2014 MLB Free Agency: 5 Keys to Spending Money Wisely
The worst-to-first turnaround that has brought the Boston Red Sox to the 2013 World Series is largely attributable to their wise free-agent spending. Following the same keys they did this coming offseason could elevate most teams to the same heights in 2014.
General managers all have the same aspirations—acquire as much talent as possible for the lowest price.
The few that succeed from that perspective properly blend advanced statistics with personal evaluations; they factor in positional scarcity and only take calculated risks.
Specific spending strategies can vary a bit from front office to front office, but these are the constant guidelines that ought to be followed universally.
Prioritize Consistency over Upside
The most embarrassing situation for a general manager is when he spends exorbitantly on a free agent, only to receive replacement-level production. It happens to everyone who holds that position for awhile, and to be fair, not all busts can be anticipated.
However, the likelihood of such screw-ups can be minimized by focusing on the quantity of recent performance over the quality of it.
Go ahead and giggle at Bronson Arroyo's strikeout rate, but that guy is a lock to contribute 200-plus innings per year with a better-than-average walk rate. In contrast, there's Scott Kazmir, who went half a decade between respectable seasons.
There are always exceptions, but it's usually better for a team to commit to consistent ordinariness over high-risk/high-reward types.
Two Years or Fewer on Setup Man/Closer Deals
The New York Yankees actually got their money's worth when they re-signed Mariano Rivera to a three-year, $45 million contract after the 2007 season.
The Sandman posted a sub-2.00 earned run average and sub-1.00 WHIP in each of those campaigns while making 60-plus appearances. He also continued dominating in the playoffs during that period and helped deliver another championship to the Bronx.
News flash—there's only one Mariano Rivera.
Yet for whatever cockamamie reason, relievers continue to receive lengthy commitments. Dave Cameron of FanGraphs shows us how few of them work out well.
Francisco Rodriguez (three years, $37 million) was inconsistent for the 2009-2011 New York Mets. The same applied for Francisco Cordero (four years, $45 million) and his 2008-2011 tenure with the Cincinnati Reds. Jeremy Affeldt, Jonathan Broxton and Brandon League inked slightly less outrageous deals, but due to injury and wildness, those have already blown up in their teams' faces. Even Jonathan Papelbon, whose excellence seemingly validated a record-setting $50 million pact from the Philadelphia Phillies, is declining with more than half the money still owed to him.
History tells us that general managers ought to walk away from the negotiating table whenever a late-inning reliever seeks an eight-figure annual salary—or anything close to it—and three-plus years guaranteed.
Instead, produce setup men and closers from within. For a fraction of the cost, top pitching prospects can provide comparable quality.
In the Absence of Stars, Create Platoons
MLB teams have always been desperate to cultivate star players internally. When that fails, they look to free agency to provide marketable individuals.
The issue with this mindset is that it leads people to overcommit to the best available players at a particular position without taking a closer look at the whole group. That's how B.J. Upton winds up with $75.25 million.
It's not quite as sexy, but creating platoons—choosing your starter based on the handedness of the opposing pitcher—can save owners yacht-loads of cash.
The Oakland Athletics, for instance, have used platoons at first base and in the outfield during the past two summers to create favorable matchups. Despite a low payroll, they won the AL West title both times. Joe Lemire of Sports Illustrated did some extra digging into why it works so well.
Elite everyday players aren't going to be ubiquitous this offseason. Signing multiple middle-tier individuals will usually address needs most efficiently.
Good Defense Comes in Young Packages
Once a player develops a solid defensive reputation, it generally sticks with him for the entirety of his career. He'll perennially contend for Gold Gloves and receive bloated contracts. That's because the naked eye focuses on strength, fluidity and coordination.
Signing a declining veteran who used to be legitimately effective in the field isn't always a complete waste.
At least his longtime nemeses may overestimate his remaining ability and hesitate to make aggressive baserunning decisions. For the same reason, teammates might be more receptive to his advice.
However, without consulting advanced stats like Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating, you're leaving range out of the equation and tragically misjudging actual value.
A team is much better off with someone more athletic, even if he is relatively unheralded.
Factor in Character and Self-Awareness
Growing old isn't fun, particularly for professional athletes.
In baseball, age forces up-the-middle players to reluctantly move to corner spots, and it relegates longtime starting pitchers to the bullpen.
Those inevitable processes put teams in awkward positions.
They can live in denial, as the New York Yankees have with Derek Jeter, and let the on-field product suffer to preserve clubhouse equilibrium. The alternative would be demanding that former All-Stars accept less glamorous roles and filling everyday roles with those who are younger and better qualified.
From a front-office perspective, the latter is obviously preferable, but it's unfortunately not appropriate in every case. There are available veterans who simply can't acknowledge their limitations.
Ely is a national MLB Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and a sportscaster for 90.5 WVUM in Miami. He’s hoping to deepen relationships with his fantastic online audience (that means you) via Twitter.
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