Last week, the staff of BaseballEvolution.com put together a list of five rules for struggling small market franchises. Rule #5 reads, "Sign your young players to long-term deals before they become free agents."
Today, The Tampa Bay Rays and Colorado Rockies finalized long-term extensions with young stars Jamie Shields (7 years, $38-44 M) and Troy Tulowitzki (6 years, $30 M). Each of those contracts broke previous records for extensions granted to players with less than two years of major league experience.
As revolutionary as these two specific deals are, these two expansion franchises, along with the Arizona Diamondbacks and Florida Marlins, have been hoarding younger, cheaper players for years now in an attempt to engender sustained success without bankrupting their respective franchises. And all four of these teams have certainly experienced financial problems before.
Tulowitzki provided solid O
and fantastic D last year
For the Marlins and the D-Backs, their expenditures met with initial success. The 1997 Marlins set a record for an expansion franchise by buying a World Series Championship in only their fifth year of operation. The 2001 Diamondbacks then performed the same feat in four years. The 1998 Marlins followed their championship with an infamous fire sale that would ensure sub-.400 records for the next two seasons.
The Diamondbacks used deferred salary payments to win in the short term, which led to an historically futile 111-loss season in 2004, and also handcuffed the team with undesirable contracts as they continued to spend unwisely before new general manager Josh Byrnes took the helm in late 2005.
The Rockies and Rays had also gone with the overpriced veterans strategy early in their franchise histories; they simply did not enjoy even fleeting success that way. Okay, the Rockies did make the postseason in 1995 as a Wild Card, but only as a .535 winning percentage team that won one playoff game. This proved hardly a triumphant victory for a franchise whose fan base consistently sold out large capacity stadiums; Rockies attendance ranked first in the National League in the franchise's first seven years of existence.
Webb has become quite a bargain
The Devil Rays, as they were then called, dished out hefty contracts to age 30+ players the likes of Vinny Castilla, Greg Vaughan, Juan Guzman, Roberto Hernandez, Fred McGriff, Kevin Stocker, Jose Canseco, John Flaherty, and Gerald Williams early in their franchise history. They still have yet to win more than 70 games in the season, and have only finished better than last place in the AL East once.
All of that is about to change, however. With Shields, Scott Kazmir, and Matt Garza, the Rays easily have the best young rotation in all of baseball. They also possess loads of young offensive talent and one of the top minor league systems in all of baseball. The Rockies and Diamondbacks used their homegrown talent to meet in the NLCS last year. Young, star players such as Aaron Cook, Jeff Francis, Matt Holliday, and Brandon Webb are locked up long-term. The Diamondbacks then used surplus minor league talent to acquire the affordable innings-eater Dan Haren, which ostensibly makes the D-Backs contenders through 2010, when both his and Webb's contracts are up. The Marlins surprised most of the baseball world by competing in 2006, largely with the young players they acquired in the supposed fire sale of the previous winter.
For the next few years at least, three of these four teams stand poised to contend for postseason play despite projected 2008 payrolls that rest easily in the bottom third of all MLB teams. Only the Marlins appear that they will fall short of contention, as their projected salary of $17 million will be less than half of the 29th highest team payroll and less than what four individual players each made last season. While they have stockpiled youngsters as well as anyone, they have not made the commitment towards keeping that talent that the other three franchises have. Still, their $30.5 million payroll of 2007 was enough to win them as many games as the San Francisco Giants ($90 M) and more than the Baltimore Orioles ($93.5 M).
Are other small market franchises adopting this clearly successful strategy of emphasizing young, cheap talent? Largely, no. The Cincinnati Reds recently signed Francisco Cordero to a 4-year, $46 million deal, violating Baseball Evolution's small market rule #4: "Never pay top dollar for a closer." The royals insisted on spending $36 million for three years of the 32-year old Jose Guillen, a known substance abuser who clearly peaked in 2003. The Blue Jays signed so many veterans to huge contracts last offseason as to suppress any major dealings this year. The Pirates' new regime has also elected to make no noise whatsoever, keeping both the cheaper and more expensive players on their 68-win roster from a year ago.
For whatever reason, the four youngest franchises learned the lessons of baseball's new economy quicker than those franchises that have been around for decades. Time will tell whether more of the elder franchises adopt the strategies of the Diamondbacks, Rays, Rockies, and Marlins. If that happens, we could see shorter average careers for players, as no one in baseball will willingly give a mediocre, 36-year old outfielder a lucrative, long-term deal.
For now, newer teams are adapting more quickly to dynamic economic conditions than older ones are. They should enjoy this edge while they can, because it may not last.
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