One common argument you hear from casual baseball fans, or fans of other sports that have little idea what they’re talking about, is that the only teams that can win in baseball do so by spending wildly. We all know that isn’t especially true, especially not in today’s climate; parity has become a very real thing and surprising teams find themselves in the postseason pretty much each and every year. Organizations like Tampa Bay and Oakland have created blueprints for the world to follow by building almost entirely from within and seizing young, cost-controlled talent to constitute the core of their rosters.
There still seems to be one problem, however: free agents aren’t getting any cheaper. Already this off-season we’ve seen Brandon League and Jeremy Affeldt ink three-year deals out of the bullpen, heard rumors that Anibal Sanchez might want $90 million, and waited patiently for Josh Hamilton to get way more money for way too many years. The real problem is that there are still general managers willing to pay the prices these players are asking, and that doesn’t seem to be changing. Even teams that build largely from within need to depend on a free agent acquisition here and there, so the key is to approach the free agent crop a little differently.
We have a couple of excellent examples of intelligent signings that have materialized just in the past week. First, we have Theo Epstein of the Cubs picking up starting pitcher Scott Baker on a one-year deal worth between $5.5 million and $7.5 million depending on incentives. Baker was cheap because he is coming off Tommy John surgery, but he’s always been a dependable guy who can slot into the middle of a rotation without issue. His strikeout rate has even become respectable, and he never walks anyone. That’s good news considering control is said to be a bit of an issue for a while once a pitcher returns from Tommy John.
Alex Anthopoulos followed up Epstein’s potential bargain with a nice complimentary move of his own, signing soiled outfielder Melky Cabrera to a two-year deal worth $16 million. Normally an outfielder coming off the seasons Cabrera had in 2011 and 2012 would be rather expensive, but a positive performance enhancer test left him tainted and unwanted for many clubs around the game. Cabrera’s numbers over the last two seasons are almost certainly inflated (though I would argue an unusually high BABIP is to blame rather than “the juice”), but he’s a dependable enough producer across the board that Double-A was able to find value in signing him for the Blue Jays.
The key here is that both Epstein and Anthopoulos showed there is a way to snag valuable pieces without having to pay through the nose. I have no doubt in my mind that both of them would scoff at the idea of handing three years to a middle reliever. Both saw value in players who were damaged goods. Baker is recovering from a severe injury, while Cabrera wears the scarlet letter that has brought the spit and venom from so many baseball writers and fans. Thing is, it’s the general manager’s job to put a quality product on the field. Epstein is trying to rebuild the Cubs into something special, while Anthopoulos is trying to take his Jays to the playoffs for the first time in forever. Both of them have furthered their cause without having to break the bank simply because they were able to find value where others didn’t.