High salaries. Higher expectations. Why free agency won't win you a championship.
It’s August 24th, 2012. Eric Hosmer knocks one over the Monster to cut a slim 2-0 Red Sox lead in half, 2-1. But no one is watching the game. They’re all out on the concourse, staring up with mild confusion and interest at the many TV screens that tell us the Red Sox are planning to trade away nearly $170 million in salary to the Los Angeles Dodgers for a handful of prospects that in another four months won’t even be with the team. The whispers, in the wake of the news, spread like wildfire through the hallowed halls of the Fens, bouncing around in eerie silence before hitting the airwaves outside and eventually the newsstands the next morning. By sunrise the deal will be done; Adrián González, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Nick Punto, a slew of free agents signed in recent years (with the exception of the perturbed and perpetual shit disturber Beckett) in the hopes of winning another title, will be headed south to the greener pastures of the Golden State, and the pundits of the Globe, the Herald and the million blogs of the Fenway faithful will be flying the white flag, grasping at whatever straws remain that can explain the ugly decline of the last calendar year.
It’s a shedding, a fire sale, a salary dump. It’s the culmination of two piss-poor Sox seasons operating under a broken ethos, under a sham economy that equates talent with money and both with championships and wins, and it’s flawed. It’s broken. It’s been proven over the past few years that it’s not enough for an owner to simply buy up all the best talent available and throw it onto a field, sit back and expect a title. There are other factors in play, the intangibles they say that you just can’t teach.
In recent years, far too many teams have succumbed to the outmoded Steinbrennerian idea that wins can be bought at a price. Take for example the L.A. Angels: Last offseason they signed the top position player (Albert Pujols) and pitcher (C. J. Wilson). In t
he duo’s previous full seasons (13 combined) they were good for an average 12.2 wins above replacement, yet the Angels only improved by three games and actually finished further back in the division, settling for third behind the Oakland A’s, a team that operates on a third of the payroll the aforementioned Angels do. And you don’t have to look past baseball to find a handful of other examples of this:
2012 Boston Red Sox
Payroll: $173,186,617 (3rd highest),
Record: 69-93 (5th in AL East),
Free agent costs per year (2010-11): $57M,
Average WAR of free agents prior to signing: 11.1,
Net wins from 2011: -20.
2012 Miami Marlins
Payroll: $118,078,000 (7th highest),
Record: 69-93 (5th in NL East),
Free agent costs per year (2011): $59.1M,
Average WAR of free agents prior to signing: 12.5,
Net wins from 2011: -11.
2012 Los Angeles Dodgers
Payroll: $162,743,575 (4th highest after acquisition),
Free agent costs per year: $67.4M,
Average WAR of free agents prior to acquisition: 16.1,
Net games back from acquisition: -6.
The Dodgers actually stand as the most interesting case here. Prior to their midseason spending spree in which they acquired over $67 million in annual salary on August 25th, they were two games back of the division lead, having held it for most of the season before a San Francisco surge unseated them. After those acquisitions, intended to propel them back to the top, they fell another six games, closing out 2012 eight games back in the West and out of the postseason entirely.
What these numbers give way to is a trend; were it one team, one year, we might be able to forgive it as an anomaly, but when the four biggest free agent spenders collapse in consecutive seasons we have to stand and take notice. What’s more is the time frames in which each decline occurred: for the Sox it took almost two years to realize, the Marlins only one and the Dodgers a mere month for the effects to be felt. So we can rule out disproportionate sample size. Ditto depreciation of assets; most of these free agents were bought in or around their primes. So what’s happening here?
To put it in a different light, in context, if you will: between 2010 and 2012, the Red Sox, Dodgers, Marlins and Angels spent $1.4 billion on future free agents and have zero postseason appearances to show for it.
Conversely, Texas, Atlanta, St. Louis and San Francisco have spent a “paltry” $465 million, a third of the aforementioned four teams, and have 10 postseason berths, three World Series appearances and three World Series titles between them in that same time span.
But that’s about as far as the numbers will take us. The dollars, stat lines and cents only serve to highlight the disparity between these eight teams, not explain it. For that, to account for this billion-dollar talent gap, we’re required to go out on a bit of a familiar limb and talk about intangibles.
What each of these teams lacks is a weird and unquantifiable notion of chemistry (unquantifiable might be the wrong word; “zero postseason appearances” seems to quantify it quite well). While the running theme among the four major spenders seems to be to fill a hole by importing expensive free agents, the theme among the four most successful teams of the last three years is to develop it, allowing the team to grow together organically as opposed to filling in the blanks with external stopgap solutions.
As an example: the core five players of the Giants, a team that owns two of the past three World Series titles, were all brought up in-house: Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Pablo Sandoval, Brian Wilson and Buster Posey. In fact, out of nine starters and their five-man rotation, only four players are imports. The Angels last season? They only had four guys brought up through their farm system playing full time.
Even the oft-cited champions of free agent spending, the New York Yankees, stand as a shining example of this mistaken paradigm. Think back to that late nineties/early oughts team. Who anchored it? Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera. All born-and-bred Bombers. When did their World Series woes start? When they signed A-Rod for $250 million in 2004.
And it’s not just baseball that is afflicted by this rather undocumented and unproductive shift in philosophy: the Lakers this season, after signing center Dwight Howard and point guard Steve Nash, are barely breaking .500; the Philadelphia Eagles, who two years ago were a shoo-in after an expensive free agent frenzy in 2010, have gone 12-20 and fired their coach. Even the Heat, who obviously have a championship now, struggled with admitted chemistry problems after signing the best player in the league, perhaps the best player to ever play the game.
Patience. On the part of owners and fans.
The rash of free agent spending we’ve seen in recent years has created a problematic and self-destructive cycle. Free agents are brought in to fill holes not only in depth charts but in failing fan support. The more expensive the free agents brought in, the greater the expectations for that team’s success. With greater expectations comes greater room for disappointment. And more disappointment means less fan support. Less fan support means more free agents and were back at square one, except that with each new extravagant signing, the price tag on coveted players rises. Higher prices, higher expectations.
But in-house players, players drafted, groomed and brought up through the ranks of a team tend to be removed from that sort of cycle. Fans seem to be able to forgive easier, forget faster, and warm to the idea of growth over a prolonged period of time as opposed to the win-now mentality that accompanies free agent spending. Perhaps then this idea of chemistry is not so much the connection between the five or nine or 12 players on the field, but the connection between those players and the fans. Should the Red Sox, Angels, Dodgers and Marlins have performed better? Or should we, their supporters not have held them to such high standard?
It’s probably a little bit of both, but so long as we (the fans and owners alike) continue to equate projected on field success with money spent, with free agents bought and sold we will continue to be unsatisfied with the results.
[Images from top to bottom: Adrian Gonzalez,© 2012 Victorgrigas; Hanley Ramirez, © 2009 SD Dirk; Tim Lincecum, © 2009 SD Dirk]