What if it doesn’t end?
Dave’s post raises an interesting possibility, that early bad signings will later depress the market because it means there are fewer dollars in the pool, but it also reduces the number of potential players for that pool. Now, I hate using fantasy auctions as an example, but many people are familiar with what can happen next: say pitchers are hugely overvalued in your league. Top pitchers go for way too much money. Then everyone else starts worrying they won’t get any pitchers, and panic sets in. There are bidding wars for modest pitchers and the overpaid top guys start to look like bargains… but the fundamental distribution of talent remains the same. There will be few great guys, more good ones, many more okay ones. If you remain level-headed, you can still pick up a bunch of good values, but they’ll be at the low end of the spectrum, and you have to spend your money elsewhere.
So it is with this year’s free agent market. Say this trend continues, and teams continue to spend a ton of money on the worthwhile free agents. A team then faces a decision: do we too overspend to get something worthwhile, or is there a better application of this money?
If this scenario plays out as some of our readers fear, this may show the difference in the new front office versus the old one. I can objectively say that I have been too proportionally critical of the team’s failures in small matters over large ones. The team’s failure to pick up a decent platoon partner for Olerud, for instance: in the end, it’s what, a difference of 100 at-bats. Who really cares?
That was certainly Gillick’s attitude, and it showed — his Mariner teams had awful benches, with players badly suited to complement those on the field. By contrast, one of the things I love about Billy Beane is that, while he makes mistakes and has his problems, you know that Oakland pours over the minor league free agents, in the same way they obsess over the Rule 5 draft. They look for guys who might be good injury insurance, potential trade bait if they perform well, interesting injury rebounds, good drinking buddies, shiny objects of any kind.
They work the phones, talking to any front office that will answer, finding out who they’re thinking of moving, and why, and what they need in return.
That’s how you can do well if the market goes insane this year. If Bavasi & Co are smart and every position player starts to sign for way too much money, they can look to spend that money on the poor, the unwashed, the undervalued, but also they can look to find players on teams that are trying to dump contracts. If someone like Tampa Bay really wants to get rid of a veteran player to cut payroll, you can afford to take that on instead of filling that position in the open market.
If you’re good enough at filling the position with the random floatsam and stopgaps, and you retain payroll flexibility, you can also wait it out until later in the year, when teams may be trying to unload those same contracts (and others) and bulking up for the playoffs costs you much less.
I think Dave’s reasoning is sound — that bad spending on some players doesn’t have to result in the inflation of all free agent prices. But even if it created a one-year price spike, a smart team — especially one that’s not looking for a championship this year — can find ways to exploit market conditions and leave the free-spenders hurting next year and years after that.