Ditching MLB's Big-Name Free Agents: How Middle-Market Teams Can Beat the Best

Charlie LightContributor IINovember 8, 2010

DENVER - SEPTEMBER 27:  Starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez #38 of the Colorado Rockies is welcomed back to the dugout by Carlos Gonzalez #5 after a successful sacrifice bunt against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Coors Field on September 25, 2010 in Denver, Colorado. Jiimenez failed to earn his 20th win of the season as the Dodgers defeated the Rockies 3-1.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

The expectations of Rockies fans are now higher than ever, and I’m not talking about for the win total next season. Fans are hoping the team will go after high-caliber players this winter, such as Victor Martinez, Colby Rasmus and Conor Jackson.

The truth is big free agents don’t necessarily mean big success.

The Yankees were successful in 2009 mostly because of the players they brought on from the free-agent market. During the winter of 2008-2009, New York signed five contracts worth a total of $441 million. No other team has come within $100 million of that figure in one offseason.


New York finished 2009 with 103 wins—six more than any other team. Like in 2009, the Yankees will almost always beat the Red Sox when they throw more cash at the top free agents than Boston. However, the Rockies are not close to teams like New York and Boston in terms of resources and competition.

Because this model works for the disgustingly rich Yankees, it does not mean that this example will work best for other teams. San Francisco won the NL West with 92 wins after guaranteeing $22,750,000 to free agents last winter. That was the most money spent by any team in the NL West.

However, the Giants did not win the division by spending the most money. They had a good team without any expensive additions; they went after low-risk players who had potential in order to push their team over the top. They signed Huff, who turned out to be their top power hitter in ‘10, for a contract worth $3 million; and Juan Uribe, their shortstop, to a one-year, $3.25 million contract.

These players became stars on the team with very small salaries. The most valuable free agents are not the ones who hit 40 homers or win 20 games.

Especially in the cash-strapped NL West, teams need to find the players who will make $3 million, but have the makeup to hit 25 bombs for their team. This is how the NL West is usually won: by teams finding the sleepers in the market.

The Giants did try to emulate the Yankees in one negotiation, agreeing to a two-year, $12 million contract with Mark DeRosa. DeRosa played in 26 games and hit .194 with one home run.

The Giants aren’t the Yankees, and they shouldn’t try to be.

Mark Teixeira signed for $180 million. This works for the Yankees because he is a sure thing and they are one of the few teams that can afford it. Mark DeRosa is definitely not a sure thing, and paying a moderately high amount for him is too risky for a middle-market team.

The Giants did what most people think is the best way to have a good team: buy the best free agent possible. True, this works for teams that have payrolls over $150 million, but this isn’t the case for other teams.

The best way for teams like Colorado to be successful is by developing minor league players to fill needs and going after low-risk players that could break out.

This offseason, Victor Martinez will be bid up millions over what he’s worth because of his position scarcity. The Rockies could use him, but what’s the sense in paying a guy $12 million when he’s worth nine at another position? One signing of a guy at that price who doesn’t pan out, or just performs below expectations, could set the franchise back years.

The Rockies have been winners in the past, and with almost no help from free agency. Before 2007, the Rockies added LaTroy Hawkins for a one-year contract worth $3.5 million. Again, a small-market team that simply added an average player to help out the stars of the team.

Before 2009, the Rockies signed Josh Fogg to a minor league deal. He pitched 45.2 innings out of the bullpen, with a 3.74 ERA. Contrary to popular belief, talent is not the absolute most important thing in a player.

Aubrey Huff was successful in San Francisco because he had the mindset that allowed him to thrive in games with the playoffs on the line. Before October 2010, Huff played 1,479 games in the regular season in his career without a single playoff game.

Before he came to the Giants, most people knew Huff as a good player who was somewhat inconsistent. This reputation was based on the fact that he played on last-place teams his whole career and games didn’t mean as much. Any player who comes from that type of team to a playoff situation knows that it drastically changes their mindset and their game.

Nobody knew how Huff would react to that, but the Giants took a chance on him knowing that his performance would be worth way more than $3 million if he made the adjustment.

The point is, certain players’ performances increase when they are thrown into a playoff situation, and those are the types of players the Rockies need to sign. They can’t afford Cliff Lee, but Pedro Martinez is a good low-risk pitcher who knows a thing or two about pitching in the playoffs.

The NL West doesn’t need to be won by free agents.

Name the top 10 players in the division, and most likely none of those players signed off the free-agent market for more than $5 million. Just because some teams find it best to spend their money on the top free agents, it doesn’t mean every team needs to do that. The Rockies can’t compete with Philadelphia for players, so they need to find other ways to get their talent.

Victor Martinez will get more than he deserves on the open market, but the development of Wilin Rosario will lead to a stable, cheap player at the position for years to come.

The Rays proved this in 2008, when they beat the Yankees and Red Sox after spending only $13 million on free agents the previous winter. They took their time to develop players just as good as Yankees and signed low-risk players such as Cliff Floyd for $3 million (he hit .268 with 11 home runs) to push the roster over the top.

The Rockies should play to their strengths (the farm system, some money to spend) rather than break the bank on a top free agent.


More analysis on offseason news coming this Friday.