Friday, October 14, 2011

Should the Blue Jays Buy or Trade for Franchise Players?


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Image courtesy of CTV.ca
Most stars are built from the ground up, not bought on the free agent market.

Despite what the New York Yankees might believe, paying top dollar for free agents doesn't necessarily ensure an elite level player will continue to perform at an elite level. Just ask them about A.J. Burnett.

I read a very interesting post over at Some Thoughts on Baseball the other day which got me thinking about this topic. Peter had a great breakdown of finding out how baseball's biggest stars were cultivated by their respective teams.

He calculated how the American League's biggest stars were acquired, whether it was via the draft, a trade, free agency, or otherwise. I was surprised to find out that a minute percentage of the AL's best players were signed as free agents.

Peter figured out that a mere 2 out of 37 position players from the AL that posted a WAR of 3.0 or better in 2011 were free agents, accounting for a mere 5% of the league's best players.

The timing of this information could not have been better as some of the game's biggest names are set to test free agency once the playoffs are over. Outside of CC Sabathia opting out of his contract, Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols are undoubtedly the two largest names out there.

I'll admit I get a little googly-eyed when I think about the possibility of the Blue Jays signing Prince Fielder. He seems to be that one big piece Toronto really needs to make a run at contention, and it would take is a boatload of cash to sign him.

However, the more and more I think about it, going after Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols or otherwise does not seem like the right move for the Blue Jays. Paying top dollar for a free agent is basically the anti-Alex Anthopoulos move.

Let's just speak hypothetically for a moment; if the Blue Jays did in fact lock up Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols, I'm not saying their skills would immediately drop off once the ink was dry on the contract. But history dictates that paying the max amount of money based on past performance is not a wise move.

Image courtesy of FanGraphs
It's a slight dip, but the WARGraph shows that Albert Pujols is already trending downwards as he enters his thirties. Prince Fielder has yet to get there, but his WAR by age isn't going to continue to progress upwards either. And that level of performance is not sustainable for the entire duration of a long-term contract.

It's a necessary evil for some General Managers to delve out big contracts, but it must drive them berserk that they're paying this free agent X amount of dollars in hopes that they'll continue that level of performance, when in fact it's more than likely to come down.

So where does that leave the Blue Jays? They're continuing to develop players the right way in the minor leagues, but as most executives will likely tell you, they're not coming up fast enough. There needs to be another way to supplement talent until those young players are ready.

That's where the trade comes in handy. It's been the Silent Assassin's primary weapon since taking over as GM of the Blue Jays, and it's netted him Brandon Morrow, Yunel Escobar, and Colby Rasmus just to name a few. And one could argue those guys haven't even hit their peak yet.

The Cincinnati Reds may be adamantly denying they're shopping Joey Votto, but that is the exact kind of move that Alex Anthopoulos would make. The only issue is the Blue Jays would need to package elite prospects or a couple of established Major Leaguers to land Votto from the Reds.

Think the kind of haul the Blue Jays received in return for Roy Halladay, except double it because Joey Votto is under contract for two more years, where Halladay only had one remaining year when he was traded to Philadelphia.

The idea is to acquire somebody like Joey Votto in the midway point of the bell curve, so that the Blue Jays get maximum value from the player during their contract years. And then when that player hits free agency and becomes too expensive to retain, let him walk. It's almost a miniature Moneyball model ... sort of.

Of course, the only advantage to signing a big name free agent is all it takes to get them is money. Albeit hundreds of millions of dollars, but it's something that's replenishable. Elite talent however, that can be much more difficult to replace.

That's why it seems like a bit of a counterproductive move to give away a boatload of prospects just to get Joey Votto for only two years. It feels like it might be a one-step forward two-step back scenario, and then after two years the Blue Jays are in the exact same position ... except minus those blue chip prospects.

So if buying high on Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols isn't the answer, and selling the farm to get Joey Votto isn't a viable option for the Blue Jays, then what is the answer?

Considering Alex Anthopoulos' reputation as the Silent Assassin, it's probably something we haven't even thought of yet.

10 comments:

  1. I say you get a franchise player any way you can get a franchise player. For the Red Sox recently, Pedro and Gonzalez were trades, Manny and Carl Crawford were free agents, while Nomar, Ellsbury, and Pedroia were drafted. It didn't matter to me.

    (And, yes, I felt like a dirty Yankees fan counting Pedro and Gonzalez as trades.)

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  2. Thanks for the link, I was a bit short on time when I did that post so therefore only looked at the 2011 season. I may follow up that post with a bigger sample size of more season to determine if what happened in 2011 is a true representative of how the top players in the AL were acquired.

    That being said I don't think it's very often that players the calibre of Pujols and Feilder make it to free agency and they are definitely worth a look. Although given the age of Pujols and weight of Fielder, there does seem to be less risk with a guy like Votto, and mitigating risk is important.

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  3. Section 36, I'll fully admit the Gonzalez trade was a great move on the part of the Red Sox. I still find it incredible his salary was a mere $5.5 million in 2011.

    Peter, you're very welcome - thank you! I think that chart is really an eye-opener as to where the top talent in the league comes from.

    I think it might be interesting to take a look at players even from the past 3-5 seasons, and see how they were acquired as well. I imagine the results will likely be more of the same.

    Not saying that all free agents are complete busts, but I think there are many more risks associated with them long-term.

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  4. I also think that AA will be reticent to pay a position player so much more than Joey Bats makes or a pitcher much more than Romero unless he is a more proven stud like...King Felix. There is a natural pecking order on a team. That is why I like the idea of Darvish. His actual contract net of posting fee is likely to be similar to Romero's pay in the out years (would have been FA) of his deal. Of course if a package of D'arnaud, Thames and Mcguire would get you Felix as he hits his $20mm years on a bad team, I think AA should do it given all the draft picks he has accumulated to restock the system.

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  5. When it comes to the Blue Jays 1st base situation... I can't help but wonder whether a deal with the Angels could happen to land Morales. Obviously only if he actually returns to full health. There is definitely 2 star caliber players for one position there similar to the problem the Reds have with Votto blocking Alonso.
    And as far as Votto goes... I think I would be more excited if AA would be able to score Alonso from the Reds... Of course Votto would be awesome but if he would only be around for 2 years it may not be worth the bounty of prospects!

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  6. If the jays go for free agents, I like Yu Darvish and Papelbon, Darvish all he will cost is a boatload of money. Papelbon, a decent young reliever likely wont get arbitration by the redsox, because he would likely take the offer, because as a free agent he would not get offered as much as the pay increase from arbitration. Papelbon made 12 million last year Rivera, 15 million. The question is whether the RedSox will want to bring Papelbon back, because if they offer arb, he will take it because he might get 4 year deal but not as much per year. Adding Darvish, and Papelbon, gives the Jays quality 1-3 starters with a strong closer. They have some pieces for relief but what they have lacked for years was a closer. With this scenario bringing 2 Frank may be possible as your setup man and then you just need to work on rookie middle releivers. Signing Darvish, Papelbon would also allow for two relatively young players, and with the farm the jays have, that could lead to playoff contender for years to come.

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  7. Pap - yech.

    Darvish - please no; too much $ for no track record in MLB.

    AA - find us a starter, closer, 2B, 1B, and DH through trades or magical dev't.

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  8. I could be misremembering, but isn't a big part of the plan to build a contender and then, when the best players hit free agency, spend the money to keep them around if they're worth it? If I'm right in that, then a trade for Votto makes sense to me. Give up some prospects and then extend the man when he gets here.

    I also may be crazy/greedy, but I'd be more than happy to see a trade for Votto AND a signing of Fielder. (Wait, yeah, I'm definitely greedy.)

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  9. Anon, I know it sounds crazy, but I almost prefer the prospect of the Blue Jays going after Darvish than I do Fielder or Pujols. Darvish hasn't quite hit his peak yet, and although that negotiation fee would be hefty, after that I imagine his salary would be pretty comparable to most SP's around the league. The wild card with Darvish is that we really don't know all that much about him aside from his stats.

    Furk, I think Morales would be a welcome addition to the team. Even if he ends up spending most of the time DH'ing, but then that would eliminate the need for Encarnacion. The other interesting thing about Morales is that he only actually has just over 3 years service time, so he would be under team control for another 2 seasons.

    Psmith, if the Blue Jays want to spend the money on the talent, there are certainly some attractive free agents out there. The question is do they want to go broke by signing all these guys, or do they want to acquire via trade instead?

    chewbacca, if anybody can find those pieces it's the Silent Assassin!

    infieldfly, the prospect of a contract extension upon arrival would play in favour of the Blue Jays. Kind of like what happened with the Blue Jays - Doc didn't want to sign another extension with Toronto, so they traded him to the Phillies where he did want to play long-term.

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  10. The Silent Assassin-that's classic!!

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