pieces in place to replace the guys that were leaving, and he got some major-league talent to temporarily fill in the holes. It led to their ‘06 playoff run.
This, however, looks like a total tear-down. It’s a concession, almost, in the face of a team that can outspend them to great excess (Los Angeles) and the AL East’s two-headed juggernaut that has put a stranglehold on the wild card.
Part of this plan, I’m sure, is based on the fact that they can’t keep up financially, and the teams with a lot of cash have used some of the methods that Beane once used to keep things level. But I think part of it runs a little deeper.
We often hear that Major League Baseball is “awash with cash.” It’s true. MLB Advanced Media has been a major cash cow, giving teams tons of additional money. The game has never been more popular, and most teams draw exceptionally well.
This leads to teams being able to sign their premier players past their cost-controlled years. The result? The free agent market has been bereft of talent for a few years. I wanted to prove this point with more than my own assertions, so I went to the archives:
2005: “Damon, a marquee name in a weak free-agent class, has said he would prefer to stay with Boston.” - Jack Curry, New York Times, 11/22/05
2006: “[Soriano]’s due to become a free agent after that, and given the mammoth season he’s having and a weak free-agent class, he easily will command a deal in the neighborhood of five years and upward of $65 million.” - Mark Zuckerman, Washington Times, 8/1/06
2007: “In this weak free-agent class, Rivera ranks as the best closer.” - Jim Baumbach and Ken Davidoff, Newsday (NY), 11/13/07
When was the last time the free-agent class wasn’t described as weak? It’s a damn good question. You’d have to go back to 2004 (I only found one hit for “weak free agent,” and it was a letter-to-the-editor in Toronto). The trend has been towards weak, thin free agent markets.
You can’t really pick up on inefficiencies in such weak markets, particularly when the whole world knows about on-base percentage and defensive metrics can only take you so far. I think Beane has come to the realization that player development is the only place where he can make his move. Only with a stockpile of young, developing talent can Beane possibly compete with the AL’s big dogs. The Athletics’ young talent, crippled by a few weak drafts, injuries, and some stagnation, needed a jolt. Beane went about it with aggressive, tearing-it-all-down-style moves. It’s a far cry from the “not having the patience to build for the future” of 2001.
So, what does this have to do with the Mets? I watch Billy Beane to see what the trends are. I think that Beane’s wholesale rebuilding is indicative of a sort of malaise that has set in as far as player movement in free agency. The influx of cash means that teams can afford to keep their guys, making trades the only way to make moves work. Even adding talent that way, though, is a tough proposition, requiring huge prospect packages.
The bottom line? This incarnation of baseball economics (the MLBAM windfall, revenue-sharing, no salary cap), coupled with the general conservatism of front offices, is leading to roster stagnation. I think that Beane is trying to burst through it. For Mets fans, though, it’s going to be tougher to get that extra piece or two than we’d hope.
Note: Newspaper sources courtesy of LexisNexis, unless they are explicitly linked.