The Simplest Argument Against A Big-Ticket Signing
The other day, Ken Rosenthal expressed that the Mariners want Jacoby Ellsbury or Shin-Soo Choo. On its own, that hardly says anything — every team would want Jacoby Ellsbury or Shin-Soo Choo, and indeed each player will have maybe as many as a dozen serious suitors. They’re two of the very best players on the market, freely available, where by “freely” I mean “absurdly expensive and”. But we know the Mariners have money to spend, and we know they have a need, for both talent and excitement. We know they were linked to Ellsbury and Tim Lincecum for a while, and Ellsbury hasn’t signed a contract yet, and he has the loosest of area ties. It’s easy to envision a Mariners offseason in which they make a splash by spending big on a free-agent outfielder. Provided the outfielder lets them.
There are arguments in favor of such a move, and there are arguments against. Among the latter, this is the simplest. Let’s just use Ellsbury’s name. Let’s say the Mariners sign Ellsbury, and they get him at a six- or seven-year commitment worth $20+ million a pop. Ellsbury would project to be a valuable player. But he’d also be getting paid like a valuable player, as the Mariners would have paid the market rate, or realistically something a little higher than that. The real core of value is in the difference between what you should be making and what you are making, as a good player. With Ellsbury, there likely wouldn’t be a big difference. He’d make the Mariners X wins better, at the market cost of something like X wins.
It’s easy to just focus on names, and Ellsbury’s is a significant one. Hero in Boston, and all that. Widely hyped. He’d bring the Mariners some more star power. But teams are made up of names with salaries. Yes, if the Mariners were to sign Ellsbury, you could write Ellsbury’s name in for the next several years. But the same money could be put toward other names, multiple names. It isn’t a choice between the Mariners with Ellsbury and the Mariners without him. It’s a choice between the Mariners with Ellsbury and the Mariners with other acquisitions, at least in theory. Other acquisitions that would provide Y wins, at some other market cost.
There’s something to be said for talent consolidation, but the Mariners aren’t at the point at which they can worry about talent distribution. They still need to worry about just talent, and it’s not like they’re in pretty good shape across the board. Obviously, last offseason’s Red Sox went the way of spending on a bunch of different guys, and while that’s not the only model that could work, that’s a model that just worked. Don’t get caught up on Ellsbury’s name. There’s a lot more to the picture.
A pretty important factor: what tends to be the case is that big-time free-agent signings provide the most value toward the beginning of the new deal. Over time, the players get worse while the salaries remain high, and teams accept that because of the earlier years. As currently constructed, the Mariners look like something like a 70-win team. It’s hard to come up with any offseason plan that makes them much better than .500. The point being that the Mariners don’t look to be on the verge of something, new star or no. So a big-time acquisition now might spend the most valuable years on a team that isn’t good enough yet.
In theory, the Mariners would have some advantage from having so many cheap young players contributing on the roster. Performance from low salaries allows a team the flexibility to pay for performance from high salaries. In reality, the Mariners don’t have much in the way of established quality youth. It doesn’t help that the team can’t count on Dustin Ackley or Jesus Montero or Justin Smoak. It’s a nice thought, and it might come true, but it can’t be counted on like it’s automatic.
Of course, bad teams have to get better somehow, and money needs to be spent, since it doesn’t do anyone any good to have extra budget flexibility go back into the owners’ pockets. This is a simple argument, to which the simplest counter-argument is
- who cares
- do something
I know I’m tired of not caring. I know I want to be passionate about the Mariners again, and I know I’d be excited by a new Ellsbury or Choo. Ultimately we just want to feel, and it’s such a rush when the team makes headlines with an acquisition. It makes it so much fun to look forward, it makes it so much fun to daydream, and fans can worry only so much about crap like “being responsible”. But a business can’t stand to give in to emotion like that. You must stay the course of responsibility. If you get frustrated with under-performance and become irresponsible, that can make the problem only worse, kickstarting a miserable death spiral from which there’s little hope of recovery. Recovery, that is, without starting over again.
Here’s maybe the neatest thing, though, at least for fans of bad teams, like us: while we can often identify what is and isn’t responsible front-office behavior, baseballing success isn’t determined just by responsibility. There’s this huge, huge element of luck, or at least unpredictability, that allows a team like the Giants to win two world championships during the Barry Zito Era. The Cardinals can make a World Series with a shortstop like Pete Kozma, and the Mariners can make a World Series with a somewhat irresponsible front office, so it’s not like signing Ellsbury would mean anything other than the Mariners signed Jacoby Ellsbury. All that would guarantee is that Ellsbury would suit up in the uniform. There’s not actually any telling how it would play out, and this gives more substance than you might like to admit to the “who cares / do something” crowd. Who cares? Do something. It might work out super. Maybe it won’t, but maybe the responsible course wouldn’t work out, either.
The Mariners are likely to go hard after Jacoby Ellsbury. They might sign him, and if they do, they’ll be committing nine figures. On paper, it probably won’t be the smartest thing. There would, however, be points in support, and we’d all be pretty fleetingly excited, and when it’s all said and done, welp, lots of stuff is going to happen that we didn’t see coming. The reality of an unknowable future can be used to justify anything, dangerously, but then there is a reason for that. There’s certain comfort in chaos.