A letter to free agentsby Brad Johnson
December 28, 2012
Dear [free agent],
I have been watching your progress this offseason and it's come to my attention that few high-profile clubs have shown public interest in signing you. Those that showed interest during the winter meetings have since filled [position].
It might be time to try Plan B. I understand that you expected a lucrative, multi-year contract this offseason and it's a shame that the market for your services did not turn out as expected. However, we may have an unexpected opportunity to help each other.
I'm not going to lie to you. We are not one player away from competing and we will not overpay you to join our sub-par team. What we will do is offer you playing time so long as you perform. We will offer you a market-rate, one-year contract so that you can cash in next offseason. Talk to Marco Scutaro, Edwin Jackson and Jonathan Broxton about that. Most importantly, we almost certainly will trade you to a playoff contender. Again, ask Marco Scutaro what that can do for your fortunes.
Come be the big fish in a small pond. Mentor our young players. Earn a reputation for intangibles. Be the best player on our team. This is an opportunity to improve your legacy.
Think of it another way. The best way for you to cash in next offseason is a strong playoff run. You can try to pick a contender in January and maybe get stuck as a role player for a team that falls apart (whatever happened to the Red Sox last year?). Or you can sign on with us as the main attraction. If you perform, we will trade you to contender in July. You'll have your opportunity for late-season heroics.
Think it over. Maybe that multi-year offer will happen after all. If it doesn't, we want to work with you.
The Houston Astros
The new collective bargaining agreement changes the optimal behavior for terrible clubs looking to improve. And yes, the Astros are a perfect example of a terrible club.
In the past, bad teams generally saved their money to spend in the draft and on international free agents. After all, why sign a three win, 32-year-old when you have a 69-win roster? Nate Silver's win curve from the original BBtN clearly shows that it's not responsible to pay the market price for a three-win player when he's providing wins 70, 71 and 72. The figures simply don't add up.
But now that spending on the draft and international free agents is capped, how should bad teams allocate their extra money to improve future rosters? The answer is to lure free agents who are dissatisfied with the current offers on the table.
Almost every free agent wants three things—not necessarily in this order.
- The largest contract offer possible
- To play for a playoff contender
- Assurance of consistent playing time
A bad team like the Houston Astros can never offer the second bullet and should never offer the first. However, they can offer a lot of playing time. And in the right market they can even offer a lot of visibility.
For free agents who should be well paid but missed the boat, the Astros can still offer a valuable one-year contract and the promise of a trade to a playoff contender midseason. The player gets a chance to build value and earn a big contract next offseason. The team gets the ability to trade that player for prospects midseason.
Some anecdotes for consideration.
The Phillies traded half a season of Shane Victorino for a decent pitching prospect (Ethan Martin) and a decent major league reliever (Josh Lindblom).
Adrian Beltre parlayed a one-year, $10 million contract with Boston into a five-year, $80 million deal with the Rangers.
Scutaro wasn't a free agent last offseason, but he spent half a season with the Rockies before being traded to the Giants. He didn't play particularly well in Colorado, but he caught fire in San Francisco and turned that into a three-year, $20 million contract.
Edwin Jackson signed a one-year, $11 million contract with the Nationals last offseason and now has a shiny four-year, $52 million deal with the Cubs.
From those anecdotes, we can infer a few things. Half a season of a good but not great player can return valuable, club-controlled talent. Additionally, this arrangement has reaped dividends for several players in recent years. A more statistically rigorous study is worth exploring.
Below are some of the remaining free agents who might pivot from multi-year demands to a one-year contract.
*Costs a draft pick
Talent deficient clubs like the Astros could also look to take advantage of players tied to draft picks. The Astros would give up a substantially lesser pick to sign Michael Bourn than the Mariners. They might be (A) comfortable paying Bourn more and (B) interested in turning their second-round pick into immediate compensation.
None of these ideas are without risk, but it's increasingly likely that they will be added to the bag of tricks bad teams can use to desperately claw toward future relevance.
Follow Brad on Twitter @baseballAteam. Email him at pitchin432 AT Yahoo.com