Best way to Build a Baseball Team? Draft and Develop or Free Agency?

All the talk of Tony Romo, Jessica Simpson and T.O. (the Player), the New England Patriots drive for perfection, last minute Christmas shopping and the final playoff rush in the NFL has temporarily pushed the MLB hot stove league talk to the side burner.

Although the rampant speculation has subsided, and Dan Haren has been traded, there are still two Grade A pitchers available via trade: Minnesota's Johan Santana and Baltimore's Erik Bedard. Luckily for those two guys, they were not named in the Mitchell Report or fans would be clamoring to have their records expunged. If one or both (or even none!) of these guys are traded before the 2008 season, each scenario would have a big impact on the division races.

While Santana and Bedard would arrive on their new team via trade, both could become free agents within a year (Santana) or two (Bedard) unless a long term deal can be reached. Any agreement to a long-term deal with Santana or Bedard essentially makes them "free agent" signings, with the added insult of giving away 3 or more young players. Oh, the lack of patience of the major league teams!

For Santana, the New York Yankees are dangling youngsters Philip Hughes, Melky Cabrera and a lower-level pitching prospect. The Boston Red Sox are considering three youngsters plus Coco Crisp, while the New York Mets might be willing to trade three or four (maybe more!) of their top young prospects. Imagine, all that talent going out the door just for the privilege of spending $120 million dollars for Santana or slightly less on Bedard.

Why do teams continually want other teams' players instead of developing their own talent? Why didn't any teams want Bedard after the 2005 season when he was only 6-8, coming off a 6-10 season a year earlier? He is wanted now because the Orioles allowed him to develop as a pitcher.

Late in 2007 much of the focus in the New York area was on the collapse of the New York Mets. Despite the Mets' woes and the Philadelphia Phillies surge, the most interesting race might have been in the National League Central division. Why? This race between the Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago Cubs showed the two methods of building a team going head-to-head.

For the last month of the 2007 season, the Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago Cubs waged a seesaw battle for first place, with both teams having to fight off the pitching deprived, but pesky St. Louis Cardinals for much of August. Both the Brewers and Cubs had minor leads in the division, with the Brewers actually "plummeting" to third place for a short while. The Cubs eventually won the Division and advanced to the playoffs before the inept pitching decisions of Lou Piniella possibly cost them the series against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

But what really interests me is how both those teams were constructed. The Cubs stocked their squad with expensive free agents, with no less than nine players on their roster arriving via the free agent route (plus free agent manager Lou Piniella), while the Brewers forged a winning team through solid drafts, the Smith Barney, old-fashioned way of "earning it."

The Cubbies only have one position starter (shortstop Ryan Theriot) and two starting pitchers (Rich Hill and Sean Marshall) who were drafted by the franchise. Before the 2007 season the Cubs signed Alfonso Soriano to an 8 year/$136 million dollar contract and pitchers Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis to high-dollar contracts.  In addition, the Cubs took on the hefty salary of catcher Jason Kendall ($13MM per year) - one of the most unproductive offensive position players in recent memory, all the while 24 year old Triple A catcher Geovany Soto was awaiting his opportunity. In two strong moves several years ago however, the Cubs traded for offensive stalwarts Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez. While starting pitcher Carlos Zambrano was signed as an amateur free agent and has been with the organization since being acquired, most every other starting player was signed away from another team.

The Brew Crew, meanwhile, can boast of having either a first or second round draft pick from 1999 through 2005 starting in the field or on the mound. In fact, their entire 2007 starting infield of Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, J.J. Hardy and Ryan Braun were all first or second round picks, as were starting pitchers Ben Sheets and Yovani Gallardo. Many scouts feel Gallardo has better "stuff" than even the aforementioned Phil Hughes of the Yankees. In addition, starters Bill Hall (6th round) and Corey Hart (11th round) also made significant contributions in 2007. If you included former 1995 first round pick Geoff Jenkins to the mix, there were seven former top picks making major contributions to the Brewers run for a division title. (Jenkins has since signed as a free-agent with the Philadelphia Phillies.)

Chicago's 2007 total salary was approximately $105 million, roughly 50% above Milwaukee's approximate total of $72MM. Was this salary gap worth the 2007 Central Division title and quick first-round exit in the playoffs? The Cubs have since continued their feeding frenzy in the free agent market by signing Japanese OF Kosuke Fukudome to a four year, $48 million contract. Is Chicago's future brighter or are the Brewers, despite not making the playoffs in 2007, better prepared for the future? What is the best way to build a team? The draft and develop route or the free agent market?

If you want to win championships, draft and develop. It has been proven time and time again.  

Since 1970 when Curt Flood challenged Major League Baseball's reserve clause, and became Major League Baseball's first official free agent, there have been hundreds of high priced free agent acquisitions...but only a handful of FA signings have helped a franchise improve enough to win a championship.

In 1974, the Yankees were second in the AL East and signed Jim "Catfish" Hunter to the first big free agent contract. Two years later, the Yankees won the American League pennant. The following off-season, the same Yankees signed "the straw that stirs the drink," bringing in Reggie Jackson to a power-starved lineup. The Yankees moved on to win the World Series in 1977 primarily due to Reggie's largesse, but the teams nucleus were bred from the draft (Thurman Munson, Roy White and Ron Guidry) and shrewd trades for young talented players (Chris Chambliss, Graig Nettles, Willie Randolph, Ed Figueroa and Mickey Rivers).

The Yankees were a team on the brink and both Hunter and Jackson, the established veterans, put the franchise over the top. In 1978, the Yankees brought in another high-priced free agent, Rich Gossage, and the Bronx Bombers won a second straight title.

Since the glory days of thirty years ago, the Yankees' free agent signings have largely been busts. From Britt Burns, Steve Kemp, Danny Tartabull and Don Gullett to the most recent signings of Jason Giambi, Carl Pavano and even Johnny Damon, the Yankees have basically thrown money away since they have not won a World Series title since 2000.

During the 2007 season, the Yankees' recent surge was sparked by Robinson Cano, Melky Cabrera and young pitchers Joba Chamberlain, Ian Kennedy and Phil Hughes, all products of the now talent-laden farm system. Sorry Yankee haters, but this bodes well for the franchise's future. And the Yankees want to trade several of these kids away?

In 1990 the Atlanta Braves also had a strong nucleus of young players built through the draft with David Justice, Jeff Blauser, Ron Gant, Mark Lemke, Tom Glavine and Steve Avery, plus a great trade three years prior for a young John Smoltz. That 1990 season brought a last place finish in the National League Western division with the team taken over mid-season by Bobby Cox.

In the off season they signed free agent Terry Pendleton to provide much needed leadership. All Pendleton did was win the NL MVP award, leading the young Braves to the World Series. This signing paved the way for the Braves to dominate for the next two decades, highlighted by a World Series victory in 1995, where another free agent signing (Greg Maddux) helped anchor that impressive young pitching staff.

Some could also point out that when the Florida Marlins signed Pudge Rodriguez prior to the 2003 season, his defensive prowess helped solidify a very young pitching staff. The Marlins went from fourth in the National League East in 2002 to World Series Champions during Pudge's first year.

However, these instances are the exception rather than the rule. Most of the hundreds of major free agent signings almost never result in the ultimate goal - winning championships. Sure, a big signing might produce big numbers for the player and make the General Manager look good, but if the team does not reach the playoffs and a title isn't won, is the signing worth the money spent? Or would the money be better spent drafting and developing young talent?

Since free agency started, all the mini-dynasties have occurred via draft and develop. Practically all the players from the 1971-1974 Oakland A's were drafted and developed, as were Cincinnati's Big Red Machine in the mid 1970's.  In both organizations, those players who weren't drafted were acquired via trades like pitcher Ken Holtzman for the A's and Joe Morgan for the Reds.

The mini-dynasty the Yankees had in the late 1990's was the result of home grown talent in Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera, plus trading for younger players entering their prime, such as Paul O'Neill, Tino Martinez and Jeff Nelson.

Do any of the Major League general managers notice this trend? I say some do, but most do not. Most GMs would rather make a big splash for the media and the fans by signing a free agent rather than developing a prospect. Go ahead Omar Minaya, sign Kyle Lohse to a four year deal for $40 million. You will get your 200 innings, but you will also likely get your sub-.500 record. You can probably get that in 2008 from Philip Humber, Mike Pelfrey, Kevin Mulvey or any combination of the three - for a lot less money! 

Teams want the "quick fix" via free agency, but many recent draft picks have the talent to be promoted to the majors very quickly, providing winning baseball AND lowering salaries. Jacoby Ellsbury, John Lester and Jonathan Papelbon are three recent draftees who helped the Boston Red Sox to the 2007 World Series title. These young players can then be signed for longer term deals a few years later, deals historically at lower than market rates, further saving money for the team.

Current teams poised for long term stability and success are those teams which utilized young talent down the stretch such as the Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox, Colorado Rockies, those young Milwaukee Brewers and even the New York Yankees. These are all teams which have an abundance of farm-raised talent in their starting lineups.

Even though the 2007 Brewers missed out on the playoffs, this franchise, rather than the Chicago Cubs, is headed in the right direction to win long term. Fielder, Weeks, Hardy, Braun, Gallardo, Sheets and Hart should be with the team for quite some time. Also, the Brewers' 2007 1st round pick, power-hitting Matt LaPorta, did very well in the minor leagues and projects to be in the majors by 2009, if not sooner. A double whammy is that LaPorta was drafted by the Cubs several years ago but opted to go college instead. So while Soriano, Lilly and Marquis are the quick fixes, the Cubs likely will not win a World Series title any time soon and would be better off developing their own talent. 

Keeping your own players reduces yearly salaries, establishes confidence with fans over home-grown talent and builds tradition within your organization. Teams should save their money on expensive free agents just so they can "give me 200 innings" or "hit us 35 home runs," as very few teams actually buy their way to World Series titles.  

The Orioles had patience and allowed Erik Bedard to develop, similar to the Atlanta Braves giving a young Tom Glavine time to prosper. Those teams looking to trade 3 or 4 prospects for Bedard might be better off keeping their players and having their own version of Bedard in a couple of years. As a Yankee fan I am willing to be patient. I want Chamberlain, Kennedy and Hughes in next year's rotation. They may not win the World Series, or heaven forbid, make the playoffs for one season, but allowing these three guys to pitch together for a full season would benefit in future years.

The pattern of drafting and developing your own talent is tried and true and provides for long term success for the franchise and the fans. Those General Managers who see this trend (like Doug Melvin of the Brewers) will keep their jobs, while those GMs (Omar Minaya?) who don't open their eyes will be looking for employment.

 

 

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