Chances are, a small-market team isn’t going to make a big splash in the free-agent market. Sure, they might fill a hole here and there with lower-profile guys (Mark Loretta) or aging veterans (Doug Brocail, Greg Maddux, Rudy Seanez, David Wells), but for the most part, they’re not going to be major players. More often than not, for folks operating on a tight budget, the cost simply doesn’t justify the risk. This isn’t the fault of the players or their agents; it’s just a fact of the market.
Fortunately, an organization can look to alternative sources for stockpiling talent. Two of the best ways are through drafting and developing young players, and through making trades. We know that Kevin Towers has a terrific record in the latter, but the Padres have plenty of room for improvement when it comes to the former. With the addition of Grady Fuson and Sandy Alderson to the front office, efforts to improve their facility in the Dominican Republic, and a surplus of draft picks thanks to free agents signing elsewhere in the winter of 2006-2007, they appear to be headed in the right direction.
Before we go there, though, we need to ask ourselves why drafting and player development is so important. In fact, this is an easy question to answer. When a player first reaches the major leagues, his salary is comparatively low and he has no leverage in terms of arbitration eligibility, impending free agency, etc. Draft and develop guys who can contribute immediately on arriving in the big leagues, and you’ll find yourself with a good, cheap, and relatively sustainable labor pool.
To use a real example from 2006, the Nationals’ Ryan Zimmerman might not be quite as good as the Cubs’ Aramis Ramirez, but the difference between the two in terms of production is nowhere near the difference in cost. Washington gains a huge competitive advantage by employing an inexpensive yet very effective player at third base. By identifying and developing their own talent, they have narrowed the gap created by a free agent market that largely caters to teams that conduct business in huge media centers like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.
The A’s and Twins have been masters at drafting and developing players over the years. For the Twins, this includes names like Jacque Jones, Michael Cuddyer, J.C. Romero, Matt LeCroy, Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, Jesse Crain, and Pat Neshek. Extend it a bit further and you can add Johan Santana (Rule 5 pick from the Astros) as well as Francisco Liriano (acquired as a minor leaguer in a trade with the Giants).
For the A’s, we’re talking about Eric Chavez, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Eric Byrnes, Jon Adkins, Barry Zito, Rich Harden, Bobby Crosby, Jeremy Bonderman, Neal Cotts, Nick Swisher, Joe Blanton, Mark Teahen, Andre Ethier, and Huston Street. Some of these guys (Bonderman, Cotts, Teahen, Ethier) were traded before they ever reached Oakland, but there is value in having chips with which to bargain. Either way, this is an embarrassment of riches and provides a great demonstration of how a team with limited resources can help close the gap between itself and the big spenders.
This approach requires an investment in the drafting and development process. A team must be willing to spend not only on its draftees but also on its scouts and minor league coaches to maximize its returns. In the case of the A’s, the man largely responsible for stockpiling their farm system, Grady Fuson, now works for the Padres. Acknowledging that past success is no guarantee of future success, I’ll take my chances on a guy with Fuson’s track record calling the shots.
The other tricky aspect to developing from within is what to do with these players when they become too expensive. If an organization is doing its job properly, it should face this problem on a regular basis. The A’s, for example, have lost Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Hudson, Mulder, and most recently Zito over the years. They don’t use this as an excuse, though; instead, they get back to work in identifying and developing players to take their place on the big-league roster.
Fan attachment can be a problem, but I imagine that a culture of winning will make most folks more forgiving. For example, Josh Barfield is a kid I’ve watched since he played at Lake Elsinore in the California League. I love the way he plays the game and it’s been fun tracking his progress over the years. Barfield provided one of the biggest highlights of the 2006 season and appeared to be a part of the Padres’ future for years to come. But conditions change, and he ended up getting traded in the offseason. Personally, as someone who has been following Barfield’s career for a long time, I was crushed—seriously crushed. But when I stepped back and took a look at the bigger picture, I understood what the Padres were trying to accomplish here.
Maybe the club hasn’t done enough yet to earn the benefit of our doubt, but over the past three seasons, it has made huge strides in that direction. Some organizations wander around aimlessly without a plan, or with a plan that stinks. The Padres are starting to build a culture of winning that should buy them a little more credibility when they defend moves such as the Barfield trade, or letting the popular-but-aging and increasingly expensive Dave Roberts walk as a free agent.
Granted, the farm system isn’t stocked the way Oakland’s was when all of its star players left for greener pastures. Honestly, it’s not even close. But since the Matt Bush debacle, measures have been implemented to ensure a better draft process. The Padres have extra picks in the 2007 draft and a man in Fuson who has demonstrated knowledge of how to use those to his advantage. The organization still has a ways to go, but the folks in charge have put themselves in terrific position to get there.
As for a guy like Roberts, is it better to let him sign elsewhere or to lock him up long-term despite the fact that he’s past his prime? Sure, he could go Steve Finley on us, but he also could follow the paths of, say, Kevin Jarvis, Ryan Klesko, Phil Nevin, or Bubba Trammell. The fact that the Padres were willing to let Roberts go indicates to me that they’ve learned a valuable lesson, and I’m glad that they risked fan backlash in the name of making the right baseball move. We’ll also all have fond memories of Roberts instead of resenting the guy for tying up resources at the end of his contract.