OK, we know: This year’s free-agent market is not like last year’s. It isn’t like the market will yield many or any easy choices for who to throw a six- or 10-year contract at. You can probably set this winter’s over-under on nine-figure free-agent deals at 1.5, to see how many folks think both Zack Greinke and Josh Hamilton will both get there.
So if you’re a baseball executive, even if you do pursue either of them, you can probably skip looking for that single-signing splash on the open market this winter. So far as that goes, the defining adjective for this winter’s free agents is “weak.”
So what do you do if you’re a fat-cat owner or an ambitious GM? You could listen to an argument for following in the Astros’ footsteps and blasting to the foundations like there are no consequences to that. But what if you really are the Indians and what if you already saw your attendance drop by 3,000 paying customers per game? Do you really want to drive even more of them away, now and for years into the future? And hurt your local media revenue potential to boot? That doesn’t sound like a great way to do business, and getting top prospects in trade might be the hardest thing to achieve in the prospect-worshipping present.
Meanwhile, we’re in a time in the game’s history where competitive balance is as strong as it has ever been. In the past 10 years, 26 of the 30 teams have made it to the postseason, with the Pirates, Royals, Blue Jays and Mariners representing the exceptions. While that in itself is not an argument to spend, it is a pretty strong suggestion that you shouldn’t just throw in the towel. It isn’t like there’s some unbeatable Goliath awaiting the postseason entrants year after year -- both leagues have sent six different teams to the World Series in the past decade, and nobody’s won more than twice. You want to get in on that.
Now, that’s assuming you’re a franchise operating on the perhaps quaint notion that you’re fielding a team because you want to do things like win games and contend, providing a baseball entertainment to paying customers. If you’re that sort of old-fashioned dreamer, take heart from the examples set this past season with the Baltimore Orioles, Oakland Athletics and the Washington Nationals all making the postseason in 2012. Why opt out now, when the doors for October admittance seem to be swinging wider than ever?
Certainly, you might ascribe the Orioles’ rise to their improbable 29-9 record in one-run games or going 16-2 in extra-inning games. That would be totally reasonable, and totally reasonable people were predicting that would happen all summer. It didn’t. Perhaps the more important takeaway is that the Orioles reaped the benefit of talent accumulated through a farm system makeover and a few smart trades over the years at the same time that the opportunity to win arose, thanks to the absence of any overwhelming powerhouse in their league or the once-vaunted AL East. There’s that wide-open competitive environment again, holding out promise -- are you really sure you want to bug out?
Looking back at their activities last winter, the A’s and Nationals might seem like complete opposites in terms of how they got to October action. The A’s didn’t spend much on free agents and traded away several young veteran players, while the Nationals did spend, anticipating their burgeoning development into a potential powerhouse. But in each case, the two teams responded to the market to the best of their very different abilities, adapting to the circumstances the market presented.
Hampered financially and limited in the number of free-agent hitters with power who fit within their price range to fix their awful .369 team SLG in 2011, the A’s did the next best thing: They resorted to extra-market solutions. They first reiterated the point that GMs should never be limited to who’s on the market during the winter -- after all, there are 29 other teams stocked with stuff you can use, you just need to find a way to get at it. Presto change-o, Billy Beane and friends conjured up Josh Reddick for the latest interchangeable saves accumulator. Pick up Seth Smith and Jonny Gomes for less than $3.5 million combined, procure Brandon Moss out of thin air, and you wind up with a better winter than the guys with the bigger payrolls. And finally, they reached outside of the free-agent pool to take a chance on Cuba’s Yoenis Cespedes.
In contrast, Mike Rizzo’s Nationals might have come into last year’s Hot Stove expecting to be entirely conventional, but free agents have a way of making free choices. When Prince Fielder didn’t accept their money late in January, the Nats had plenty of cash and fewer people to potentially target. Adding another starter after already trading for Gio Gonzalez might have seemed surprising, but Edwin Jackson was just about the best thing left on the shelves with spring training around the corner. So the Nats wound up with arguably the best top-to-bottom rotation in the league, which helped them win despite a stack of early-season injuries in the rotation. That wasn’t their plan, but they adapted and it worked.
So, is your team in the 75-win range? That’s around two-thirds of baseball in any given season, including the A’s last winter, or the Red Sox right now. If you were even worse than that, like the Orioles, I guess you were supposed to fold up and call it quits before you even got started. But don't, just don't. In the absence of any dynasties, with more playoff possibilities open to you than ever before, there’s no time like the present for a team to take itself seriously. Thanks to the latest new TV deal, revenues will go up $26 million per team on average, starting in 2014. Why not get that money to work for you now? Backload the right deal for the right guy -- that's guaranteed money coming in, and you could win now.
So here’s hoping more teams stick to the business of just going for it. And here's hoping they go for it for its own sake. If you don’t like what’s on the market, trade for and absorb the tail end of an expensive veteran’s contract from one of the truly dead rebuilding teams. If you find power’s hard to find in this market, maybe you can get Alfonso Soriano at a 50 percent markdown. Reach outside the market, as the A’s did with Cespedes and the Dodgers might do with Korean lefty Ryu Hyun-jin. And take a good look at the broad collection of middling free agents out there, because a few well-chosen one- to three-year contracts can make the difference.
Somebody will go for it; hopefully more than a few. I’m sure we’ll have a new surprise 80- to 85-win team next year, thanks to their investments and today’s dynamic competitive environment. Add in the expanded playoff slate, and that’s a contending team into August no matter what the other teams are doing. Why choose to lose when winning’s within reach? Isn't that why they play?
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.