I already put a simple piece up this month covering what the Tigers should do if the goal is to build for the short term and short term only – that still stands: Sign Josh Hamilton. But what should the Tigers do if the goal is not to go all in on one (or two) more World Series runs but to ensure that the franchises present level of success is not too greatly diminished in the medium term?
And more to the point: how do you abuse an unabusable CBA?
We all knew that the old system did nothing to create a level playing field for MLB teams or to ensure parity. The compensation system churned out sandwich picks for big-market teams as they shuffled free agents between themselves. A team with deep pockets could get a top-20 talent in the second round by offering him a top-10 signing bonus. The lack of any limitations on international signees allowed teams to shovel money into Dominican blue chips to make up for low or few draft picks. Those avenues to game the system are all mostly gone now – in terms of amateur acquisitions and development the new CBA does (or at least should) do a great deal to restrict attempts to simply buy a fresh farm system.
Unfortunately, the Detroit Tigers are in the unenviable position of needing to buy a fresh farm system after depleting their prospect pool by sacrificing first-round picks and dealing away talent mid-season year after year. I am not criticizing past Tigers decisions – the on-field product that Dave Dombrowski has put together has been among the best in franchise history and most of those prospects (and picks) sacrificed have not (yet) amounted to anything close to the players they bought.
So what can a well-run team with deep pockets do to try to game a system set up to make sure that the Milwaukee Brewers playoff chances (over a decades-long horizon) don’t differ too much from those of the New York Yankees? The first thing (and this should come as a surprise to no one) is that the new CBA – because it makes it difficult to build a team by reallocating resources from the big-league club to amateur signings – puts a premium on major league payroll. That probably isn’t what the owners of small-market clubs were hoping for – but there you are. The Tigers are playing that game well. If no team can put together a critical mass of pre-arbitration-eligible talent, and everybody gets a slow drip-feed of prospects to add to the big-league roster the teams that can afford to fill holes with cash are in a very good position. So I am not suggesting that the Tigers need to plan on rebuilding, just that something ought to be done to renew a pipeline that is very nearly dry.
The second thing is to make use of all the resources that the new system allots: There is a soft cap on international bonuses… use it. Or at the very least find a way to deal your extra “cap space” once that becomes possible. The Tigers have rarely been involved in pursuit of “blue chip” amateurs from Latin America – possibly due to very real concerns over risks and records. That ought to change. The Tigers have, on the other hand, signed a large number of lower tier Latin amateurs – so it certainly isn’t as though they lack a presence.
The third thing is “hold onto your guys”. It used to be a good plan to let a free agent go and sign his doppelganger – netting a sandwich pick in the process. That doesn’t work any more. If the Tigers were to – for example – let Justin Verlander go after 2014 and sign the next best starter out there to replace him both teams would sacrifice their first-round picks (not trade them) and get a sandwich pick to make up for it. Now it’s a net loss, not a net gain. You’re better off keeping your best guys (in addition to the fact that they are franchise icons) even if you’re gaming the system – which probably is the point of the whole thing.
The fourth (and most important) thing is to churn that roster. How do you have a fire sale and stay a 90 win team? By having more talent on the big-league roster than you could ever possibly use. The new CBA makes sure that a lot of near stars (and even some stars) will be available without draft pick compensation required. Presumably letting a guy go who you made a qualifying offer to – and replacing him with somebody that didn’t get a qualifying offer – is going to be a net negative for the big league roster (though you might save some cash). It’s not always the case, though, since guys dealt mid-season can’t get qualifying offers. That’s not really what I’m referring to – though – what I mean is that the best way to replenish a farm system looks to be to replace guys currently under contract with equivalent free agents and deal the guys you no longer need. That is the kind of move we have been hearing about in the case of Stephen Drew and Jhonny Peralta as well as Anibal Sanchez (who might free Rick Porcello to be traded). Both of those would – at least potentially – be canny moves and good ways to help fill out the farm system even if they did little to immediately benefit the big-league club. Moving guys like Justin Upton and Shin-Soo Choo probably makes more sense – to a team with resources – than acquiring them. The smartest move – as bizarre and un-Tiger-like as this might sound might actually be to trade Justin Verlander now for a supreme prospect haul after handing blank checks to both Anibal Sanchez and Zack Greinke. After the 2013 season Dombrowski should seriously consider dealing at least Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello and taking offers on Austin Jackson and Alex Avila while looking for replacement among tier 2 free agents.
Roster churn isn’t really a pleasant concept for most baseball fans, but the way the system is set up right now there is very little chance of getting anything worthwhile back once a player’s contract is up. That means that – if at all possible – the guy should be dealt before that happens. What that means is that – in order to “beat” the CBA – it is less important to have a high payroll ceiling (though that will also be relevant) as it is to make sure that you make smart free agent signings. If the guy is paid more than he is worth – he lacks trade value. That’s simple. If you sign a guy to a five-year deal and only expect him to earn it for the first two, you aren’t going to have any “value” to unload towards the end of the contract. As under the old agreements, the simple secret to long-term franchise success is less to use resources to buy wins but to use both resources and brains to create assets.