When A Good Deal Stops Being One
For years, we’ve been banging the drum of marginal value as tenet of roster construction, using metrics like Wins Above Replacement to show the impact a player will actually have on the team and the associated cost that the team should be willing to pay for that performance. This is a building block of good roster management. If you don’t understand marginal value or have an incorrect idea about the baseline, you end up doing things like giving Carlos Silva $48 million dollars. During Bavasi’s tenure as GM, the organization continually paid premium prices for things they could have gotten for free. Not only were the talent evaluation methods off, but so too were the valuation techniques that are critical to building an optimal roster within a given budget constraint.
Watching the M’s operate under Zduriencik last winter, it was clear that the new management team understood the relationship between marginal value and cost. They didn’t just target players with undervalued skillsets, but also made a point of going after players who had less than three years of service time in the major leagues, which allowed the team to retain their services for multiple years at highly discounted salaries. The M’s value shopped better than any team in baseball last year, stockpiling players who were both of decent quality and basically free in terms of salary.
Given the success they had picking off young, interesting, low cost players last year, there’s a real expectation that the team will go back to the well this year and make similar types of moves to fill out the roster. That’s why you see fans bringing up names like Mike Fontenot, Kelly Johnson, Blake DeWitt, and Willy Aybar as potential acquisitions for the Mariners this off-season. They fit the profile of the type of player the M’s went after last year, and offer some upside beyond their present value.
The M’s may very well acquire one of those players, but I think we need to expect the M’s to have a different kind of off-season this year. In reality, the team was so good at dumpster diving over the last 12 months that they’ve put themselves in a position where the kinds of value buys they made last year aren’t worth doing this year.
Let’s use third base as an example. With Adrian Beltre expected to leave, the M’s could go look for a young third baseman who hasn’t established himself yet and hope to land another Franklin Gutierrez. However, due to some bargain shopping during the season, they already have Jack Hannahan and Bill Hall on the roster, with Matt Tuiasosopo in the picture as well. Hannahan and Hall can both pick it defensively at third and a platoon would produce enough offense to make the trio worth something like +1 to +1.5 wins at the position. Combined, the M’s will pay about $2.5 million for those three players next year (dependent on Hannahan’s arbitration award, which shouldn’t be particularly high). So, given the current players already on the roster, the M’s can get wins at about $1.75 million apiece at third base, and they can get one of their young players some at-bats in the process.
With that as the default option, there’s little to no incentive for the M’s to surrender talent or money for a third baseman who doesn’t project to be significantly above average, or at least have a real chance to be. While a guy like Blake DeWitt might fit the profile of a young, low cost player who hasn’t had a chance to prove himself in the majors yet, he doesn’t offer much that the team doesn’t already have, so the M’s won’t have much in the way of incentives to acquire a player of that sort.
This holds up pretty much across the board at any position you think the team may want to upgrade at. Why bring in a decent left fielder when you’ve got 90 percent of average for next to nothing in Ryan Langerhans and Michael Saunders? Why bring in an aging 1B/DH for a few million dollars when Mike Carp could put up similar numbers for the league minimum? Why pay the going rate for a starting pitcher only to take away an opportunity from Doug Fister or Jason Vargas?
In isolation, there is a case for inertia at practically every position on the roster. The team’s best dollar per win investment is already here in most cases. A strict adherence to marginal win/marginal cost analysis would suggest that the M’s do little to nothing this winter, as the costs of bringing new talent into the organization are almost certainly going to outweigh the marginal benefit of upgrading from the decent players already in place.
However, the end result of that kind of off-season would be a $70 million payroll and a 75 win team. That’s not what anyone wants. In reality, the question the team must ask isn’t “how do I maximize the return on this dollar?”, but rather “how do I get as many wins as I can for $95 million?”. The latter question will return a different answer than the former for several positions, and will require the team to make different kinds of moves than they made a year ago.
This was one of the points I was attempting to drive home in my off-season plan post. You may have noticed that there wasn’t much in the way of dumpster diving there. I didn’t fill out the roster with Fontenots and Aybars, both of whom really do deserve a shot somewhere and are good buy low opportunities for teams in the market for a young infielder, because the team has some cash to spend and limited positions to upgrade. Value shopping for a designated hitter or a starting pitcher is just going to lead to acquiring more players like Mike Carp and Jason Vargas. That’s not a problem in and of itself, but we already have those guys, and while you can acquire depth, you still only get 25 roster spots.
Last year, everything Jack did was an upside play – if the guy they acquired didn’t perform well, it was okay, because the cost was so low that it didn’t matter. To put together a roster that has a chance to win in 2010, however, the M’s have to make some moves with real downside, because that risk is coupled with greater reward.
Whether that’s giving significant dollars to an injury prone player or two (i.e. Rich Harden, Ben Sheets, or Nick Johnson) or trading a young player who hasn’t lived up to his potential yet (Morrow, Lopez, Lowe), the M’s best path to acquiring the kind of impact talent they need is by assuming some real risk. It’s not the strategy they pursued last winter, but value shopping only takes you so far. At some point, you reach a point where there simply isn’t enough upside in dumpster diving, and a collection of good individual deals adds up to less than the sum of its parts.
So, yes, expect the Mariners to try to find some undervalued players this winter, but they may not look much like the undervalued players of last winter. Instead, the M’s will be trying to find a used BMW for a Honda price, when last year they were buying up Hyundais for the price of a razor scooter.