Sunday, December 30, 2012

Figuring Out Free Agency

The offseason is a fun time to be a fan. Every team will shuffle their rosters, drop, add, cut, sign or arbitrate players based on their belief on what changes need to be made. Fans and writers pay special attention to the free-agent class every winter. Every year there are a handful of questionable moves that leave everyone wondering "what where they thinking?" In an effort to help you, hopefully, better understand your teams moves here are some observations I have made looking over the past few years.

Losing is Hard to Break


When was your teams last winning season? When did they last compete in the playoffs? If it was more than 4 years ago, expect your team to overspend on free agents, and even that might not be enough. No one enjoys losing and athletes like it even less. Most of the top free agents will forgo a few million dollars to avoid playing on a team that doesn't have a chance of winning the World Series. Last season the Orioles couldn't lure a top free agent no matter how much they were willing to offer, when Mark Texieria was a free agent he opted for the Yankees and slightly less money than the Orioles offered. This season we have seen the Mariners get rebuffed by Josh Hamiltion (Angels), Nick Swisher (Indians), BJ Upton (Braves), and probably some others I have not yet heard about. New field dimensions be damned, these players do not want to waste their prime years merely playing the game, they want to play for October glory.
Those players who are willing to take money ask for, and receive, a king's ransom. Jayson Werth is easiest example, coaxing a then-losing Nationals team to give him more years (7) and money ($126 million) than any other team admitted to be willing to commit to him. This season two pitchers seemed to play the team against itself to get either more money (Jeremy Guthrie, Royals, 3/$25m) or years (Edwin Jackson, Cubs, 4/$52m). Nick Swisher with his 4/$52m deal with the Indians strikes me as another overpay. These players were able to convince a team to bid against itself in order to land their targets even when no other teams were willing to come near the terms agreed to. When it works the team starts to win and players are more willing to come over closer to market rate. The Nationals gamble on Werth paid off, they are now a top choice for players. The Orioles are now on the short list for players after their first winning season in 15 tries. They may have not signed any big names yet, but it is a start that other teams would pay for.

Pitching, Pitching and More Pitching


Pitchers get paid. True Kyle Lohse and Rafael Soriano highlight a list of free agent pitchers still available, but those who have signed are getting paid. Jonathon Broxton (Reds) and Brandon League (Dodgers) both landed 3/$21+million presumably to close. Neither are quite where Soriano goes and both have had issues in the recent past, but closers tend to get paid. Sean Burnett, Angels (2/$8m) and Mike Adams, Phillies (2/$12m) are getting paid handsomely to set up. There are still enough unemployed pitchers for bargain hunters, but for as much as GMs complain about the volatility of relief pitchers they spare no expense when addressing their own weaknesses.
Aside from the starters previously mentioned, Zack Grinke (Dodgers) has the offseasons top prize 6/$147m. It seems every year the top pitcher can name their price whether in years, average annual value, or total dollars and someone ponies up the dough. Other starters are not left searching for scraps either; Jeremy Gutherie and Ryan Dempster (2/$26.5m) from the Red Sox shows that if you have a track record teams will overlook a truly dismal performance for half a season when writing the checks. Francisco Loriano, Pirates (2/$12.75m), Tim Hudson, Braves (1/$9m), Dan Haren, Nationals (1/$13m) show that injuries and ineffectiveness are no barrier to an eight figure payday, and this is without mentioning Jorge de la Rossa, Rockies (1/$11m). If you can pitch long enough to show promise or longevity, someone will step up and extend your career and fatten your wallet in the process, not a bad gig if you can get it.

Never Underestimate an Owner


Finally, when a big free agent is available and the "mystery team" surfaces, look for the deep pockets of sole owners. George Steinbrenner made a habit of spending big on what he wanted, and usually getting it. Since his kids took over the operation the spending has been somewhat curtailed, but the pattern still rings true. Last year Albert Pujols was going back to the Cardinals, everyone knew it, all that was out there was some "mystery team" showing up late. Some players may use that specter as a marketing ploy, but Arte Moreno of the Angels was the wealthy old kook willing to outspend the Cardinals, by a large margin, to land the prized free agent. For these owners it is not about team needs as much as personal wants. These owners know they do not have a long time left and want to win a World Series before they go, so  they will shell out whatever they feel necessary for that pursuit. Moreno was at it again this season, landing Josh Hamilton (5/$125m) with barely a whisper of his interest. Mike Ilitch of Detroit is another such owner. Last season he shocked everyone by signing first baseman Prince Fielder for a kings ransom (9/$214m), despite having perennial MVP candidate Miguel Cabrera at the position. They were four wins from that gamble working out and Cabrera certainly appreciated the protection. Ilitch is back at it this offseason, signing Anibal Sanchez (5/$80m) over the Cubs and I would not be shocked if he does not open the pocket book one more time to get Rafael Soriano sometime in January.

To recap: if your team has a history of losing expect longer or more expensive contracts for just about any player. If your team is targeting pitchers, going cheap will not help land their target players, at least one other team is likely to show interest and flash a bit more cash. And finally, if the team has an aging owner, do not be surprised on anyone they go after, and likely land. There are plenty of other factors that make up the actions of teams in the offseason, these three just stick out to me. Feel free to let me know if you notice something else.

*Contract information was from MLBTR 2013 Free Agent Tracker

Friday, December 14, 2012

Yankee Plan Doesn't Add Up

Try as I might, I just cannot understand the mentality of the New York Yankees. On the one side they are preaching a need, not a desire, an actual need to get under the luxury tax in 2014. This makes sense, the new collective bargaining agreement drastically raises the taxes repeat offenders will pay every year. However, if a team falls under the luxury tax amount the tax rate resets. It is one thing to have one of the top three payrolls in the majors, it another to needlessly pay more for the privilege to make that claim. Paying the luxury tax leads to revenue sharing among the other teams and the Yankees have paid $224.2 million in luxury taxes over the past ten years --or slightly less than the Dodgers payroll appears to be for 2013. Staying under the level will allow the Yankees to keep a higher payroll than most while still fielding a contending team. As I said, this makes sense. It is how the Yankees are going about it that leaves me baffled.

The Yankees have made a priority of signing 1-year contracts this offseason to aging veterans. To date they have signed Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Hiroki Kuroda, Ichiro Suzuki, and Kevin Youkilis. At 33, Youkilis is the youngest player signed by 5 years. They are not a terribly young team, their farm system was generously listed in the top 10 according to Fangraphs. These rankings are in flux right now and will be reviewed and redrafted sometime before opening day. That said, they lack high ceiling pitching in their farm system and given the contracts they are handing out they do not expect any fielding prospects to make an impact in 2013 either. (I am not an expert on minor league systems so if you wish to challenge me on this, please feel free) They still feel they are in a window of opportunity to win the world series and going for it is cash out of their wallet not mine. However, they are overpaying for these additional veterans to the point that they have little to no trade value.

Every year at the trade deadline teams will eat some money and trade a player for a better prospect, the money the Yankees would have to pay to do this makes such moves "head-scratching" at best. As Cots points out in their Yankee spreadsheet, the Yankees have $183 million on the books this season, before including arbitration players or Ichiro's money. In 2014, $75 million for 4 players, and that does not include Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson, Ichiro, or any of their arbitration players. The luxury tax is $189 million for 2014. So they will have around $115 million to play with, enough to run the entire payrolls of most teams. However, lets assume they go after, and get, Cano for an average value of $20 million a season. Toss in Ichiro's deal at $6.5 for 2014 and the arbitration eligible at $10 million players (currently 8 possible arbitration players, average $1.25 million/player). So 14 players for about $111 million. This leaves $77 million and still there will be holes in center, catcher, the rotation, the bullpen, and possibly shortstop. They will not boot Jeter out the door either, if he wants to play in 2014, he will get paid well to play "the Captain" if not for his on field production.

Add it all up, and that cap space diminishes rapidly. These are the Yankees, they do not do small, they do not deal with minor free agents. They will spend for a big arm because they need pitching, want to win, and do not really have much they can trade to get it right now. I say this thinking that Michael Pineda comes back and is a useful pitcher for them. They need to infuse some youth into their organization, useful, affordable parts that grow into the franchise. These players do not need to take over for the current players, they need to provide cost effective play and serviceable trade chips that their farm system is not currently providing. This would lower payroll while providing more cost certainty going forward. I do not understand their mentality of overpaying veterans this year and expecting anyone to think the same thing won't happen next off-season when their core is another year older and their holes still exist. Maybe they know something I don't, but maybe they have been looking at themselves in the mirror for too long.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Player-coaches, a Thing of the Past

The idea of the player-coach is dead. This should not be major news, Pete Rose was the last player coach in any of the big three sports back in 1986. The collective bargaining agreement in the NBA prevents the practice. Though it has been 26 years since the player-coach has been seen, it is an idea that refuses to die in the minds of fans. Amid the fallout of the New Orleans Saints Bounty Scandal was the notion of Drew Brees serving as coach for this season. The Chicago White Sox toyed with the idea of replacing Ozzie Guillen with first baseman Paul Konerko. Jason Giambi hinted at a desire to take the role early in the Colorado Rockies managerial search. He later announced that he would retire, if chosen as manager, but once again the idea sparked the imagination and left many wondering who the next player-coach could be. Aside from some fun speculation over beers with your friends, don't waste your time. The era of the player-coach is dead and it is not coming back.

Modern sports have devolved (or evolved depending on your view) from great all around players who could play any position to specialists. Pitchers are not just pitchers anymore, nor are they simply starters and relievers. Starters are "aces" "workhorses" and "back of the rotation arms". Relievers are "closers" "set-up men" "long relief" "middle relief" all the way down to "LOOGYs" (left-handed one out guys). Fielders are increasingly being labeled "platoon" players, benched against a right or left-hander based on advanced metrics designed to help give their team a competitive edge. Rare is the football player who plays offense and defense into college. Receivers are now "speed guys" "route runners" or "slot men." Most teams have a center, a backup center and a long-snapper. Is snapping the ball 10 yards so difficult that it requires a specialist? I would hope not, but the position exists. You can do this with just about every position on the field. The closest to a diverse talent you see anymore is a receiver/return man, but even then it is usually a mediocre receiver because if they are good receivers their return days are over.

In addition to the players, the duties of coaches have increased tremendously over the years. In baseball a staff will include the manager, a bench coach, a third base coach, a first base coach, a pitching coach, a bullpen coach and a hitting coach. Most recently a trend of hiring two hitting coaches has emerged and it wouldn't shock me to see a film coach added in the future. Managers no longer set a lineup and say "play ball," instead they have to study the lineups and tendencies not only of their roster, but the opposing pitchers as well. They have to manage egos and injuries and off field issues more than the game itself. Connie Mack has likely rolled over several times in his grave at how much players are catered to in the modern game.

Football is no better. There are head coaches, assistant coaches, offensive and defensive coordinators, not to mention line coaches, secondary coaches, quarterback coaches and on and on. The pace and scheme of the modern game demand the attention of such specialists and even then it might not be enough. Without Sean Payton, the Saints have been just 5-8 this season and have gone from potential Superbowl challengers to struggling to make the playoffs. Drew Brees is back, but the offense has struggled between stagnant and terrible all season. I doubt their record would improve if Drew Brees had more on his plate.

The largest factor in keeping the player-coach out of the game is the General Manager. General Managers are almost constantly on the hot seat. The wrong hire, the wrong personnel and they might not be around to fix the mistake. Increasingly these GMs are relying on advanced statistics and data to make their choices in their hires. They will compile reams of data on a player or a coach to fill one role. They are less informed about a players ability to handle coaching duties and increasingly less likely to take the risk.

While it may be fun to speculate Brees or Payton Manning or Ray Lewis or Alex Rodriguez coaching and playing their final season(s), keep in mind it will likely not come to pass. It is a notion that now belongs in sports history, but I doubt fans will ever stop speculating about it, and there is nothing wrong with that.