Posts Tagged ‘Bobby Abreu’

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Talent Show

January 16, 2009

DD writes:
Wasn’t there an argument that the expansion of the ’90s diluted the MLB talent pool a bit? The glut of still-available, decent-performing free agents speaks more to the economy than anything else, but is it a sign that the league’s talent level is as high as it’s been?

I think the glut of still-available free agents is due to a couple factors. The first of which is baseball’s extremely flawed draft-pick compensation system. Originally conceived to put some friction on the inflation of star salaries and to compensate small- and mid-market teams that could not afford to keep their home-grown superstars, it is now penalizing middle-tier players AND lower-market teams. 

Here’s how the system works. The Elias Sports Bureau ranks the available free agents every year. Players are assigned to three ranking categories (Type A, Type B, and unranked) on the basis of Elias determination of their performance over the past two years. Type A free agents are supposed to represent the cream of the crop at their positional group (middle infielders, corner players, catchers, relievers, etc.), Type B represent above-average players, and unranked players are at the bottom. The rankings are extremely flawed due to their reliance on past rather than future performance, and because the statistics used are often things such as RBI, pitcher wins, batting average, and errors. These stats are often highly context dependent (players on good teams have more RBIs and wins), and so are unreliable predictors of future performance. Because the rankings are based on the past two years, the rankings produce some very poor results. 

Teams that sign a Type A free agent have to give up their first round draft pick, unless it is protected (in the top 15 slots), or it has already been given away to another team by signing a better player. The success of the Rockies, Rays, and Red Sox, and Indians with large home-grown cores supplemented by free agents has forced teams to reconsider the value of their first-round pick. Jason Varitek, who while not a great player is at least serviceable at catcher, can’t get a job because as a Type A free agent, no team is willing to give up a potential home-grown stud in exchange for a year of an old, declining (but still useful) player. Rather than compensate a small-market team losing a star, the system is giving the Red Sox management a very powerful piece of negotiating leverage to prevent Varitek from looking for anything better than the Red Sox low-ball offer.

Now that teams are carefully guarding their draft picks, Type A free agents who are not elite superstars are in a terrible predicament. The only teams with interest in marginal Type A players would be teams that already gave up their first round pick due to a Type A signing, such as the Yankees with Mark Teixeira. I’m not going to argue that the system is designed to bolster the Yankees (the Red Sox have gone on their own Type A spending sprees in the past), but this sort of arrangement prevents a team like Kansas City from using Varitek’s knowledge for a year and gives the Yankees more leverage with certain kinds of free agents. Clearly the intent is not being served.

I suspect a second factor that is amplifying teams reluctance to give up draft picks is a better understanding of defense (and the cost of poor defense). Many of the veteran players we see hanging around on the market (Manny, Abreu, Dunn) are poor defenders. I wonder if teams are placing more weight on defense in their player projections, which might narrow the perceived gap in the projected value between a player such as Bobby Abreu and a young, minimum salary outfielder with a better glove.

So to answer your question in an indirect way, I think the talent level in MLB IS as high as it’s ever been, but that is somewhat difficult to prove with quick-and-dirty math. I think the swarm of unsigned free agents is a symptom of the poor economic outlook and the realization by teams that the contributions of young minimum salary players may provide more bang for the buck than those of aging veterans. Paying for past performance is quite expensive.

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