There isn’t one specific path that a General Manager may choose that will lead to successful navigation of the free agent waters. In fact, it seems the only way to really win when it comes to the free agent/trade market is for a GM to shell out copious amounts of money on the right player. But General Managers, specifically those without a 150 million dollar payroll, may need to be more creative when building a championship caliber ballclub. There are generally three ways to do this, though most teams will use a hybrid of at least two.
Option One: Build from Within
This is what I call the “Devil-Ray”. This is in honor of the current Tampa Bay Rays and former Tampa Bay Devil Rays. When Tampa Bay was still embracing its devilish roots, they constructed a team of talent evaluators and scouts that had no equal. After years of losing, their early round draft picks began to build up until they became a system bursting at the seams with top-notch minor league talent. They began stockpiling prospects like Scott Kazmir, Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, BJ Upton, James Shields, Evan Longoria and most recently Desmond Jennings, David Price and Matt Moore. When a player becomes successful or overly expensive, the General Manager simply places him on the trade block. Large market teams offer a plethora of high-end prospects and the Rays minor league system is once again restocked with the necessary talent to win in the future while maintaining success in the present. Case in point, once Scott Kazmir became too expensive (and too ineffective) the Rays dealt him to the Los Angeles Angels. They not only saved 12 million dollars, but also brought in useful prospects like Sean Rodriguez and Alex Torres.
Benefits – lower payroll, long-term success
Drawbacks – First takes a lot of losing, and can take almost a decade to build. Need to build a Front Office capable assessing player quality more efficiently than competitors.
Option Two: Overload and Ignore
The second option doesn’t necessarily have a name yet (feel free to tweet your ideas for a name at me: @ScottyAllenLAAI) but is nonetheless effective. This option focuses on one tactic, overloading on a team’s strengths. It has been successful as recently as 2010 with the San Francisco Giants. Essentially what it involves is building a passable offense or passable pitching staff and coupling that with an offense or pitching staff so fierce that it strikes fear into the heart of their opponents. The 2010 Giants rolled out a playoff pitching rotation that included Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner. Their heavy-hitting opponents that were used to winning games 11-7 were now losing games 2-1 because of successful pitching. In contrast, the 2010/2011 Texas Rangers pitching staff was built of a bunch of no-names that would be fifth starters everywhere else, but their offense included Michael Young, Josh Hamilton, Mike Napoli, Nelson Cruz and Ian Kinsler. The 2012 Los Angeles Angels appear to be building their team on this principle. They have compiled a rotation of Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, Ervin Santana, CJ Wilson and a resurgent Jerome Williams and combined it with an offense that offers little outside of Albert Pujols’ thundering bat.
Benefits – Team only has to do one thing right (pitch or hit) in order to win.
Drawbacks – Not addressing a weakness can compound and become impossible to overcome. See 2010 Los Angeles Angels/Atlanta Braves (great pitching, no offense).
Option Three: A Balanced Attack
The third option is the most difficult to complete, but if done properly, it will undoubtedly lead to meaningful October baseball. This is the balanced approach. The General Manager neither emphasizes offense or pitching, he simply creates a team with enough of both to overpower any opponent. The most recent examples of this approach all come from the National League. The 2011 Milwaukee Brewers brought in Shaun Marcum and Zach Grienke to accompany Yovani Gallardo at the top of their rotation and rolled out an offense featuring Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks and Ryan Braun. The Philadelphia Phillies built a pitching staff unrivaled since the 1990’s Atlanta Braves and combined it with an offense that featured Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino. I would be remiss if I didn’t offer a fair warning though, all teams that use this balanced approach must have the depth to absorb injury. Failure on behalf of the General Manager to do so will undoubtedly result in disaster. The 2011 Boston Red Sox were supposed to be the complete team. They had a deep pitching staff to go with an offense that featured Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and David Ortiz. But injuries and ineffectiveness in the rotation (John Lackey, Clay Bucholtz, Daisuke Matsuzaka) led to one of the most monumental collapses in recent history.
Benefits – If done properly, guaranteed playoff spot.
Drawbacks – Can be extremely expensive, hardest to complete. An all or nothing approach in which nothing occurs more often than all.
The 2012 season should offer fans a chance to get a good look at how all three options work and don’t work. Under which category does your favorite team fall? Many teams will employ a hybrid, but the following is a tentative list of teams that clearly fall into one of the three categories.
Option One – Tampa Bay Rays, Kansas City Royals, Seattle Mariners, Arizona Diamondbacks, San Diego Padres and the Colorado Rockies.
Option Two – New York Yankees, Texas Rangers, Los Angeles Angels and the San Francisco Giants.
Option Three – Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Phillies, Washington Nationals, Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals and the Miami Marlins.