Friday, December 25, 2009

Rebuilding and Chewing Gum at the Same Time

The Jason Marquis and Matt Capps signings have sparked a new wave of "the Nationals should be rebuilding, not signing veterans!" stories like this one.

I'm a long-time advocate for the Nationals focusing more on the long-term rebuilding project, but I think the Marquis and Capps signings are solid moves. More to the point, I don't think these moves do anything to undercut the rebuilding effort.

Here the key things to avoid when rebuilding:
  • Signing over-30 players to long-term deals, so that you have a couple good years for bad teams but are locked into a contract with an over-the-hill player when the team is getting good. (Example: if the Nationals had signed Alfonso Soriano after 2006.)
  • Signing type-A free agents who cost draft picks (Examples: Vinny Castilla, Cristian Guzman in 2005)
  • Trading away young, improving, team-controlled players for older, declining veterans. (Example: Houston trading for Miguel Tejada.)
  • "Toss in" prospects with upside into trades (Example: Armando Galarraga.)
  • Bring in veterans who will take away playing time from talented, younger players who could be better long-term (Example: Ned Colletti blocking Matt Kemp with Juan Pierre.)
  • Sign just enough free agents to stay around .500 but never develop enough premium talent via the draft to take the next step. This is the Orioles cycle from the early-aughts. There's definitely evidence that it helps to have a top draft pick like Justin Upton as part of building a contender. But we've done that twice. I don't think the Nationals can be faulted for not getting enough high picks.
These aren't hard and fast rules, and as in some of my examples, these guidelines don't exclusively apply to rebuilding teams. But bad teams that do these things regularly rarely if ever get better.

Of course, Matt Capps, Pudge Rodriguez, and Jason Marquis all are one one or two-year deals, and none of them cost pick. None of them are blocking a good young player. Eric Karabell was complaining that the Nationals should give Garrett Mock a shot instead of signing Matt Capps. Well guess what? There are over 1400 innings to pitch. There are plenty for Mock and Capps and more. Nyjer Morgan for Lastings Milledge is really the only younger-for-older trade since Rizzo took over, and there are other reasons why that deal made sense.

The other argument is simply that resources are limited, and so any dollar spent on someone like Jason Marquis is coming out of the budget for Bryce Harper. There is some merit to this argument in general. No team except maybe the Yankees operates on a totally unlimited budget.

But the Nationals are still just over $70 million in payroll for 2010. They could easily spend another $30-40 million based on their revenue, and they'd still only be in the middle of the pack in MLB. If the team doesn't want to spend that money, then that's a different problem. But it's not the Marquis and Capps signings that caused them to draft for signability after Stephen Strasburg this year. The could easily afford to do both.

The key is that the team has to invest in youth. That doesn't mean they have to completely starve other priorities. And the team has more than enough resources to do what's needed to keep bringing in premium talent. So as we complain about the Nationals not rebuilding, we should focus on the real problem, which is their failure to bring in and develop premium young talent, not signing veteran stop-gaps who don't come at the expense of rebuilding.


Todd Boss said...

My estimates don't even have us at $70M yet. I think Rizzo's got one more vet starter (Garland at $10M per?) in him. I think we could live with Guzman/Desmond in some combination as opposed to buying 1 year of Orlando Hudson. The Bullpen is fortified. I'm not sure what else we need to do at this point except hope that Dukes remembers how to be a power hitting RF.

Will said...

Well said.

Many in the sabremetric community are big fans on the Rays rebuilding approach of embracing futility until a miraculous combination of luck and 4-5 number one picks all developing to their ceiling at the same time. In the meantime, the Rays were terrible for 10 years, alienated their fan base and operated on a shoe string budget. This shouldn't be a model for other teams!
But because many of these "sabremetricians" only look at the on field team and the budget in a vacuum, they ignore all the other factors that are hard or impossible to calculate, like building a fanbase, protecting young arms to overuse, and mentoring the youngsters.

But an even more worrying trend is that they've begun panning moves that are good deals below market rate. The fangraphs article agrees the Nats didn't overpay, but go on to say it's a bad deal because it won't put the Nats in the playoffs. However, for a team like the Nats, the playoffs are not a realistic scenario (along with 10 or so other teams), so I guess spending any money on any free agents is wrong.

What the Nats are doing is really smart. They're shoreing up a bad team, while the real talent develops in the minors.

James Bjork said...

+1 to Steven's post, and what Will posted in comments.

I agree that the statheads seem to be poo-poohing moves like the Nats have made from a vacuum, with no PR context.

Sure, these moves will not make Nats contenders in 2010. They will, however, make it worth forking over $60 (or more) for me and my wife and kids to see a game. They will also not kill the farm system nor provide an enduring road-block for some prospect in Potomac to show he is the next Pujols.

Get real. Enjoy a team that resembles a major league product, even if it only wins 74 games. I tip my cap to the management for spending money that is really intended to improve the quality of the product-- for our entertainment NOW, even sans a pennant.

Steven said...

I just so happened to link to the Fangraphs post, but I don't actually think this is an argument particularly associated with the saber community. The ESPN Baseball Tonight crowd is as dismissive of what the Nationals have done as anyone.

Ollie said...

Amen. I'm (pleasantly) surprised you took this stance; it seemed to me that you stood on the side of "be awful to get young players until you're good".

The notion that perception can lead to reality, though a cliche, still doesn't seem to be embraced by many (in sports, business or politics). If you make smart, prudent moves that show you actually care about winning (rather than selling some oft-shifting, vaguely defined "Plan"), people will begin treating you like a respectable organization (i.e free agents who you want/need when you really near contending will give you a closer look, rather than laughing you off/using you to get the Yankees' offer a few mil higher). Success snowballs into more success (or, more aptly, makes future success more likely).

I'm becoming a Rizzo fan.

JayB said...

Happy New Year Steven,

I too am pleased you have softened your views and the value 100 loses seasons. You clearly pushed the "if you are going to suck, suck as bad as you can" view over the past few years.

I have always thought that putting a respectable product on the field would do more to improve the Farm system than the chosen path of crushing the farm with 100 loss teams forced to play AA pitchers at the Big League Level.

The real issue now is exactly as you frame it (new Steven that is)....That is, our player development staff has failed to turn top picks into anything. I would love to blame Jimbo as I am sure you do, but Smoker, McGeary, Burgess, Chris M. Colten W. and a host of more recent picks too all have underperformed year after year. They were highly though of draft picks. Recall BA ranking of 2007 draft. If Rizzo is going to succeed he still have a lot of work to do on the Player Development side. Spin Williams keeps his job based on what?

Anonymous said...

I agree with Todd - I estimate them to be around $64m or so (guessing on some arb cases). I think that the most important remaining priority is another veteran SP, although I think $10m for Garland is more than I would go. Pineiro is the only FA that I would go to $10m for, but only for 2 years. Maybe Washburn or Davis at $5m?

I think that positional vets have a similar value to a Marquis type (albeit somewhat less than for pitchers given the injury concerns). I am ok with giving Desmond a shot, but there needs to be a competent veteran back up plan if he struggles and needs more AAA time (someone other than Gonzalez). So Hudson works for me, although Cabrera's versatility may make more sense for the Nats, even if he is a lesser player than Hudson at this stage of his career. They both are supposed to be good clubhouse guys, too. Adam Kennedy would be ok, too. By the way, even giving Desmond a shot, I would give serious thought to leaving Guzzy at SS and having Desmond learn 2B. Here is my logic - it should take some pressure off his throwing problems (I think), his range would help offset Dunn's lack of, and I consider Espinoza a better SS prospect, so if Desmond sticks, he likely shifts anyway. So why not make the move while there aren't any real expectations?

I would also like to see another OFer, in case of injury to Hammer or Dukes (or underperformance). Not a stud type, but someone who could play for an extended period, if needed. I would like to see them get DeJesus from the Royals. Maybe a package around maxwell? They need a CF, and they want to dump some salary.


Steven said...

Sorry folks, my position most definitely hasn't changed one iota. In the past, there have been conversations about whether the Nationals should sign type-A free agents or go after blockbuster FAs who require long-term deals. I've argued against that, saying it's not worth mortgaging the future to get from 60 wins to 75. I have always said that the Nationals should be aggressive about improving the ML team in ways that don't come at the expense of the future. Check out my off-season previews for the last 2 seasons and you'll see I called for lots of moves like this, including signing Jon Garland, Adam Dunn, Mark DeRosa, etc., but leaned against guys like Teixeira or Lackey.

JayB said...

How does that square with your repeated call to start play young players over getting proven vets. Recall you said that we were going to be bad then let's be really bad and go for the #1 pick.....not once but many many times. many times you presented the Rays model of losing to get top picks as the way forward for Nats.

Don't make me look up how many times last winter you ranted against getting a true CF in favor of trying Milledge yet again in CF r with the argument that you did not care if it was 70 wins or 40 wins.

You know it is there for the finding.....but that is old news. I like the new FO direction of putting some quality vets on the field. Like I said we need to address the poor player development staff if we are ever going to really take off.

Natty Fan said...

And JayBee, I can use the tubes of the Interweb to look up you calling for the Nats to sign BOTH Alfonso Soriano and Barry Zito after the 2006 season. Considering those players have shown up on everyone's "worst free agent signings of the decade" list, I think it's fair to ask: Have you changed your stance?