Well, we all know what they say about assumptions. I’ll trust you know what they say, as this is a family site and family blog.
Shockingly, or perhaps not shockingly, the two LA teams and Toronto are a combined 66-86 so far in the young season and have not looked as though they will breakout of their early season funk, aside from a recent eight-game win streak from the Angels. For years, teams like these three have been a sign of how teams win in baseball; sign big name players (see: Dodgers and Angels) or trade for big name players (see: Blue Jays). However, the way these teams are performing is not just a testament to how players may or may not perform when handed a large check but also to the direction baseball is headed.
The Washington Nationals, along with some other franchises, are leading a new age in baseball. This age is focused on drafting players that seem to be close to major league ready, bringing them up young and trying to either buy out arbitration years in long term, team friendly deals such as what the Tampa Bay Rays do, or simply bringing them up young and signing them when the time is considered right. The method to the madness is that franchises will become player factories and be able to plug holes of departing players with new ones, whereas in the past teams could not do this and a free agent leaving would hamper them for years.
Take a look at five of 2012’s NL playoff teams, starting with the Cincinnati Reds, who lead this list with 14 players that have either been drafted or signed by the team that are now on the Major League Roster and in the everyday lineup. In fact, the Reds starting shortstop, third baseman and first baseman were all drafted by the Reds (Zack Cozart ’07, Joey Votto ’02, Todd Frazier ’07). Mike Leake, Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey and Tony Cingrani were also all drafted or signed by the Reds. Both of their catchers and most of their bullpen have all been Reds since arriving in the Majors.
Washington is right behind Cincinnati at 13 drafted or signed players. Like the Reds, 75 percent of their starting infield is homegrown (Ryan Zimmerman ’05 at 3B, Ian Desmond ’04 at SS, Danny Espinosa/Steve Lombardozzi both ’08 at 2B), along with 75 percent of their rotation (Stephen Strasburg ’09, Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler in ’07). The Reds and Nationals actually have more homegrown players than the St. Louis Cardinals (12) and San Francisco Giants (8), who, of course, are the winners of the 2011 and 2012 World Series, respectively, San Francisco being the winner twice in the past three seasons.
Free agency will begin to become a discount store because teams are starting to hold onto their young stars, buying out their arbitration years, and locking in costs of players for years to come. Teams are starting to look ahead because with the new cap on draft spending, they know they cannot simply patch up holes and hand draft picks a blank check. Free agency, to smart teams, has and will become a means to add ancillary pieces or veterans to add leadership, much like what Washington did in 2010 with Jayson Werth, dedicating premium money to a player that has been on a winning team and can lead by example.
Of course, big market teams will always try to spend on the free agent market. The key to the spending is doing it intelligently. The Angels have thrown money at players like Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton the past two offseasons, yet they have done nothing to improve their pitching aside from signing CJ Wilson. They finished 86-76 last year, or third in the AL West, as did the Dodgers after making that mega deal with Boston, which was only four wins better than their 2011 finish. Building a team through bloated contracts and giving up hoards of prospects works only if the franchise acquiring that player already has a core the incoming player can complement, such as Gio Gonzalez being acquired by Washington.
The Nationals are leading the pack in a revolution. It is a revolution against bloated contracts and in favor of cost control. Pick and choose your core players, and lock them in. If teams stick to that, competition will be at its peak.