Regal Blue

Free Agents, Trades and Winter Meetings

Posted in Sports by gklarsen on December 2, 2009

In the wake of the whole “we’re not going to offer arb to anyone” scandal of yesterday, many fans are wondering just what the future holds for the Dodgers.  Their plan will probably be revealed somewhat in the upcoming winter meetings.

Typically, the winter meetings are where the big time free agent signings happen or at least start to negotiate.  We already knew that the Dodgers weren’t going to be buyers this year.  So yesterday’s events don’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know in that regard.  As far as trades go, Ken Gurnick seems to believe that the Dodgers will keep their “young nucleus” in tact as has been their modus operandi for years.  In essence, it’s business as usual and this winter will look awfully similar to last winter:

As much as some fans want the Dodgers to throw money at every roster hole, that has never been the style of current ownership. Frank McCourt has indicated he’d rather develop stars such as Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw than trade them away and buy bigger names with gigantic salaries.

He could have written that two years ago and it would have been just as true then.  Virtually every big contract the Dodgers have handed out has bit them in the ass in some way or another.  This isn’t just a coincidence or bad free agent practice.  Free agents are almost always past their prime.  Because teams will at the very least keep a player through arbitration, few players with good production will ever escape their team before age 30.  And if Baseball Prospectus is to be believed (and they are), players hit their peak around age 27 or 28, contrary to the popular wisdom that it’s somewhere closer to 30.

Every team should know that a long-term contract will inevitably come with some bad, unproductive and economically inefficient years.  Even Johan Santana will begin to suck after the fourth or fifth year of his contract, even sooner if injuries start to take their toll.  He got seven years because that’s the cost of premier players.  Their production in the two or three ‘good’ years at the beginning of the contract ideally makes up for the lack of production in the waning years.

The problem with that model is that it keeps small to mid market teams from signing the bigger names.  Two years of efficient production, say, from John Lackey will cost at least five years of salary.  More than the fact that small-mid market teams simply don’t have the cash in reserve is the opportunity cost of the last three years when Lackey will be on and off the DL.  The team who signs him is essentially giving up the opportunity to spend that money two years after the beginning of the contract on international players, drafts, arbitration and the occasional bargain pick up.

Obviously the Yankees can absorb these costs.  They know full well that AJ Burnett is only worth three years at most.  The Mets too at one point were able to do that, and the Red Sox certainly can.  The Dodgers, in such a dreary situation, don’t have that luxury.  We’re a big market team with mid-market aspirations.

So, Ned will undoubtedly continue to do what he’s done for years now.  He’ll search the bargain bin and come up, hopefully, with another productive starter and maybe a serviceable second baseman.  Will he get as lucky this year?  Probably not.  But it’s the best strategy.  With the big name free agents inherently overvalued, a smart team’s only option is to wait out the big budget teams and find players that were left behind.  To quote Gurnick again:

Colletti’s past performance indicates his scouts will come up with a surprising reclamation pitching project (Jeff Weaver, Chan Ho Park, Takashi Saito, etc., in years past). He’ll patiently let the pitching market be established by early signings and pick over the available pool to come up with another Wolf. And he’ll fill the bench with this year’s version of Brad Ausmus, Mark Loretta, Juan Castro and Doug Mientkiewicz.

Naturally a question arises as to the lack of arbitration offers.  What does it mean for the off season?  As far as free agents go, I believe it doesn’t mean a thing.  Colletti will do what he did last year with some measure of success (sans Manny contract drama, of course).

There is also concern that Colletti will begin to deal arbitration-eligible players to shrink payroll even further.  First of all, that’s not necessarily a bad idea.  Players like Andre Ethier for example are at the peak of their value and performance.  Although I fully admit to being heavy into the Dodgers youth movement, I recognize that there will come a time in the somewhat near future when it will do more good to trade them (assuming a wise trade, of course).  Assuming Colletti knows that, I imagine that in five years the only Dodgers we recognize will be Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw, the rest probably shipped out for younger players before they hit Free Agency.

Yet until I hear some substantial rumors or the younger Dodgers get closer to free agency, I won’t concern myself too much with it.  A trade of one of our major young players is still quite speculative.  Furthermore, even with the arbitration raises, we’ll still be under budget going into the winter meetings due to all the bad money coming off the books.  Thus, I don’t expect trades to be particularly dramatic either.

It should indeed be a quiet winter meeting for the Dodgers, and that’s the best thing that could happen.

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