“We felt this [pressure] a lot my last two or three years in Boston. We missed being able to go after the cheap, undervalued player. The intellectual reward with star players is not the same.”
“Sometimes it’s a little tougher, when teams see you’re at that level and you’re a piece or two away from getting to the postseason, it’s always tempting to go out there and spend that money and sometimes it’s not necessary. You know, Marco Estrada wasn’t even in camp last year and was an important piece for us. Nyjer Morgan was like $475,000 last year and he was a trade piece on the last week of spring training. So sometimes having the money, you feel like you can go get that veteran still out there and still available and other times there’s a player you have in camp. You know, I said there’s a Jeremy Lin somewhere in our clubhouse and you have to try to find him.”
If one does a quick Google search for baseball general manager rankings, up close to the top of just about anyone’s list one is likely to find Yankees GM Brian Cashman and Theo Epstein, formerly of the Red Sox and now working for the Cubs. Just as surely as they’ll be near the top, you’ll pretty much always find some caveat like GMs “…who get a bunch of blank checks every season seem to have an advantage over the little guys” in reference to them. It’s an inescapable fact of life in baseball that some teams can spend more than others. While the relationship between money and winning isn’t a perfect one – just look at the Chicago Cubs of the last few years – there is no denying that it helps. It helps teams keep or even acquire star players in the primes of their careers while others have to pass. It allows teams to weather salary wasted on under-performing contracts and still contend. All of this talk often obscures another truth about having money to spend, namely the fact that it creates a lack of flexibility to take chances on players who can actually out perform the big money guys if given the chance.
Just as one isn’t likely to find many multi-millionaires living in seedy, dangerous neighborhoods, one would be hard pressed to find many baseball executives unwilling to spend money budgeted to them for team improvement. While some will definitely spend it more wisely than others, if the money is there it’s very likely to be spent on something. When a team is in “win now” mode, it’s often spent on upgrading every spot on the roster to whatever extent the money can purchase proven players. On the other hand, when a team is young, and building up a homegrown (or traded for) core of players and not expecting to win at that exact moment, they will generally look to fill some holes with cheap, non-brand name talent. Every year, players are found on the proverbial “scrap heap” and turn into legitimate major leaguers. Looking back at the first half of Doug Melvin’s Brewer history, we can find plenty of examples. Scott Podsednik, Doug Davis, Brady Clark, Russell Branyan, and a whole host of relievers (like Dan Kolb and Derrick Turnbow) were all picked up for little or nothing, given a chance and produced at a pretty high level, at least for a time. That doesn’t happen quite so often anymore. Yes, Casey McGehee and John Axford were both “scrap heap” type pickups, but they only were able to get the chance to establish themselves because of the injury and ineffectiveness of others, and McGehee was quickly cast aside after following two good years with one poor one.
In some ways, this is obviously a positive. For one thing, it shows that the Brewers have gone from a development mode into a winning mode, generally. No one laments the Brewers’ inability to find a diamond-in-the-rough first basemen or left fielder in recent years because Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun were “blocking” them. That would just be silly. The problem comes more at the margins. When teams start to commit significant money to non-stars to fill needs, not only can they quickly start throwing good money after bad, but they also cost themselves opportunities. When an executive locks their team into a large dollar, long-term contract with a player, they will feel the need to justify that expenditure to their boss. That’s why guys with big contracts who don’t produce often get a longer leash than they probably should. It’s almost certainly a big part of why Jeff Suppan got 31 innings with the Brewers in 2010 despite being below replacement level in 2009. The team owed him $12.75 million that year regardless of how he performed, so they figured they might as well try and squeeze out some value to justify it.
While people will often talk about what else might have been done with the money spent on overpriced contracts, less attention gets paid to the roster and lineup spot the player occupies and how simply keeping that player on represents an opportunity cost. Going back to the opening quote, you can see the dilemmas for management this can create. No one is going to weep for the Boston front office that they’re locked into starters at so many positions because they had the money to buy what they wanted. The problem is that when roster spots do open up on “super teams” like the Sox, there is an expectation that the team use its resources to fill with whatever the best “name” player is available. Instead of going out and trying to find players who could produce something close to the name player level for cheap an then using the left over resources to upgrade other areas where people don’t necessarily see a need, the team feels obligated to fill holes with stars. Just look at how the Boston media reacted when the team didn’t go out and get names this off-season. Having money to burn becomes an obligation to give people names.
While the Brewers will certainly never get to the level of revenue and expectation that the Red Sox front office deals with, they are increasingly locking in parts of their roster and leaving themselves declining flexibility in the process. In the past few years, the team has committed to contracts with homegrown players Ryan Braun, Yovani Gallardo, Corey Hart, and Rickie Weeks as well as with free agents Aramis Ramirez and Randy Wolf. They’re also currently looking at locking in even more players, namely Zack Greinke, John Axford and perhaps Shaun Marcum. While it’s not at all clear just what opportunity cost all of this represents right now, it does mean these players are going to be allowed to sink or swim to a greater degree than if they weren’t locked into a contract. We’ll never know what the team might have done instead of committing to a heavily backloaded contract with Ramirez, for instance, but it is quite possible that whatever they might have done they could have actually ended up with a much better return on investment and left them money to spend elsewhere, especially if Ramirez has the sort of decline big sluggers in their mid 30’s often go through. This isn’t to say that doing long term deals, like a Greinke extension, isn’t a good idea at all. In fact, that particular move has major upside for the Brewers long term. It’s just that locking in money to positions is a mixed blessing.
It’s hard to expect every team to run their business like the Tampa Bay Rays. They attempt early on to lock in star players to team friendly deals, then build around that star core with an ever changing cast of upside plays and role players. That sort of model only works if you can crank out loads of potential stars from your farm system and get good numbers of them to agree to team-friendly deals. That then allows them the freedom to turn to their excellent scouting and analysis people to find them players like Ben Zobrist and Matt Joyce for little cost, because they do have so many other roster spots to play around with. Still, there is a valuable lesson to be learned for teams in the success that they are having. A team doesn’t need to get itself locked into a large number of open market deals to sustain success, and not being locked into those deals does provide teams with the freedom to take advantage of undervalued talent. This is especially important in the bullpen, where paying open market prices for production is especially likely to wind up hurting rather than helping. As with real life, having money to spend is better than not having it, but it still can’t buy everything.