Sunday, July 6, 2008

WaPo Tells Us How to Build a Winner

Dave Sheinin and Marc Carig have a piece in the Sunday Washington Post that uses the Seattle Mariners and Tampa Bay Rays as case studies on what to do (and what not to do) if you intend to build a winner in Major League Baseball.

He makes some good points that jive with what I've been preaching. Here's the gist:
You hoard high draft picks. You stockpile young pitching. You lock up your young stars with long-term contracts. You use the free agent market not to build your core, but to supplement it, filling your few remaining holes with low-risk signings. And when you're ready to win, you focus intently on defense and attitude.

And then maybe you -- yes, you -- can go from a 96-loss, last-place perennial embarrassment (a team that had never won more than 70 games in its existence), to the team with the best record in baseball on the Fourth of July.

The contrast is clear. Bowden, especially in his first two years, didn't hoard high picks. He gave away picks to sign players like Vinny Castilla and Cristian Guzman and has brought in just enough short-term rentals and declining vets to keep our win total in the low-70s--not good enough to pay attention in July but not bad enough to get a top 2-3 draft pick where the greatest value is found. Instead of stockpiling young pitching, he did nothing but ship out young pitching for two years and only started making any real effort to stockpile with the Livan trade. One could certainly argue that he hasn't gone far enough in this direction. And Zimmerman, the one true young star we have, isn't signed long-term, in part because Bowden felt it was more important to make a splash in April 2006 than to manage his arbitration clock.

There are certainly a couple things I would quibble with in the article, namely:

  • They misunderstand and exaggerate the importance of defense. Don't get me wrong. The Rays' IF defense last season was abominable; Baseball Prospectus estimates that it cost them a whopping 72 runs compared to what an average defense would do. Getting merely average or even above-average defense from 3B Evan Longoria and SS Jason Bartlett are huge upgrades. However, the Rays' focus on defense has a lot more to do with trying to help their still very young starting pitching than any final-stage focus on contending. If anything, soon they'll be better off upgrading Bartlett's bat, for instance, even if it means giving back a bit defensively because get more in runs created from a good offensive player than you get in runs prevented from a good defensive player, all other things being equal. For Sheinin to give primary credit to the defense for for a three-run improvement in bullpen ERA is a little silly. At most, the defensive improvement might be responsible for half a run or so in ERA.
  • Picking the Mariners and the Rays as the points for comparison isn't really fair. It's not just that the teams adopted divergent strategies, it's that the Rays implemented the strategy extremely well, especially in terms of their drafting, while the Bill Bavasi didn't do anything extremely well. It's one thing to be overly reliant on free agency--it's something else to spend stupid money on the likes of Richie Sexson, Kenji Johjima, Jarrod Washburn and Jose Vidro. Likewise, it's one thing to say, "hey, let's focus on youth," but it's something else altogether to get the Mets to trade away Scott Kazmir or to hit on early-round picks year after year like Carl Crawford, Delmon Young, Evan Longoria, David Price, and B.J. Upton, nevermind getting James Shields in the 16th round, Andy Sonnanstine in the 13th, or Jonny Gomes in the 18th.
  • Focus on attitude? Whatever. I'm not saying that veteran leadership is meaningless, but it tends to be a lazy way to create a narrative instead of actually explaining what's happening. If I had space for only three bullet points in an article like this, I think maybe something like starting pitching would have been more worthy.
But regardless, I think all the people screaming, "Enough with the Plan!! Just spend more money!!" ought to take to heart the lesson of how easy it is to become the Mariners of '08 or the Orioles of '06 if you're just spending to spend.

And if you want to understand why we aren't further along the rebuilding road than we are, 1. consider that our transactions, especially his first two years, look a lot more like the Mariners' than the Rays', and 2. ask yourself, is there anything in Bowden's record over 16 years as a GM to suggest that he'll ever be able to even come close to what the Rays have done drafting and developing young players, especially pitching?

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