Friday, August 3, 2012
Free talent remains hidden key to success
By David Schoenfield
One of my basic theories is that the biggest difference between the talent available to a good organization and that available to a poor organization isn't in the ability to produce players from the farm system, but in the ability to take advantage of the "free talent," the players who can be picked up without trading somebody you're depending on at another spot. No organization is modern baseball is large enough or strong enough to produce on demand a player at a given position.
--Bill James, 1987 Baseball Abstract
James wrote that 25 years ago, but I suspect there is still some truth to this statement. I also suspect this element of the sport is more difficult to exploit than a quarter-century ago. Front offices are smarter and more informed for a variety of reasons: Larger scouting budgets, advanced statistical analysis, technological advances in video and injury treatment and so on. With all the attention given to prospects during the recent trade deadline period, however, it's a reminder that this aspect of player acquisition remains an underrated aspect of team building.
Cody Ross could easily fall under the category of "free-talent acquisition," says David Schoenfield.
What is "free talent"? It's a bit of a floating definition, but it's basically talent you can pick up cheaply. Albert Pujols as a free agent is not free talent because it costs a lot to sign him. But some examples of free talent would include Rule 5 picks, signing players on waivers or who are released, players from other leagues (Mexico, independent, inexpensive players from Japan), minor league free agents, players an organization has given up on whether because of injury or performance.
Free talent isn't always absolutely free. For example, when the Giants claimed Cody Ross on waivers in 2010, they had to pick up the remainder of his salary (about $1 million). But for a small chunk of change, the Giants got Ross without giving anything up. Trading a replacement-level relief pitcher to acquire a player is something I would term free-talent acquisition. Two years ago, the Twins didn't have room for Wilson Ramos with Joe Mauer around; the Nationals flipped Matt Capps for Ramos. That's free talent; a pitcher like Capps is easily replaceable.
How important is free talent in building a winner? Here's a quick scan of all the World Series participants since 2007. Finding free talent was more important than acquiring prospects from other organizations.
Chris Carpenter -- Signed after let go by Blue Jays following shoulder injury.
Prospects acquired via trade: David Freese (for Jim Edmonds in offseason). Freese was hardly a top prospect; Baseball America rated him as San Diego's No. 28 prospect that winter.
Nelson Cruz -- Originally acquired from the Brewers, the Rangers actually designated Cruz for assignment at one point, meaning any team could have claimed him.
David Murphy -- Acquired in Eric Gagne trade. A former first-round pick by the Red Sox, was essentially a throw-in as a disposable fifth-outfielder type, with Engel Beltre the top prospect in the deal.
Mike Napoli -- Acquired for Frank Francisco. Maybe a stretch as a free talent acquisition since the Rangers did have to pick up his $5.8 million salary, but a nice exchange for essentially a fungible reliever in Francisco.
Prospects acquired via trade -- Scott Kazmir (for Victor Zambrano), Ben Zobrist (for Aubrey Huff). Kazmir, of course, was a top prospect, the Mets' first-round pick in 2002. Zobrist had been Houston's No. 16 prospect before the season. These were both classic July prospect trades that panned out.
The Yankees don't trade for other teams' prospects. But their bullpen depth has been built on free talent -- Eppley had been waived by the Rangers, Rapada by the Orioles and Wade released by Tampa Bay. Jones, Ibanez and Chavez were cheap veteran free agents.
The Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez trades are already paying dividends with the likes of Parker, Cook, Milone and Norris, but Billy Beane also did a superb job of adding free talent. Colon signed for $2 million and Blackley was claimed off waivers from the Giants in May. In addition, Josh Reddick, while no longer a prospect, was acquired for reliever Andrew Bailey.
If there's something to take away from this quick survey it's a reminder how these under-the-radar pickups can end up being valuable additions. When the Twins decided to non-tender David Ortiz back in 2002 and the Red Sox signed him for $1.25 million, who would have predicted Ortiz's development? Or that a Octavio Dotel-for-James McDonald trade would start paying huge dividends for the Pirates two years later? Or that Ryan Vogelsong, out of the majors for five years, would go 21-12 with a 2.50 ERA since the start of 2011?
Sure, most free-talent acquisitions end up being irrelevant names in the agate type. But most prospects don't pan out either. Just something to keep in mind if you think your team just acquired a future building block.