Best way to Build an MLB Team? Draft and Develop or Free Agency?

December 27, 2007

All the talk of Tony Romo, Jessica Simpson and T.O. (the Player), the New England Patriots drive for perfection, last minute Christmas shopping and the final playoff rush in the NFL has temporarily pushed the MLB hot stove league talk to the side burner.

Although the rampant speculation has subsided, and Dan Haren has been traded, there are still two Grade A pitchers available via trade: Minnesota’s Johan Santana and Baltimore’s Erik Bedard.

Luckily for those two guys, they were not named in the Mitchell Report or fans would be clamoring to have their records expunged. If one or both (or even none!) of these guys are traded before the 2008 season, each scenario would have a big impact on the division races.

While Santana and Bedard would arrive on their new team via trade, both could become free agents within a year (Santana) or two (Bedard) unless a long term deal can be reached. Any agreement to a long-term deal with Santana or Bedard essentially makes them “free agent” signings, with the added insult of giving away 3 or more young players.

Oh, the lack of patience of the major league teams with young players!

For Santana, the New York Yankees are dangling youngsters Philip Hughes, Melky Cabrera and a lower-level pitching prospect. The Boston Red Sox are considering sending three youngsters plus Coco Crisp to Minnesota, while the New York Mets might be willing to trade three or four (maybe more!) of their top young prospects.

Imagine, all that talent going out the door just for the privilege of spending $120 million dollars for Santana or slightly less on Bedard.

Why do teams continually want other teams’ players instead of developing their own talent? Why didn’t any teams want Bedard after the 2005 season when he was only 6-8, coming off a 6-10 season a year earlier? Where were the pro scouts for other organizations in their analyis of this kid?

Bedard is desired now because the Orioles allowed him to develop as a pitcher.

Late in 2007 much of the focus in the New York area was on the collapse of the New York Mets. Despite the Mets’ woes and the Philadelphia Phillies surge, the most interesting race might have been in the National League Central division. Why?

This race between the Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago Cubs showed the two methods of building a team going head-to-head.

For the last month of the 2007 season, the Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago Cubs waged a seesaw battle for first place, with both teams having to fight off the pitching deprived, but pesky St. Louis Cardinals for much of August. Both the Brewers and Cubs had minor leads in the division, with the Brewers actually “plummeting” to third place for a short while.

The Cubs eventually won the Division and advanced to the playoffs before the inept pitching decisions of Lou Piniella likely cost them the series against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

But what really interests me is how both those teams were constructed. The Cubs stocked their squad with expensive free agents, with no less than nine players on their roster arriving via the free agent route (plus free agent manager Lou Piniella), while the Brewers forged a winning team through solid drafts–the Smith Barney, old-fashioned way of “earning it.”

The Cubbies only have one position starter (shortstop Ryan Theriot) and two starting pitchers (Rich Hill and Sean Marshall) who were drafted by the franchise. Before the 2007 season the Cubs signed Alfonso Soriano to an 8 year/$136 million dollar contract and pitchers Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis to high-dollar contracts. 

In addition, the Cubs took on the hefty salary of catcher Jason Kendall ($13MM per year) – one of the most unproductive offensive position players in recent memory, all the while 24-year-old Triple-A catcher Geovany Soto was awaiting his opportunity. In two strong moves several years ago however, the Cubs traded for offensive stalwarts Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez.

While starting pitcher Carlos Zambrano was signed as an amateur free agent and has been with the organization since being acquired, most every other starting player was signed away from another team.

The Brew Crew, meanwhile, can boast of having either a first or second round draft pick from 1999 through 2005 starting in the field or on the mound. In fact, their entire 2007 starting infield of Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, J.J. Hardy and Ryan Braun were all first or second round picks, as were starting pitchers Ben Sheets and Yovani Gallardo.

Many scouts feel Gallardo has better “stuff” than even the aforementioned Phil Hughes of the Yankees. In addition, starters Bill Hall (6th round) and Corey Hart (11th round) also made significant contributions in 2007.

If you included former 1995 first round pick Geoff Jenkins to the mix, there were seven former top picks making major contributions to the Brewers run for a division title. (Jenkins has since signed as a free-agent with the Philadelphia Phillies.)

Chicago’s 2007 total salary was approximately $105 million, roughly 50% above Milwaukee’s approximate total of $72MM. Was this salary gap worth the 2007 Central Division title and quick first-round exit in the playoffs? The Cubs have since continued their feeding frenzy in the free agent market by signing Japanese OF Kosuke Fukudome to a four year, $48 million contract.

Is Chicago’s future brighter or are the Brewers, despite not making the playoffs in 2007, better prepared for the future? What is the best way to build a team? The draft and develop route or the free agent market?

If you want to win championships, draft and develop. It has been proven time and time again.  

Since 1970 when Curt Flood challenged Major League Baseball’s reserve clause, and became Major League Baseball’s first official free agent, there have been hundreds of high priced free agent acquisitions…but only a handful of FA signings have helped a franchise improve enough to win a championship.

In 1974, the Yankees were second in the AL East and signed Jim “Catfish” Hunter to the first big free agent contract. Two years later, the Yankees won the American League pennant. The following off-season, the same Yankees signed “the straw that stirs the drink,” bringing in Reggie Jackson to a power-starved lineup.

The Yankees moved on to win the World Series in 1977 primarily due to Reggie’s largesse, but the teams nucleus were bred from the draft (Thurman Munson, Roy White and Ron Guidry) and shrewd trades for young talented players (Chris Chambliss, Graig Nettles, Willie Randolph, Ed Figueroa and Mickey Rivers).

The Yankees were a team on the brink and both Hunter and Jackson, the established veterans, put the franchise over the top. In 1978, the Yankees brought in another high-priced free agent, Rich Gossage, and the Bronx Bombers won a second straight title.

Since the glory days of thirty years ago, however, the Yankees’ free agent signings have largely been busts. From Britt Burns, Steve Kemp, Danny Tartabull and Don Gullett to the most recent signings of Jason Giambi, Carl Pavano and even Johnny Damon, the Yankees have basically thrown money away since they have not won a World Series title since 2000.

During the 2007 season, the Yankees’ surge was sparked by Robinson Cano, Melky Cabrera and young pitchers Joba Chamberlain, Ian Kennedy and Phil Hughes, all products of the now talent-laden farm system. Sorry Yankee haters, but this bodes well for the franchise’s future.

And the Yankees want to trade several of these kids away?

In 1990 the Atlanta Braves also had a strong nucleus of young players built through the draft with David Justice, Jeff Blauser, Ron Gant, Mark Lemke, Tom Glavine and Steve Avery, plus a great trade three years prior for a young John Smoltz. That 1990 season brought a last place finish in the National League Western division with the team taken over mid-season by Bobby Cox.

In the off season they signed free agent Terry Pendleton to provide much needed leadership. All Pendleton did was win the NL MVP award, leading the young Braves to the World Series. This signing paved the way for the Braves to dominate for the next two decades, highlighted by a World Series victory in 1995, where another free agent signing (Greg Maddux) helped anchor that impressive young pitching staff.

Some could also point out that when the Florida Marlins signed Pudge Rodriguez prior to the 2003 season, his defensive prowess helped solidify a very young pitching staff. The Marlins went from fourth in the National League East in 2002 to World Series Champions during Pudge’s first year.

However, these instances are the exception rather than the rule. Most of the hundreds of major free agent signings almost never result in the ultimate goal – winning championships. Sure, a big signing might produce big numbers for the player and make the General Manager look good, but if the team does not reach the playoffs and a title isn’t won, is the signing worth the money spent? Or would the money be better spent drafting and developing young talent?

Since free agency started, all the mini-dynasties have occurred via draft and develop. Practically all the players from the 1971-1974 Oakland A’s were drafted and developed, as were Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine in the mid 1970’s.  In both organizations, those players who weren’t drafted were acquired via trades like pitcher Ken Holtzman for the A’s and Joe Morgan for the Reds.

The mini-dynasty the Yankees had in the late 1990’s was the result of home grown talent in Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera, plus trading for younger players entering their prime, such as Paul O’Neill, Tino Martinez and Jeff Nelson.

Do any of the Major League general managers notice this trend? I say some do, but most do not. Most GMs would rather make a big splash for the media and the fans by signing a free agent rather than developing a prospect. Go ahead Omar Minaya, sign Kyle Lohse to a four year deal for $40 million. You will get your 200 innings, but you will also likely get your sub-.500 record. You can probably get that in 2008 from Philip Humber, Mike Pelfrey, Kevin Mulvey or any combination of the three – for a lot less money! 

Teams want the “quick fix” via free agency, but many recent draft picks have the talent to be promoted to the majors very quickly, providing winning baseball AND lowering salaries. Jacoby Ellsbury, John Lester and Jonathan Papelbon are three recent draftees who helped the Boston Red Sox to the 2007 World Series title. These young players can then be signed for longer term deals a few years later, deals historically at lower than market rates, further saving money for the team.

Current teams poised for long term stability and success are those teams which utilized young talent down the stretch such as the Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox, Colorado Rockies, those young Milwaukee Brewers and even the New York Yankees. These are all teams which have an abundance of farm-raised talent in their starting lineups.

Even though the 2007 Brewers missed out on the playoffs, this franchise, rather than the Chicago Cubs, is headed in the right direction to win long term. Fielder, Weeks, Hardy, Braun, Gallardo, Sheets and Hart should be with the team for quite some time.

Also, the Brewers’ 2007 1st round pick, power-hitting Matt LaPorta, did very well in the minor leagues and projects to be in the majors by 2009, if not sooner. A double whammy is that LaPorta was drafted by the Cubs several years ago but opted to go college instead. So while Soriano, Lilly and Marquis are the quick fixes, the Cubs likely will not win a World Series title any time soon and would be better off developing their own talent. 

Keeping your own players reduces yearly salaries, establishes confidence with fans over home-grown talent and builds tradition within your organization. Teams should save their money on expensive free agents just so they can “give me 200 innings” or “hit us 35 home runs,” as very few teams actually buy their way to World Series titles.  

The Orioles had patience and allowed Erik Bedard to develop, similar to the Atlanta Braves giving a young Tom Glavine time to prosper. Those teams looking to trade 3 or 4 prospects for Bedard might be better off keeping their players and having their own version of Bedard in a couple of years.

As a Yankee fan I am willing to be patient. I want Chamberlain, Kennedy and Hughes to content to be in next year’s rotation. They may not win the World Series, or heaven forbid, make the playoffs for one season, but allowing these three guys to pitch together for a full season would benefit in future years.

The pattern of drafting and developing your own talent is tried and true and provides for long term success for the franchise and the fans. Those General Managers who see this trend (like Doug Melvin of the Brewers) will keep their jobs, while those GMs (Omar Minaya?) who don’t open their eyes will be looking for employment.

New York Yankees: Why Many Pinstripers Were Named in The Mitchell Report

December 13, 2007

On December 13, 2007, Yankee haters rejoiced when the Mitchell Report came out. Within that “hard-hitting” report were upwards of 20 players who had been Yankees at one time or another.

Subsequently, many stories were written how the Yankees four World Series titles from 1996-2000 were tainted. What was not mentioned is that not all those players were users while they played with the Yankees. Most who were reported to have used HGH or other PED’s used them for a brief time, and maybe only for portions of a single season.  

The reason there are so many Yankees in the Mitchell Report is directly related to Kirk Radomski’s arrest in December 2005. While Jose Canseco’s book “Juiced” was a topic in early 2005 and led to the 2005 Congressional hearings; make no mistake, the Mitchell investigation was begun in March of 2006 by MLB in response to Radomski’s arrest. 

Within the Mitchell report (on page 138) it is stated that during the raid on Radomski’s home “agents seized documents relating to Radomski’s distribution of performance enhancing substances, primarily to ML baseball players, including Radomski’s address book and receipts documenting the shipment of packages to major league players.”

Within the address book were various players’ names and the name and phone number of Brian McNamee.

Whereas Radomski mostly sold the drugs directly to players, McNamee was one of the few (maybe only?) non-player Radomski distributed steroids and HGH. And everyone in MLB knew McNamee was Roger Clemens’ personal trainer.

Mitchell now had his big fish in Roger Clemens.

Mitchell needed a big name in order to justify his report. Mitchell knew the current players, through the union, were not going to talk. That is why the report only went as far as it did…and named mostly Yankees, the team which McNamee was directly involved through Clemens.

I do not condone players using these substances, but still do not understand why Mitchell names all the names (was it just to satisfy the blood-thirsty media and fans?), especially when his recommendations were not to punish those in the past but to correct things for the future, like improved drug testing.

Isn’t that what Mark McGwire said three years ago? That he did not want to discuss the past? Why is McGwire’s reputation now so sullied and in disrepair?

He wasn’t named in the Mitchell report, and as far as I know has never tested postive for any banned substance. He was only named in Canseco’s book….but he “did not want to talk about the past.”

Same as what George Mitchell recommended.

I kind of feel sorry for Clemens after he was named in the report, not because he got caught, but because he was in a no win situation. Do you “not talk about the past” like McGwire and get your reputation ripped for not fessing up, or do you fight to the end about your innocence, only to get punished as a liar on top of that as a cheat?

It’s really a no win deal…for McGwire or Clemens.

Mitchell’s report does not go any further in what we already knew at the time, except to name Clemens and Pettitte. More Yankees are on the list because the report was not complete.

While only Radomski and McNamee told their sordid tales, do you think that there wasn’t a Kirk Radomski type guy in Oakland? Do you think all personal trainers like McNamee in Arlington, TX were clean? Do you think there weren’t Radomski’s and McNamee types in San Diego or Detroit?

We don’t know for sure…but I wouldn’t bet against it. Lucky for all the non-Dodger players on the West Coast that Barry Bonds’ trainer, Greg Anderson, could keep his stories to himself.

It is funny reading some of the ad nausem arguments about the PED “juicers” and “cheaters.” Like all the people writing their opinions are perfect in every way. In one way or another we all have our skeletons.

If we all didn’t have skeletons in our closets, there would be a lot more candidates running for President of the United States. As we shall find out soon, Hillary will likely rattle the bones in Barack Obama’s closet!

This country is great in that we love to build up our heroes, but what many people in this country love to do even more is to tear these heroes back down.

However, the favorite thing for American’s to do is to comfort those who have admit they have wronged. If those people testifying to Congressional committee’s would have admitted their use, the American people who have embraced them once again.

But, if they all told the truth, we wouldn’t have anything to argue about…until the Hall of Fame voting comes around in 2011 when the first wave of “juicers” are eligible.