Are the M’s on the Right Path? …
Yoda: “Hard to see, the dark side is. We must investigate further before drawing a conclusion to the identity of your adversary.” -- From Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999)
It is a time of organizational conflict. Great battles rage across the diamonds of MLB’s galaxy everywhere. In last week's chilling Episode I, our heroes the Mariners, fleeing from the debris field that was the 2008 Season, desperately look for a way to strike back. Out of the ashes a new savior arises, Jack Zduriencik who offers the shattered franchise A New Hope and plans that hold the key to Seattle’s future – Moneyball. But can the M’s and their new secret weapon ultimately defeat the Dark Forces of the Evil Empire? We continue to explore that question this week, as Zduriencik and his small band of Sabermetric rebels continue to struggle to restore order and winning baseball to the Pacific Northwest and the far reaches of the Mariner galaxy …
Let’s All Join ‘Round the Hampster Wheel …
In the movie Patton, there is a scene in which actor George C. Scott is seen yelling at German Tank General Erwin Rommel, “I read your book!”, as he gleefully watches his impending victory from afar. Though the scene itself may not have exactly happened that way, General George Patton had in fact read a book that Rommel had written in 1937 about his WWI experiences entitled Infanterie Greift An (Infantry Attacks). The book detailed Rommel’s philosophies of lightning quick attacks, use of overwhelming force, shock and awe strategy, speed and deception. It DID give Allied Commanders an insight in to the Desert Fox’s mind and was one of the reasons for Rommel’s eventual defeat.
Virtually the exact same thing can be said for Moneyball, as several teams (including the Mariners) now employ those principles or ones very similar to Beane’s …
The Tampa Bay Rays …
The Rays are a team that relies heavily upon statistics, but also have some of the top scouts in the game. In evaluating position players, Rays Executive Vice President Andrew Friedman focuses on elements such as On Base Percentage, Speed, and Versatility. Manager Joe Madden, the entire front office, and even some of the players talk about and utilize statistics such as BABIP, OPS, WAR, FIP, and UZR. In fact, as far as Moneyball is concerned – it could be argued that the Rays may actually do a better job of it than Beane – as they have used Sabermetrics to create a fairly competitive and respectable team. That’s a far cry from the franchise’s beginnings. For the first 10 years of the franchise’s existence, the Rays never fielded a team with a winning record. In 2008 though, they finally broke through and made it to the World Series, only to lose 4 Games to 1 to the Phillies. Over the past couple of years, the Rays have been forced to either trade several players or watch them leave via Free Agency due to budget constraints (Tampa’s is the 6th Lowest Payroll at $65 million). Currently, the Rays find themselves hovering around .500, as All Star 3rd Baseman Evan Longoria has been out with an injury since April. Their record is perhaps a preview of coming events, as several key players (such as Longoria, Price, Zobrist, and Hellickson) will be either Arbitration Eligible or reach Free Agency in the next couple of years. Though the Rays had a nearly unprecedented number of high draft picks in 2011, as I’ve clearly shown above history says that perhaps only 1 or 2 of those will become stars for this team.
2011 Record: 91-71
2012 Record: 51-48 (as of 7/27/12)
2012 Payroll: The Rays Payroll is the 6th Lowest in MLB at $64.1 Million.
The Cleveland Indians …
After dominating the baseball landscape from 1995 to 2001 … Father Time ever so slowly began to put the tag on the Tribe, signaling that a youth movement was in order. Indians GM Mark Shapiro began the process of rebuilding in 2002 in order to replace the team’s aging veterans, trading away veterans such as Roberto Alomar and Bartolo Colon and allowing other fixtures such as Jim Thome to walk after the season. By the start of the 2004 Season, the Indians Payroll stood at a whopping $34.3 Million (4th Lowest in all of MLB). They went 80-82 that season … encouraged fans by winning 93 games in 2005 … and crashed back to Earth in 2006, managing only a disappointing 78 victories. In May of 2007, Keith Woolner, former writer for Baseball Prospectus and the inventor of VORP, was hired by the Indians to be their Manager of Baseball Research & Analytics. Statistics became and remain an important part of the Indians decision making process, as Woolner is one to whom all levels of management go to for advice on player personnel decisions and strategy. After losing in Game 7 of the ALCS to the Red Sox in 2007, and having the 2008 season derailed by injuries to key players, Shapiro once again began the process again of rebuilding. Between June of 2008 and the middle of the following season, Shapiro had traded away such cornerstones as: C.C. Sabathia, Casey Blake, Ryan Garko, Victor Martinez, and Cliff Lee for prospects (most of which have yet to truly pan out).
2011 Record: 80-82
2012 Record: 50-49 (as of 7/26/12)
2012 Payroll: The Indians Payroll is the 7th Lowest in MLB at $66.4 Million.
The Pittsburgh Pirates ...
Since 1992 and the days of the Killer B’s (Bonds and Bonilla), the Pittsburgh Pirates have been one of the biggest laughingstocks in all of baseball. That laughter started to subside some on September 25, 2007 when Neal Huntington was named the Pirates new GM. After assuming the helm, he moved quickly to clear the deck, firing the team’s manager, the entire coaching staff, Senior Director of Player Development, and scouting director in order to issue in a brand new way of player evaluation and doing business. In November of 2007, Huntington told MLB News …
“We are going to utilize several objective measures of player performance to evaluate and develop players. We'll rely on the more traditional objective evaluations: OPS (on base percentage plus slugging percentage) , WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched), Runs Created, ERC (Component ERA), GB/FB (ground ball to fly ball ratio), K/9 (strikeouts per nine innings), K/BB (strikeouts to walks ratio), BB%, etc., but we'll also look to rely on some of the more recent variations: VORP (value over replacement player), Relative Performance, EqAve (equivalent average), EqOBP (equivalent on base percentage), EqSLG (equivalent slugging percentage), BIP% (balls put into play percentage), wOBA (weighted on base average), Range Factor, PMR (probabilistic model of range) and Zone Rating.
That said, we will continue to stress the importance of our subjective evaluations. Succinctly stated, we believe that a combination of quality objective and subjective analysis will allow us to maximize our probability of success and to make the best possible decisions.”
Source: MLB.com Q&A with Neal Huntington
In April of 2008, the Pirates hired Sabermetrician Dan Fox, former writer for the Hardball Times and Baseball Prospectus to be their new Director of Baseball Systems Development as a part of that commitment.
During the 2008 and 2009 Seasons, Huntington began the team’s youth movement by making major deals, dealing Xavier Nady, Damaso Marte, Jason Bay, Nate McLouth, Freddy Sanchez and others for minor league prospects. Since that time, Huntington has continued to focus on its youth movement by shipping off veterans for young talent … AND by aggressively shopping, signing, and trading for bargain basement veterans off the MLB scrap heap. In the process, Huntington has slowly started to amass some impressive young talent (i.e. James McDonald and Joel Hanrahan) and low priced veterans such as A.J. Burnett, Kevin Correia, Garrett Jones, and Eric Bedard – all of whom have become major contributors. Though there are real signs that the wind may finally be shifting in the Pirates favor, fan optimism should be tempered. As is the case with Beane and the A’s, payroll has been a real impediment to the Pirates for the last several years. If payroll isn’t increased, Sabermetric superiority will be their one true hope, as stars like Andrew McCutchen won’t be cheap options forever.
2011 Record: 72-90
2012 Record: 56-42 (as of 7/27/12)
2012 Payroll: The Pirates Payroll is the 5th Lowest in MLB at $63.4 Million
San Diego Padres …
The Padres are yet another organization that has employed the use of sabermetrics for several years now. Though he was more a believer in traditional scouting methods, former GM Kevin Towers (November 1995-October 2009) saw the value in all but defensive statistics. Under Towers, the organization hired Eddie Epstein (author of STATS Inc. Minor League Scouting Notebook and Baseball Dynasties) to be their Director of Baseball Operations in May of 1995. Epstein, who was heavily influenced by Bill James, is one of the true pioneers of modern statistical baseball analysis. He remained in that capacity until leaving in 1999 to form his own company (the Indians, Rays, and Athletics all used Epstein as a consultant at that point).
After falling to the Yankees in the World Series in 1998, the Padres fell on hard times. As was the case with the Athletics, budget issues forced the club to part with several key players. Over the space of the next 3 years, the Padres would see Kevin Brown, Steve Finley, Ken Caminiti leave via free agency, Greg Vaughn and Joey Hamilton get traded, and Tony Gwynn retire. In that time, the Padres went from a team with a player payroll in the middle of the pack … to a club with a total payroll of $38.8 Million (6th lowest payroll in all of baseball). Player payroll received a boost in 2004 coinciding with the opening of PETCO Park and the Padres remained a mid-range payroll team until once again bottoming out in 2009. On April 19, 2005, Sandy Alderson (Billy Beane’s mentor and the one who taught Beane his sabermetric principles) was hired by the Padres to be their CEO. The Padres won the NL West in 2005 and 2006 (and narrowly missed the playoffs in 2007), but 2008 saw the team lose 99 games after scoring a league low 637 runs and watching ace Jake Peavy attempt to single-handedly carry the pitching staff. In February of 2009, Alderson announced he was leaving the Padres, as Jeff Moorad was set to become principle owner of the team. The Padres sluggish offense once again held them back in 2009 and by the trade deadline, Peavy was sent to the White Sox for 3 pitching prospects – of whom only Clayton Richard is the only one who had any real success. Kevin Towers (the game’s longest tenured GM at that point) was fired on October 3, 2009 after Jeff Moorad became principle owner following a lackluster 75 win season. The Padres became an even more sabermetrically inclined team when Moorad hired Jed Hoyer as GM on October 25, 2009. Hoyer, a disciple of Theo Epstein in Boston, showed himself to be fairly adept at dealing with a shoestring budget, signing a few low cost free agents (Jerry Hairston, Jr., Jon Garland, and Yorvit Torrealba) that helped the club win 90 games in 2010. That offseason, financial restraints would force Hoyer in to the painful position of dealing Adrian Gonzalez (the Padre’s most prized player) to his mentor for 3 prospects and a PTBNL (Eric Patterson), the most prominent piece of that trade being Anthony Rizzo (ironically now with Epstein and Hoyer in Chicago). The Padres struggled to a 71-91 finish in 2011 … and both Jed Hoyer and assistant GM Jason McLeod left on October 26, 2011 to join Theo Epstein in working for the Chicago Cubs. On the same day it was announced that Josh Byrnes, former GM of the Diamondbacks and another Epstein protégé, was replacing Hoyer as GM of the Padres. Byrnes uses a blend of both traditional subjective scouting and statistics. Like Zduriencik, Byrnes believes in building his roster primarily through home grown talent and trades for prospects and young players. True to form, this past offseason Byrnes made a couple of bold moves – trading for All Star OF Carlos Quentin and dealing away young fireballer Mat Latos to Cincinnati for a package of prospects including C Yasmani Grandal, 1B Yonder Alonso, SP Edinson Volquez, and P Brad Boxberger. Thus far, the Latos trade has the look of the kind of deal that has the potential to really turn around the franchise. With a payroll that has ranked at or near the bottom for the past 4 years however, real questions exist as to just how long they can actually maintain success. As their history has shown, the Padres will undoubtedly be forced to deal these young stars away once they become too expensive as well.
2011 Record: 71-91
2012 Record: 43-59 (as of 7/28/12)
2012 Payroll: The Padres Payroll is the 2nd Lowest in MLB at $55.2 Million.
Houston Astros …
Since losing the World Series to the White Sox in 2005, the Astros have been in a steady freefall, reaching new depths with a 106 loss season last year (their worst record in franchise history). A new chapter in Astros history opened on November 17, 2011 however, as the team was officially sold to Houston Businessman Jim Crane. After the sale, Crane moved quickly to stem the tide, hiring Jeff Luhnow to be the franchise’s new GM on December 8, 2011. For those who are unfamiliar with him, Jeff Luhnow was the Scouting Director for the Cardinals prior to be hired by the Astros. He has a reputation as a very bright and unconventional thinker, as he is willing to tap virtually any resource (traditional baseball minds, sabermetricians, bloggers, and even those outside the baseball community) in order to improve player personnel evaluation. In 2004, he was part of a group who hired sabermetrics guru Ron Shandler (author of Baseball Forecaster and writer for BaseballHQ.com) to be part of an advisory board for the Cardinals. Shortly after his hiring, Luhnow talked about his plans for making the Astros a more statistically savvy organization and to improve the scouting department. Luhnow and the Astros are focused on building the team from within their own farm system. Subsequently, they are focused on improving their minor league system through the draft and trading away older high priced veterans for prospects and younger players. Given his track record with the Cardinals, it is highly likely he will succeed, as his first 3 drafts with the Cardinals produced 24 Big League players (the most of any organization in baseball). With a mind like Luhnow’s at the head of Houston’s drafts and increased revenues from a 40% ownership stake in the new Comcast Sportsnet Houston (broadcasts start in 2013), the AL West Teams shouldn’t expect the Astros to be a doormat for long.
2011 Record: 56-106
2012 Record: 34-67 (as of 7/27/12)
2012 Payroll: The Astros Payroll is the 3rd Lowest in MLB at $60.65 Million.
Houston Astros GM Luhnow Begins Executing His Plan – MLB.com 1/31/2012
Astros Have a Leader in Jeff Luhnow – ESPN 5/31/2012
Astros New GM Luhnow and the Misguided Notion of Stats vs. Scouts War
St. Louis Post Dispatch – 12/8/2011
Those are 5 of the lowest payroll teams in all of MLB. And that’s great if financially challenged teams like them and Oakland are able to use Moneyball principles to be able to compete and win in an unfair game. The problem is that Moneyball isn’t just something used by members of the Rebel Alliance … it’s been embraced by members of the Empire as well …
The Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs ...
On November 25, 2002, the Boston Red Sox made a then 28 year old, very bright sabermetrically minded Yale graduate by the name of Theo Epstein the youngest GM in the history of Major League Baseball. Not only that, but 9 days prior to that the Red Sox also hired arguably the godfather of baseball analysis -- Bill James (creator of Win/Shares) to be a senior baseball advisor. In 2004 (the year after Lewis wrote Moneyball), the Boston Red Sox under Epstein’s leadership and James’s insights (and using principles very similar to those of Beane’s) went to and won the World Series. Owner John Henry continued that sabermetric trend the following year, hiring 51-year old Harvard graduate Eric Van (who has an IQ of 143) in February of 2005 after reading some of his posts on the popular Red Sox fan website Sons of Sam Horn. Theo Epstein (of course) joined the Cubs on October 22, 2011, taking Jed Hoyer and everything he’s learned about sabermetrics with him.
The Red Sox Payroll is the 2nd Highest in MLB at $173 Million.
The Cubs Payroll is the 15th Highest in MLB at $88 Million.*
*Theo Epstein made a number of cost cutting decisions when he took over as Cubs President, slashing the payroll by nearly $43 Million heading in to the 2012 Season. Given that the Cubs Payroll had consistently been in the Top 10 every year since 2003 and that Chicago is the #3 Media Market in the U.S., it is highly likely that the Cubs are in the process of making value judgments regarding the current players on their roster and that payroll will most likely be back among the upper echelon in the near future.
The Texas Rangers ...
On October 4, 2005, the Texas Rangers one-upped the Red Sox, making 28 year, 41 day-old Cornell University graduate Jon Daniels the youngest GM in the history of the game. Since being hired, Daniels (another extremely intelligent sabermetrician) and Nolan Ryan have gotten the Rangers to the World Series the past 2 years and transformed the Rangers’ minor league system in to arguably the best and deepest system in all of Major League Baseball.
2012 Payroll: The Rangers Payroll is the 6th Highest in MLB at $120.5 Million.
The New York Mets ...
On October 26, 2010, the Mets hired Billy Beane’s mentor, Sandy Alderson, to be their new GM. One week later, Alderson brought J.P. Ricciardi (former Blue Jays GM and associate of both Alderson’s and Beane in Oakland) on board to be his special assistant. Six days later, Alderson brought Paul DePodesta (one time assistant to Billy Beane and former GM of the Dodgers) to be the Mets Vice President of Player Development and Amateur Scouting. All 3 men are highly adept at sabermetrics and the New York Media quickly dubbed the team, “the Moneyball Mets”.
2012 Payroll: The Mets Payroll is the 14th Highest in MLB at $93.3 Million.*
*Though Alderson’s group has yet to produce results on the field, much of the struggles of the team are rooted in owner Fred Wilpon’s financial woes. Because Wilpon is currently entangled in litigation associated with the Ponzi Scheme, the Mets have been unable to sign any high priced free agents the past 2 seasons. However, prior to 2011, the Mets payroll was consistently among the top 5 or 6 in all of MLB.
The New York Yankees ...
Even the Emperor himself has gotten in to the Sabermetric Act. In 2011, it was reported that the Yankees had hired 21 full time statisticians. I guess the fact that they’ve won 25% of all World Series isn’t enough for them, huh? When that happens, you know you’d better gear up to get hit by the Force Lightning real quick.
2012 Payroll: The Yankees Payroll is the Highest in MLB at $197.9 Million.
In 1979, the San Francisco 49ers hired a then 47 year old Bill Walsh to be head coach of the team. Walsh brought with him in to the NFL an innovative offense that he’d developed designed to create match-up problems to opposing defenses. The West Coast Offense was revolutionary and Walsh used it to transform the 49ers from a dismal 2-14 team the year before he came … in to a 3-time Super Bowl Champion under his leadership and one of the NFL’s greatest dynasties of all time. Today, several teams (including the Seahawks) run the West Coast Offense or a version of it … but an increasing number of teams are actually moving away from it. Why is that? It’s because defenses such as Monte Kiffin’s Tampa-2 and Dick LeBeau’s version of the 3-4 Defense have developed that have been able to greatly minimize the effectiveness of the WCO.
Bottom Line – the West Coast Offense is no longer innovative … and some people have argued that Moneyball isn’t either.
On November 14, 2001, the Toronto Blue Jays hired J. P. Ricciardi (then Director of Player Development under Billy Beane) to be their new general manager. Ricciardi ran the team according to the sabermetric principles he learned under Billy Beane … going so far as to hire Keith Law (a bright young sabermetrician who now works for ESPN) in 2002 to be the team’s Consultant to Baseball Operations. BUT in Ricciardi’s 8 years as GM, the team never once made the playoffs. Ricciardi was finally fired on October 3, 2009 and Alex Anthopoulos succeeded him as GM. On June 22nd of this year, Jon Paul Morosi of Fox Sports called Anthopoulos’s hiring of 24 area scouts (more than any in baseball) and his 2012 Draft class the “Anti-Moneyball approach”. So it appears the Jays, who once used Sabermetrics, may be starting to move away from them.
Others like Tony LaRussa and Phillies GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. have been fairly open in their criticism of Sabermetric statistics, saying that they prefer to evaluate players the old fashioned way.
But still others like Shiraz Rehman, Director of Baseball Operations for the Arizona Diamondbacks and John Abbamondi, Assistant GM of the St. Louis Cardinals clearly ARE believers in Sabermetrics and believe that it certainly has a place in baseball.
Give Yourself to the Dark Side …
Regardless of whether or not you accept Sabermetric Statistical Analysis as a valid approach to player evaluation one thing is crystal clear -- there is a far greater premium on minor league prospects than in yesteryear … the stakes are far higher to be right than in years past … teams are pouring more resources in to scouting and player evaluation than ever before … and scouting throughout baseball has vastly improved over the past several years.
And frankly, that’s bad news for Jack Zduriencik and the Mariners.
As I talked about last week, statistics clearly show that from 1989-2009 (a 20 year span) that only 1,129 out of 30,139 total picks (a mere 3.75% of those players) went on to have what most fans would consider a “Productive” (not necessarily a stellar) Major League Career.
And of those 30,139 picks – only 357 of them (a mere 1.18%) went on to become what most fans would recognize as Major League Stars.
But I hear some out there saying, “Pfft! We’ll hang our hats on our 1st Round Picks.” After all, more talent … far more chance of success and actual impact.
With 1st Round Picks, the numbers remain fairly daunting as well. Between the 1989 and 1998 Drafts – a 10 year span – there were 379 Players who were drafted in either the 1st Round or in the Compensatory Round. Of those 379 Players … only 67 of them [a mere 17.68%] went on to become Major League Stars – that is, players that most average fans would look at and say, “Hey, he’s pretty good”.
Let me say it another way, fans always believe that their team’s 1st Round Pick will become a hitter the caliber of Ken Griffey, Jr. … or a pitcher who’s destined to be the next Randy Johnson. The truth of the matter is that in roughly 80% of cases 1st Round Choices fail to live up to the expectations of the teams that draft them … and therefore will ultimately disappoint fans.
In fact, over that 10 year span, only 143 of those 379 First Round Picks [37.73%] even went on to have what most fans would call a decently productive career (meaning, that they played at least 5 years and produced average statistical numbers relative to their position – i.e. Catcher, Shortstop, Pitcher, etc.).
What about the thoroughbreds – the true crème de la crème of the draft, you say? Between 1989 and 2003, 145 of the 150 players who were taken in the Top 10 ended up signing with their teams. Of those 145 players … only 39 of them [26.9%] went on to become Major League Stars … and only 71 of them [48.97%] went on to have decently productive (not necessarily stellar) Major League careers. So, roughly only ¼ of those who are taken in the Top 10 will go on to become stars. The rest – nearly 75% of those players – never live up to their pre-draft hype.
For a team like the M’s who say they want to build primarily through the draft and young prospects (and seemingly don’t want to increase payroll), that appears to be a very dark path indeed.
All of this makes me wonder and brings me back to my original question – “Are the Mariners on the right path?”
Former Cincinnati Reds GM Jim Bowden wonders whether the Mariners are on the right path as well. Bowden was on with Kevin Calabro and Jim Moore on 7/30 and shared his thoughts on the state of the Mariners. When asked whether or not the M’s should trade King Felix, Bowden had this to say …
Bowden believes that in light of the Cole Hamels deal that Felix will probably be the first $30 million player in the history of the game. If that’s the case, he argues it’s best to deal him now while you can get the farm for him.
I’d say that the reason Bowden would trade Felix is probably because (in some sense) he knows just exactly how high the failure rate for prospects truly is. It’s why Bowden is right in saying that it’s going to take a LONG time for the Mariners to catch up to the Angels and Rangers. Jack Zduriencik himself has admitted as much, saying that it takes 7 to 8 years from the time a player is drafted until he (the ones who ultimately make it) truly becomes a Major League caliber ballplayer. Given that Zduriencik’s first draft was in 2009; that would mean that if the Mariners were to continue building chiefly through the draft … his first batch of prospects would not be ready to truly compete until around 2016 at the earliest. That will be 2 years past the point in which Felix Hernandez likely becomes MLB’s first $30 Million Player, as he becomes a free agent after the 2014 season. So, it’s better to trade him now while you can get maximum value for him, right?
While it might seem like a good idea to trade high priced veterans for talented low cost “can’t miss” youngsters, I’d also say that there is a real danger in looking to prospects to save a franchise. Can’t miss prospects … miss all the time. Brien Taylor was a can’t miss prospect with a 99 mph fastball whom Scott Boras called the best pitcher he’d ever seen in his life. Taylor was drafted #1 overall in the 1991 June Amateur Draft by the Yankees … and never made it to the Majors. The same thing can be said for Ryan Anderson, who also sported a 99 mph fastball and whose game some resembled Randy’s Johnson’s that he was dubbed the “Little Unit”. He was a prospect that it was rumored the Mariners refused to part with in a deal with the Phillies for Curt Schilling. Injuries and immaturity ultimately claimed Anderson and he too never saw a Major League mound. And while the Mark Teixeira deal was the force that jumpstarted the Rangers franchise … none of the prospects that the Mariners sent the Phillies in the Cliff Lee Deal have panned out yet. Chris Snelling … Antonio Perez … Jeremy Reed … Roger Salkeld … the list of very talented Mariner prospects who looked like they’d be stars but never made it is long and distinguished indeed.
Baseball America, THE premier publication for minor league prospects, has put out an annual Top 10 Prospect List for every organization since 1980. An analysis of the Mariners Top 10 Lists from 1992 to 2005 reveals that out of the 65 prospects that Baseball America had projected in their Top 10 … only 11 of them [16.92%] went to become MLB Stars. Only 28 out of those 65 prospects [43.07%] went on to have decently productive careers (again, which means, that they played at least 5 years and produced average statistical numbers relative to their position – i.e. Catcher, Shortstop, Pitcher, etc.).
The numbers clearly show that if the Mariners continue their approach of just building through the draft, we can safely say that a good 65% at least of all their 1st Round choices alone will ultimately bust. All of this is why former Mets GM Steve Phillips has said, “Waiting for prospects gets GM’s fired.”
AND … things are going to get even harder for the Mariners if they continue to stay the course. The Brave New World of Baseball’s new collective bargaining agreement will negatively impact teams like the Mariners in several ways.
Under the new CBA:
1) The number of Super 2 players increases by 22%, making these prospects arbitration eligible quicker. So, even MORE top young players will be reaching free agency sooner – allowing them to be gobbled up by larger fish with bigger player payrolls even faster.
2) Teams will be allotted only $2.9 million total on International Free Agents this next year (which is less than what most major International FA’s have been signing for by themselves). In successive years, the amount of the pool will be determined by the win/loss record of the team the previous year. If a team starts to actually win … they’ll have far less to spend. Teams will be taxed if they exceed signing bonus pools for IFA’s. The International Market is a major arena that the Mariners have historically been really able to mine from (ie. Edgar Martinez, Felix Hernandez, Rafael Soriano, etc.). Under the new CBA however, that advantage is virtually gone. The Mariners used to be able to entice these young studs to sign with Seattle because they could pay them more. NOW, money for all teams in essence being equal, Seattle has no true advantage over anyone else. Youngsters are far more likely to sign with teams like the Yankees or Angels simply because they like those organizations. Try convincing a 17-year old why he should choose rainy Seattle over sunny Southern California.
3) The rules on compensation have changed. Under the old CBA, top players in Free Agency were classified either as Type A (the top 20% at their position) or Type B Free Agents (the top 21-40% at their position). Teams could potentially reap a huge bounty by getting compensation picks if they offered arbitration to these top free agent players, who then signed with other clubs. Any team signing a Type A Free Agent would surrender their 1st Round Pick to the team losing that player … AND the team losing that free agent player would ALSO get a Sandwich Pick at the end of the 1st Round. For Type B Free Agent … the team losing that player would only get the Sandwich Pick at the end of the 1st Round. A team that picked in the top half of the draft (meaning that they had a bad record the previous season) that signed a Type A Free Agent would have their 1st Round Pick protected and would instead surrender their 2nd Round Pick. The Tampa Bay Rays were one example of a team exploited that system to the hilt. In 2011, the Rays had a record 12 picks in the first 2 rounds of the draft because they “allowed” 7 players to walk in free agency via this system. Knowing that a deep draft was coming, the Rays simply decided that they would be better served by stacking their minor league system deck … and spending the bulk of their financial resources towards shelling out signing bonuses. So, the Rays were able to accumulate more young talent than anyone … and spend only a fraction of what they otherwise would have in free agency.
No longer. NOW under the new CBA …
A] There are no more Type A or B Free Agents – that system is eliminated. Instead according to MLB.com … “Teams will receive compensation for losing a free agent only if they offer -- and the player rejects -- a guaranteed one-year contract equal to the average salary of the league's 125 highest-paid players. Compensation for losing such players will consist of one Draft pick at the end of the first round. When clubs sign a compensation-eligible player, they will forfeit their own first-round selection, or their second-round selection if they pick in the top 10.” So for example, if the Mariners were to allow Felix Hernandez to reach free agency and he were to sign with the Yankees … the Yankees would forfeit their 1st Round Selection – BUT the Mariners wouldn’t get it. They would receive a compensation pick at the end of the 1st Round only. The likelihood of getting a player of equal value to Hernandez at that point of the draft is low. So, you’ll probably see an increase in trades over the next few years for those small to mid-market clubs with superstar players nearing free agency, rather than simply letting that player walk. Those teams won’t want to be put in a position where they lose that superstar player for virtually nothing. Since the failure rate for prospects is quite high, that’s not the most attractive option either.
B] Every team now has an allotted salary pool attached to the draft. Penalties for exceeding the new hard cap are steep indeed …
• 0-5% (75% tax on overage)
• 5-10% (75% tax on overage and loss of 1st round pick)
• 10-15% (100% tax on overage and loss of 1st and 2nd round picks)
• 15%+ (100% tax on overage and loss of 1st round picks in next two drafts)
Some small market teams used to be able to spend more on draft picks, simply giving some players who were drafted later more money as an incentive to get them to sign. Obviously, those days are over. Analysts in and around baseball believe that over the long term, players simply aren’t going to sign after the first 10 rounds or so. Some believe that ultimately the new system will lead to more high school players spurning the draft and going to college. All of this could have a great impact on small to mid-market teams who have historically chosen to build their clubs primarily through the draft.
4) The new luxury tax rates now become quite steep for those who exceed player payroll thresholds (50% for 4th time offenders). These efforts to level the playing field through luxury taxes is one reason why top franchises like the Yankees are increasingly expending more money, time, and resources on statistical analysis, scouting, and finding prospects. After all, there are no restrictions on the amount of money that teams can spend domestically in beefing up their scouting departments. As more and more large market teams focus more of their attention on the June Amateur Draft, it’s going to get increasingly harder for teams like the Mariners to find those diamonds in the rough.
On the surface, baseball’s new CBA appears like it would create parity. In reality, I’m afraid that the New CBA will probably end up allowing the rich teams to put the Old Jedi Mind Trick on smaller market clubs.
MLB.com – Key Points of New Collective Bargaining Agreement
710 ESPN – The New CBA
U.S.S. Mariner – New CBA Hurts Mariners in a Big Way
In the end I’d contend that employing Sabermetrics is a great tool for teams in order to evaluate players and construct rosters … but it isn’t the full answer to long term, sustained success. Statistical analysis itself is not without its flaws. In the 2009 June Amateur Draft, the Mariners, utilizing sabermetric principles, took Dustin Ackley with the #2 overall pick in the draft. The Angels, employing more traditional scouting methods, took Mike Trout #25 overall. While Ackley (whom every expert out there agreed was the best hitter in the country) has struggled to keep his batting average above the Mendoza Line … Trout might just be the best young hitter in the game. Statistical prediction clearly isn’t the infallible crystal ball, as numbers simply cannot predict everything. No one out there numerically predicted that Michael Saunders would get absolutely sick and tired of stinking, hire hitting coach Mike Bard this past offseason, and suddenly be a Major League average hitter. Moneyball might be able to get the party started … but Moneyball alone won’t be able to keep the tunes going for long. That’s because even the very best GM’s (Billy Beane included) make draft day mistakes, trade for prospects that ultimately flame out, and sign free agents whose contracts they later regret. General Managers tend to break a lot of eggs along the way … those who employ Moneyball tend to break even more. In order to break the endless cycle of trading players away … and hoping for a flash in the pan success before trading away the next round of talented youngsters for prospects who may or may not work out … there is another indispensable tool that all GM’s need -- MONEY. Bottom line if you want to be a winning franchise, it’s a tool that you’ve got to employ – either to sign free agents or to keep your own players that you’ve carefully groomed and cultivated.
Since 1992, there have been only 3 eventual World Series Winners who have NOT have payrolls among the Top 12 in Baseball – the 2002 Angels (15th Highest that year), the 2003 Marlins (25th Highest), and the 2005 White Sox (13th Highest). All other World Series Winners have had player payrolls that ranked among the upper echelon of teams.
Simply put, maintaining a competitive payroll is absolutely essential if a team truly wants to win.
But money is a resource that Jack Zduriencik has had precious little of since becoming General Manager of your Seattle Mariners. In light of how the Mariners have operated over the years it truly begs the question – Just how badly do they want to win? Is creating and sustaining a World Series caliber club truly what’s most important to this ownership group? On November 8, 2007, the Mariners and Fox Sports Northwest (now ROOT Sports) announced that they had reached what Seattle-PI writer Art Thiel called at the time, “one of the great numbers in cable TV sports history”. Mariners President Chuck Armstrong was quoted in that piece as saying, "This is the kind of deal that allows us to be competitive in player payroll". That season, the Mariners payroll reached its all-time high at $117,666,482, with the ill fated Carlos Silva deal being consummated in December of 2007. A mere 11 months later, the Mariners reported a loss of $7,672,000 according to documents obtained from Deadspin.com. On October 24, 2008, Howard Lincoln was interviewed by KJR-950’s Ian Furness, telling him that player payroll for 2009 would come “a little bit, but not that much” and that the ownership group would be giving Jack Zduriencik “a tremendous amount of resources” and “the maximum flexibility to do what he needs to do.” In reality, player payroll for 2009 came in at $98,904,000 – a drop of nearly 19%. The next season, payroll was slashed yet again to $86,910,000 – an additional payroll drop of 8.7% from 2008. At the start of the 2012 Season, the Mariners payroll stood at $81,978,100 – down nearly 30% from where it was just 4 seasons ago. Going in to this next season (as it stands right now), the Mariners have somewhere in the neighborhood of $45 Million committed to player contracts. If that remains unchanged, that would mean that your Seattle Mariners would have far and away the lowest player payroll in all of MLB. We haven’t seen that kind of precipitous crash since October 29, 1929, as being “competitive in player payroll” seems to have gone the way many stockbrokers went on that day.
Following their World Series win in 1997, the Miami Marlins under owner Wayne Huizenga embarked on one of the greatest fire sales in history, trading off seemingly every veteran who had any value for prospects and low cost veterans. From 1998 to 2011, the Miami Marlins were a team that employed a Money-esque approach, consistently trading away veterans for prospects and maintaining one of the lowest payrolls in all of MLB. They went from a team that in 1997 had the 6th highest payroll ($47,753,000) to one of the true bottom feeders in all of sports. With the opening of the brand new Marlins Park in April of this year (and the expected jump in revenues from it), Moneyball promptly went right out the window, as the Marlins surprised everyone in being one of Baseball’s top spenders this past offseason. On opening day of this year, the Marlins payroll stood at $118,078,000 – 7th highest in all of Baseball. For the Marlins then, Moneyball was clearly just an excuse until they could reach their next big payday.
Like the Marlins, the Mariners appear to be rounding MLB’s Monopoly Board and rapidly steaming towards “Go”. According to Mike Ozanian of Forbes Magazine, the Mariners can opt out of their current TV Contract in 2015. Experts believe that the M’s could be in line to get as much as $70 Million/year or more, as negotiations between DirecTV and Comcast could be hot and heavy for the Mariners services. As I talked about in December, since the Mariners Media Market is one of the largest in all of MLB, it is not at all out of the realm of possibility that the Mariners’ next TV Deal could include an ownership stake in a Regional Sports Network (as those are exactly the kinds of deals Comcast has been entering in to with professional teams lately). Once the Mariners have their new TV deal in place, will Moneyball be something that they just as rapidly abandon as well?
But with attendance for games at Safeco down over 47% since 2002 (a figure which is sure to go down ever lower this year) can the M’s honestly afford to wait that long to have a competitive payroll once again? Am I advocating that the Mariners should just start shoveling out greenbacks to the Carlos Silvas, Kenji Johjimas, and Scott Spiezios of the world like they’re going out of style? Uh – hardly. Well thought out reasonable free agent deals for players who can actually contribute and be part of the future (or trades for good young players with reasonable contracts) is one thing ... but spending just for spending sake on veterans is just plain stupidity.
In the end, I’d have to say Moneyball is a nice philosophy … but this next offseason, I’ll be interested to see if the Mariners put their money where their mouth is.
This post has been edited by Mariner Analyst: 22 August 2012 - 01:48 PM