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So, You Are a Small Market Team With No Good Players and
You Want to Rehabilitate Your Organization
AKA: So, You Are the Pittsburgh Pirates

by Staff, BaseballEvolution.com
January 19, 2008

The staff of Baseball Evolution awoke from a collective nightmare the other day.  During the shared dream, we envisioned ourselves running a Major League Baseball team that had sparse talent, no budget, and jaded, unsupportive fans.

That's right, we each dreamt that we were Neal Huntington, the new general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

After the initial shock, requisite scream, and a change of underwear, we decided to face our fears.  What would a Neal Huntington, or those like him, need to do to field a competitive team?  How does one go into rebuilding mode without tools and construction material?  After much thought, we came up with five rules to follow if you are a general manager of a depraved small market franchise.

1. Emphasize up the middle defense

What is the number one way to improve your team's pitching without acquiring new pitchers? Improve your up-the-middle defense. In 2007, at least four teams saw disappointing things from their perfectly decent pitching staffs because their up-the-middle defense the Yankees, Marlins, Brewers, and Tigers. In the case of the Brewers and Tigers, up-the-middle defense may have cost them a spot in the playoffs. It is becoming ever clearer that good pitching absolutely depends indeed requires - good defensive support. And the most important defense comes from shortstop, second base, and centerfield.

The good news is, in this offense obsessed world of ours, acquiring good middle defenders can be cheap if you sacrifice offense to do it. Which your should.

Just six years ago, Scott and I were in Florida applauding ourselves for seeing the "The Big Three" shortstops in one day. We saw Alex Rodriguez's Rangers take on Nomar Garciaparra's Red Sox in a day game in Port Charlotte, then saw Derek Jeter's Yankees take on the Pirates in a night cap in Tampa. We knew we'd brag to our grandchildren about that day.

These days, the Big Three is now the Big Too Many to Count. Baseball has become somewhat obsessed with offense in the middle infield, and particularly at the shortstop position, as demonstrated by the emergence of Rodriguez, Jeter, Garciaparra, Miguel Tejada, Jimmy Rollins, Jose Reyes, Hanley Ramirez, Carlos Guillen, Michael Young, Felipe Lopez, and Rafael Furcal, not to mention somewhat talented hitters like J.J. Hardy, Stephen Drew, Jhonny Peralta. As a result, these big offense shortstops command a hefty premium despite the fact that are you sitting down many of these guys can't field very well at all. The best fielding shortstops in baseball the last few years have been guys like Khalil Greene, Troy Tulowitzki, Adam Everett, Omar Vizquel (somehow, after all these years), and one the worst regular position hitters in baseball today, Juan Uribe.

So here's the point: High premiums are being paid for the big bopper shortstops, but a superb-fielding shortstop can help the team in many ways other than with his bat, and may fly under the radar while big money is being spent on the homerun hitters who can't range to their left to save their life. So save yourself some money and find a young, defensively talented shortstop and build your infield around him. Or, find yourselves the guys whose cash value is suppressed because they can't hit the ball but in actuality are worth their weight in gold because of their gloves the Uribes, Adam Everetts, and Pedro Felizes.

2. Never, ever pay big for a first baseman

Baseball is full of first basemen. First basemen are the big guys who hit a ton and can't field. Chances are, if you are big and strong you can't play defense very well, and if you can play any defense at all, you won't be a first baseman. Hence, there are a lot of big strong first basemen. And seemingly more than any other position, first basemen can be developed by just about any organization; it takes time and luck to stock your organization with pitching, to develop good hitters, and to develop organizational mantras towards defense, good strikeout-to-walk ratios, etc. But just about every organization in baseball pops out a solid everyday first baseman every five or ten years.

The good thing about developing first basemen within your farm system is that when they join the big club, they are super cheap. Look at all the production teams got out of guys like Ryan Howard, Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Justin Morneau, Jason Giambi, Todd Helton, Derrek Lee, Frank Thomas, Paul Konerko, Jim Thome, Ritchie Sexson, etc., etc., etc., while they were young and still riding their first or even second contracts. These young guys will spend two, three, or even four years knocking the crap out of the ball for no more than a million five per year.

Meanwhile, first base acquisitions often go horribly wrong. Ask Florida how the Carlos Delgado deal worked out. For that matter, ask the Mets as well. The Mariners got screwed by dropping a fortune on Ritchie Sexson. The Phillies signed Jim Thome and then paid him nearly forty million dollars for two seasons after he missed most of 2005 with injury, then had to move him when Howard emerged. The Yankees have not won a playoff series since making Jason Giambi one of the richest athletes on earth. Mike Sweeney made pennies during the greatest part of his career, but has made eleven million dollars per year for the last five years and hasn't done much of anything. Every now and then you get a Fred McGriff, Rafael Palmeiro, or Mark McGwire, but it does not happen that often.

And besides, teams get lucky by signing veteran re-treads just about as often as they get their money's worth for the big name boppers. Last season, some of the most pleasant surprises in baseball came from re-tread first basemen Carlos Pena in Tampa, Dmitri Young in Washington, and Kevin Millar in Baltimore. Additionally, the Giants got 116 games out of Ryan Klesko, the Tigers got 143 games out of Sean Casey, and the Royals got 102 games out of Ross Gload. Re-tread veterans are low risk if they don't work out, no money lost. But if they come through, you just got a big bat for nearly nothing.

Important note when your re-tread comes through and then wants a big extension in return, don't bite.

Basically, develop your first basemen within your farm system. And if you don't have a boss-first base prospect anywhere in your future, acquire some other team's boss first base prospect (see Jeff Bagwell, Paul Konerko). Or sign a crafty veteran re-tread to fill the gap until you can draft a great first base prospect. But never, ever pay big money for a first baseman.

3. Never pay a major league veteran big money in response to one season of outstanding play

It is difficult to believe, but teams simply can not help themselves when it comes to rewarding otherwise ordinary baseball players for single seasons of extraordinary success. Really, it is all Sammy Sosa's fault, because in 1998 he went from an exciting but mediocre player to one of the elite players in all of baseball for about seven seasons. Ever since then, teams have thrown away millions of dollars on players who depart from their career norms for one special season because they think they've had their "Sammy Sosa 1998" season. The best example of this is Adrian Beltre, but others include Gary Matthews, Jr., Jaret Wright, Carl Pavano, Javy Lopez, Kevin Young, Adam LaRoche, and Bernard Gilkey.

Paying a veteran big money based on one or two seasons of outstanding play is an even more troubling maneuver when those good seasons occurred further in the past.  The Pirates have probably been guilty of this type of transaction more often than any other franchise over the past decade.  They shelled out $8.5 million  for Sean Casey one year removed from his career-best 2004 season, $4.5 million for Mark Redman a full year after his fab 2003 campaign, and $5 million for Derek Bell when he was two years removed from his great 1998 season.  Perhaps as a small market club, the Pirates didn't believe that they could win a bidding war for free agents coming off of successful campaigns.  Whatever the reasoning, this clearly isn't a favorable strategy.

4. Never pay top dollar for a closer

Big market teams can get away with this, but if cash is limited, don't spend what you have on a closer.  Most any top-tier setup man can handle a closer's job as well as a reliever with triple-digit saves on his resume can, but at a fraction of the price.  Check out Lee Guetterman's brief stint as closer (13-for-13 in saves, 158 ERA+).  Or Juan Berenguer's (17-for-20, 175).  The list of setup men turned successful closer for multiple seasons is extensive, with Mariano Rivera, Brad Lidge, Octavio Dotel, and Francisco Cordero are just some of the first names that come to mind.    

Another factor to consider before paying money to a closer: their success doesn't usually last.  Ironically, some of the players listed in the last paragraph are appropriate examples of fleeting success among closers.  In Major League Baseball history, only 36 pitchers have amassed 200 or more saves, and just 63 have 150 or more.  Generally speaking, if you sign a pitcher with four 30-save seasons under his belt for big bucks, he's not going to provide you with another.  This phenomenon might occur due to hitters getting used to pitchers with limited repertoires after getting enough looks at them, or simply a case of velocity-reliant pitchers having short lifespans.  Whatever the reason, it is very rare to find a closer succeed in that role for more than five years or so. 

5. Sign your young players to long-term deals before they become free agents

The Oakland A's were able to turn Nick Swisher and Dan Haren into nine top-notch prospects this offseason.  The Florida Marlins were able to turn Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis into five top-notch prospects and a likely career-minor league catcher.  If those equations don't appear comparable, it's because Swisher and Haren were signed to affordable deals past their would-be arbitration eligible dates, while Cabrera and Willis were set to make untold millions in arbitration.

In fairness to the Marlins, Cabrera and Willis would have been difficult to sign young, because they were both so successful at such young ages.  Usually, there are opportunities to sign players before they have a breakout season, and that is the time to do so. 

"But oh, we can't afford to sign all of our players long-term," cry idiot small-market general managers.  Well, dummies, that's where scouting and statistical evaluation come into play.  Anyone can look at a veteran coming off a 30-homer season and decide he's worth millions, but looking at a rookie coming off a 15-homer season and determining that he may hit 30 homers in the near future, well, that takes a modicum of brainpower.  Signing him to a multi-million dollar deal takes a modicum of balls.

But doesn't this make infinite more sense than signing a veteran?  Doesn't that 34-year old third baseman (~cough - Mike Lowell- cough~) have nearly as good of a chance to deteriorate as your 24-year old prospect does of not panning out?  And guess which one will demand more money?  Isn't it better to waste $10-15 million on a 5-year deal for a youngster than $35-40 million on a 3-year deal for a veteran when cash is tight?

Moreover, if one of those veterans burns out, you're stuck with his contract.  But if you sign too many prospects long-term for your budget to handle, you can turn around and trade those prospects for great value.  Oakland's stacked farm system will be used to acquire veteran help in two years time.  But the veterans they receive will be packaged with cash.  Yes, signing prospects long term can actually make a team money.

The Pirates should not wait for Ian Snell to lead the NL in strikeouts, they should sign him now.  The Diamondbacks could have spent $30 million dollars signing Stephen Drew, Conor Jackson, and Chris Young instead of rewarding Eric Byrnes with that amount for a fluke year.  Drew in particular would be a great sign, as he is likely coming off the worst season he will ever endure.

Buy low; sell high.  This isn't such a revolutionary idea, people. 

Now we can all sleep a little easier, can't we?  


Have a baseball nightmare you'd like to share, or a suggestion for small market GMs? The staff of Baseball Evolution can be reached at comments@baseballevolution.com.

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