The baseball winter meetings seem to be a week late this year. The off-season has been quiet up until Friday. With Shohei Ohtani signing, Giancarlo Stanton traded and free agents starting to sign, the pace of moves is picking up. The rule 5 draft will end the meetings.
I had the opportunity to attend a pitch talks event last week and afterwards I talked briefly with Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet. I followed up on some of the points he was making during the pitch talks event with my competitive theory. Ben published a variation today discussing the path to competitiveness for the Jays. Essentially the article was discussing whether the Jays should trade Josh Donaldson, a topic that has been widely debated here.
I have been thinking of a more global approach to how a team contends. We all have heard the Moneyball story. Essentially the story was how a front office with a smarter approach could compete with a lower payroll. Since the Moneyball years pretty much every front office has become smarter. General Managers used to be ex-players or ex-scouts who valued players based on scouts recommendations and their own eyes. With the influx of younger, ivy-league educated, GM's, player valuation is now more scientific. It is also more standardized. The opportunity to repeat Moneyball is gone, now we are in the world of marginal gains. These marginal gains could pick you up a win or two but cannot get you over the playoff bar.
One of the other big changes over the last twenty years is the value of prospects. Back then Baseball America was a newspaper that arrived every two weeks. The information in it was a month or two old. You did well to know about prospects in AAA or AA, the knowledge of a player in the lower leagues was sketchy at best. Now front offices can get video of every player, reports from a number of independent scouting groups, as well as their own scouts, and trackman type information. Now we hear that prospects can be overvalued. In the old days a GM would offload some good prospects at a discount because he wanted to contend now. That is rare these days, trades for good major league players often get a return of second tier prospects, not the trading teams best ones.
With front offices being competitive amongst themselves, without a whole lot of variation in player valuation models, how does a team contend? Money, or payroll, now becomes more important. Teams with money can afford to buy the player that all the models say is the best available. Teams with money can carry a better bench, can eliminate the weak spots on their roster and can buy the international free agents not subject to the draft or spending limits.
I put it to Ben Nicholson-Smith that I felt the big money teams are about to enter a renewed period of dominance. He agreed. The Astros did win this year but the Yankees, Dodgers, Cubs and Red Sox made the playoffs.
So how does a team compete? I want to avoid the "Jays payroll should be one of the top ones in baseball" debate as there is no evidence it is likely to happen soon. The first way to compete is by tanking or losing for several years. This is how the Astros won this year but can they sustain it for more than a few years? Will their best players be poached by bigger teams and will winning dilute their talent pool? The second way to compete is to get lucky. There is still a lot of variability in year to year performance in baseball and signing a player who blossoms, such as Jose Bautista back in the day, or Justin Smoak this year, really helps. Teams are spending a lot of research time and dollars trying to improve their "luck". Spin rates, catcher framing, statcast speed and fielding plays are part of this. However any edge a team finds is usually public knowledge within a year or two. The third was is health, as we saw with the 2016 and 2017 Blue Jays. The Jays high performance department was supposed to help the Jays with this but obviously it is not working as envisaged yet. A combination of luck and health goes a long way to success.
The most inexact way to compete is through the draft. The draft remains the biggest area of luck or skill in baseball. Were the Jays lucky to draft Sanchez, Syndergaard and several other good players in that big draft. Or did they take advantage of a system that allowed them extra picks? Or were they skilled or smart? If they were skilled why can they not repeat that level of draft every year?
Alex Anthopoulos hired a lot of scouts to try and improve the Jays drafts. The problem is that the biggest potential gains are in drafting at the high school level where players are more undeveloped and unknown. And a high school player takes around five to six year to make it to the big leagues. So it is a route to success but only if you, the GM, still have a job six years later. If you do draft well, but then trade your prospects to compete, you improve your immediate chances to lower your intermediate level chances. So you enter the competing roller-coaster.
This is the issue that Ben Nicholson-Smith discusses in his story. If you are not one of the top payroll teams you have to "go for it" if you are close. Those opportunities don't come around all the time, so when it is there you try to take advantage. This is the line being followed by the Jays at the moment. They think they can contend in 2018 so they are trying to improve the team. But, at the same time, it will be hard to sustain that beyond 2018 unless the draft pays off, they get lucky or injury free. Ben discusses the White Sox who tried to compete, didn't, and are now losing to build their farm system and try again in a few years. Mid or small market teams have to time their competing windows, the top payroll teams don't.
I don't have a profound lesson in all this other than being the GM of a mjaor league team is hard, harder than it used to be. And payroll matters more when measurement systems are similar.
The Jays take this knowledge into the winter meetings. Will their spending match the Yankees or Cubs? If they wanted to sign Brandon Morrow or Alex Cobb can they? Will they always be outbid? And so are they looking to get lucky, or stay healthy? We should know more after this week.