There's not a team in Major League Baseball that rests on its laurels when the offseason comes. All clubs look for ways to improve, and that requires plenty of hard work and cunning.
However, the overarching message of Moneyball still rings true in the present day: Outside the lines, baseball is an unfair game.
Never is this more true than during the winter, a time when big-market teams have the advantage of being able to write big-money checks for big-ticket players. For small-market clubs, getting better requires being a little more subtle than that. They must resort to assorted clever tricks.
We're going to pay homage to those tricks today by lining them up in a nice, neat little row and pointing out some examples of how they're done right. On tap are two trade tactics and two free-agent tactics, all four of which are meant to accomplish what all small-market teams strive to do: somehow turn a little into a lot.
We'll start with the tactic that occasionally seems to be doing the exact opposite.
Billy Beane Specials
Star power is a good thing for a ballclub to have. Star players put butts in seats, and their talent tends to come in handy out on the field as well.
But every now and then, a small-market club can help itself by turning star power into, well, significantly less star power.
All it takes is one established player serving as the centerpiece of a trade that brings back one or more less established players. Because nobody does it quite like the Oakland A's general manager and resident Brad Pitt look-a-like, we'll call these "Billy Beane Specials."
And as far as his own track record goes, it doesn't get any better than the series of trades Beane made prior to the 2012 season.
Across a period of several weeks in December of 2011, Beane traded Trevor Cahill in a deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Gio Gonzalez to the Washington Nationals and sent Andrew Bailey to the Boston Red Sox.
The combined WAR of Cahill, Gonzalez and Bailey in 2011, according to Baseball-Reference.com, was 7.6. Add in Craig Breslow, who went with Cahill to Arizona, and Ryan Sweeney, who was also sent to Boston, and the A's were giving up 8.1 WAR from the 2011 team.
"These are two different organizations going in two different directions," Breslow said on his way out the door, via the Associated Press.
What these trades brought back, however, was a collection of players who were ready to help the A's right away: starting pitchers Tommy Milone and Jarrod Parker, right-handed reliever Ryan Cook, catcher Derek Norris and outfielder Josh Reddick.
All five of them played roles on the 2012 A's, and in the end they made Beane look like a genius. If we compare their 2012 production to that of the players Beane traded away:
- Cahill, Gonzalez, Bailey, Breslow and Sweeney in 2012: 8.7 WAR
- Parker, Milone, Cook, Norris and Reddick in 2012: 14.1 WAR
The A's got more value from the players they welcomed than the players they said goodbye to accumulated elsewhere, and it was cheap value to boot. None of the five players Beane acquired made over $500,000 in 2012.
Because it's pretty much impossible to go out and sign that much young talent for that cheap on the free-agent market, acquiring said young talent via trades is really the only way to do it. Making these trades successful ventures is a matter of A) knowing when to sell high, B) knowing which players to target and C) having the guts to pull the trigger.
Another of Beane's success stories is the Mark Mulder trade back in 2004, which netted the A's Dan Haren, Kiko Calero and Daric Barton. The St. Louis Cardinals ended up getting a grand total of minus-0.1 WAR out of Mulder. Haren, Calero and Barton ultimately combined to give the A's 22.1 WAR.
There was, however, that time the Colorado Rockies turned the tables and gave Beane a taste of his own medicine, acquired Carlos Gonzalez and Huston Street for Matt Holliday before the 2009 season. Holliday gave the A's 2.9 WAR in half a season. Gonzalez and Street have provided 21.4 WAR for Colorado, and Gonzalez is far from done panning out.
There are plenty more deals that one could bring up as examples, and more of these trades are bound to be added to the pile in the coming winters. Such trades likely never will, or should, go out of style for small-market clubs, as they're presumably never going to stop finding themselves in a position to unload high-priced talent in exchange for cheap talent.
There is, however, a drawback to this strategy: It can backfire. And when that happens, it can be painful.
Trading Tim Hudson for Juan Cruz, Dan Meyer and Charles Thomas, for example, was not one of Beane's finer moments. As for the trade that brought the Florida Marlins Cameron Maybin, Andrew Miller and others for Miguel Cabrera, well, that proved to be a disaster.
The fates of those deals are a reminder that there's plenty of risk at play when dealing veterans for less-established players.
As such, it's a good thing that small-market clubs can pursue another type of trade that I like to call...
Spare Parts Specials
For the most part, baseball's trade market is no different from your typical place of business: You have to give up something to get something.
However, freebies find their way onto the trade market every so often. Clubs can occasionally be willing to take what they can get for whatever it is they're offering, which works in favor of small-market clubs that obviously don't have much to offer.
Take A.J. Burnett, for example. He had posted ERAs over 5.00 in 2010 and 2011 as a member of the New York Yankees, giving up over 50 home runs in the process. Though he still had two years and over $30 million remaining on his contract, it was clear that he needed a fresh start.
The Yankees could have released Burnett, but they still would have had to pay him what he was owed in 2012 and 2013. So instead, they put him up for grabs on the trade market, which is when Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Neal Huntington came calling.
The deal Huntington eventually struck called for the following. The Pirates would pay only $13 million of the $31.1 million remaining on Burnett's deal, and in exchange, they would only give up two low-level, non-elite prospects.
In essence, the Yankees paid for Burnett to go away and play for another team. For their part, the Pirates gave up nothing they would miss so they could put Burnett in a weaker-hitting league and in one of the most pitcher-friendly ballparks in baseball.
"Our scouts still saw some very good stuff: Power fastball, power in the breaking ball, a changeup he uses more," said Huntington, via MLB.com. He added: "If he pounds the strike zone with [his past] ground-ball rate, in a park favorable to pitchers in a little lesser league ... we believe A.J. can have a very good couple of years for us."
A good recipe for a resurrection if there ever was one, and it ended up working like a charm. Burnett posted a 3.41 ERA and an 8.9 K/9 in his two seasons in Pittsburgh and, according to FanGraphs' WAR-based value system, was a $33.6 million value. Not a bad way to spend $13 million.
Players like Burnett—guys with contracts that clubs are willing to eat just to get rid of them—are perfect targets for small-market clubs. Going after them requires some finger-crossing, sure, but it means a chance of acquiring a star player at a low price, both monetarily and player-wise.
But since such players aren't exactly plentiful during the winter, it's a good thing that small-market clubs can also target players that don't fit into another team's plans.
That was the case when the Rays acquired Yunel Escobar from the Marlins last winter. The Marlins had gotten him from the Toronto Blue Jays in the big Jose Reyes-Mark Buehrle-Josh Johnson trade, but the Palm Beach Post reported that Escobar found himself on the trade block because he didn't want to move from shortstop to third base.
That was Tampa Bay's excuse to swoop in and acquire Escobar for Derek Dietrich, a non-elite prospect who hadn't found his footing upon a promotion to Double-A in 2012. The real favor the Rays were doing the Marlins was taking on Escobar's contract, which called for $5 million salaries in 2013 and 2014.
Not a small undertaking for a club like the Rays, to be sure, but it would be money well spent if Escobar found his way after struggling to the tune of a .644 OPS in 2012.
And he did. Escobar upped his OPS by over 50 points while playing quality defense at shortstop, ultimately giving the Rays a $19.6 million value for his $5 million salary.
Deals like that don't have to be made in the middle of the winter, of course. They can always be struck during spring training, a time when clubs have a better idea of what they don't need.
Such was the case when the Milwaukee Brewers acquired Nyjer Morgan from the Washington Nationals in 2011. Morgan was deemed expendable after the Nats made Rick Ankiel their starting center fielder, and the Brewers took him off Washington's hands in exchange for a low-level prospect.
The result: Morgan was established as Milwaukee's everyday center fielder by the end of May, posted a solid .778 OPS and was a $16.2 million value on a $471,500 salary.
Once again, there are all sorts of similarly structured trades one could bring up as examples. But as with Billy Beane Specials, Spare Parts Specials are bound to stay in style. The basic idea is one club's trash becoming another club's treasure, and small-market clubs are always going to be more willing to take a chance on another club's trash than big-market clubs that can afford other options.
Of course, small-market clubs can also apply the treasure-into-trash idea to the free-agent market via...
Andrew Friedman Specials
The free-agent market is a place we tend to associate with big dollar signs, and for good reason. Assuming I have all my numbers from MLBTradeRumors.com in the right place, over $1 billion has been spent on free-agent contracts in six of the last seven offseasons.
Most of that money goes to big-name players such as Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and Prince Fielder. Small-market teams obviously can't afford these players, but that doesn't mean they can't dabble on the free-agent market and end up getting good bang for their buck.
It's all about digging up good bargain buys, which I'm going to call "Andrew Friedman Specials" after the Rays general manager and his uncannily successful track record.
Two first basemen that Friedman has signed in the last couple years fit the bill perfectly: Casey Kotchman and James Loney.
When Friedman signed Kotchman to a minor league deal before the 2011 season, he was signing a player who has posted a career-low .229 BABIP in 2010. Loney had a career-low .269 BABIP when he was signed for $2 million ahead of 2013.
The conventional wisdom with BABIP is that players tend to adhere to their career rates. What goes up is probably going to come down, and what goes down is probably going to come up. Friedman had to be betting on the latter happening with both Kotchman and Loney.
And it did. Kotchman's BABIP skyrocketed to .335 in 2011, turning his minor league deal into an $11 million value. Loney's BABIP increased to .326 in 2013, giving him a $13.5 million value from the original $2 million.
An additional great find by Friedman was Jeff Keppinger, another BABIP-boomeranger who turned a $1.5 million contract into a $12.5 million value in 2012. Friedman also signed Kelly Johnson and turned him into a platoon player who crushed right-handed pitching in 2013, making his $2.4 million contract into a $6.1 million value.
Signings like these certainly aren't the main reason why the Rays have been able to be successful year after year despite Opening Day payrolls that consistently fall in the $60-70 million range. They owe much to their homegrown talent, which has been particularly impressive on the mound.
What Friedman's various bargain buys have done is augment the Rays' homegrown talent. Because they're more often solid players rather than stars, that speaks to what bargain free agents are good for: complementing a solid core of players rather than actually forming a solid core of players.
Now, taking a page out of Friedman's book isn't simple. As I've written before, finding diamonds in the rough on the free-agent market is a matter of knowing where to look. More often than not, it's going to involve looking way underneath the surface for something, anything to latch on to.
However, Friedman's hardly the only small-market GM to ever come across a few good bargain buys. In the piece linked above, I highlighted Bartolo Colon and Jonny Gomes as two of Beane's great finds, and Ryan Ludwick as one of Cincinnati Reds general manager Walt Jocketty's good deals. Another that comes to mind is Minnesota's signing of Jim Thome back in 2010.
On occasion, another thing small-market clubs have been known to do is make bargain buys. I call these...
Free-Agent Reclamation Specials
If finding bargains on the free-agent market means knowing how to look closely, then finding good reclamation projects means knowing how to dream big. It means considering not what is there, but what might be there.
Frankly, this is another notion that I could have named after Beane or Friedman. The A's notably succeeded at making something out of Brandon McCarthy and Brandon Moss after Beane picked them up for cheap. Friedman's Rays have a track record of success with reclamation projects that include Carlos Pena, Joaquin Benoit and Fernando Rodney.
But since we've talked enough about them, how's about we bring Neal Huntington back into the fold for some well-deserved props?
Huntington and the Pirates pulled off one of the all-time great reclamation projects with Francisco Liriano in 2013, ultimately turning a contract that was only worth $1 million guaranteed into a $15.5 million value. Getting from Point A to Point B, however, required some effort.
Liriano already had excellent stuff when the Pirates signed him. But as Howard Megdal highlighted for Sports on Earth, the Pirates applied a mechanical tweak that helped Liriano maintain a more consistent arm slot. In addition, they had him effectively ditch his four-seam fastball, a pitch that Brooks Baseball says he threw 26.23 percent of the time from 2007 to 2012.
"I've come here, trying to learn something new," Liriano said midway through the year. "Learning to pitch, everything is something new. So you have to be open [to] everything. That's what I'm doing right now to get better, and it's working so far."
Liriano had posted ERAs over 5.00 in 2011 and 2012, with BB/9s over 5.0 to go along with them. In 2013, the remade version of Liriano pitched to a 3.02 ERA that was helped by a much more passable 3.5 BB/9. The Pirates deserve their share of the credit for making it happen.
Liriano wasn't the only reclamation lefty to pan out in 2013, mind you. Scott Kazmir pulled off a successful comeback with the Cleveland Indians, and the credit is owed to Tribe GM Chris Antonetti for being willing to take a chance on a pitcher who had actually remade himself.
That's another story that Megdal told for Sports on Earth. It goes that Kazmir cultivated a new pitching delivery on his own time behind his own house. He put it to the test in a Puerto Rican winter league and found himself featuring something he hadn't featured in years: velocity.
Any team could have rolled the dice on that velocity playing at the major league level, but the Indians were the ones to do it on a no-risk minor league deal. Behind a fastball that FanGraphs says averaged 92.5 miles per hour—his best since 2005—Kazmir struck out 24.1 percent of the batters he faced and finished with a solid 4.04 ERA in 29 starts.
Plenty of reclamation projects don't pan out, of course. The Indians also brought Daisuke Matsuzaka aboard last spring, and nothing came of it. Jason Bay didn't end up doing much for the Seattle Mariners in 2013. Ditto Miguel Tejada for the Royals.
When reclamation projects backfire on small-market clubs, however, they rarely do any real damage due to the low-risk deals that line things up for the ol' college try. That's part of the beauty of them, with the other part obviously being what stands to be gained if one happens to succeed. They're worth a roll of the dice.
And whether they do it via Billy Beane Specials, Spare Parts Specials, Andrew Friedman Specials or Free-Agent Reclamation Specials, rolling the dice is what it's all about for small-market clubs when the winter comes around.
And if their aim is true, they might just find themselves winning an unfair game.
Note: Stats and contract information courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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