Monday, December 05, 2005

On Free Agency

Just like any other baseball fan, I’m always fascinated with off-season transactions. That’s mainly because I have an obsession with learning how to build a winning ball club. But being a fan of the Yankees is a unique experience in that regard, since there is always talk about the biggest free agents landing in the Bronx.

The Yankees modus operandi in seasons past has been to throw large chunks of money at the biggest free agents in order to eventually field a team of nine All-Stars. As we all know, that is no efficient way to build a baseball team.

The real question is: why not? The object is to win, and what would give a team a better chance of winning than fielding the very best at every position? This is where the intangible of team chemistry and guts come into play. It’s very difficult for a team that doesn’t get along to win. I know it has been done in the past, but it’s the exception, not the rule. But even more important than team chemistry, I think, is guts, and that’s ten fold when playing in New York.

Let me clarify this before moving on, as “guts” has an ambiguous connotation. You can label it what you will – intestinal fortitude, mental toughness, the desire to win at any cost. But in New York, it boils down to the ability to play baseball knowing that any string of bad luck will have you ostracized by the fans and the media.

Problem is, there is no empirical measure of guts. Other than interviews – which are usually directed by public relations officials – there is no real way to figure out if a guy has the guts to play in New York. We can all make conjectures, but they’re really nothing more than educated guesses.

Isn’t there some way we can figure out if a guy is going to perform in the Bronx? I’ve thought about this for many hours spanning many years, and only one idea has really stuck out to me.

Of course, I love signing big name free agents. It’s exciting, and it gives more hope for the following season. But, I wouldn’t want a player who signed with New York merely because they put the fattest contract under his nose. There has to be a desire to play in the spotlight of the Bronx.

So many players are motivated by a big payday that they’ll sign wherever they get the most cash. And since New York has a seemingly never-ending supply of green, it is the logical stopping point for many free agents. What happens when these guys sign deals is that they become content making millions, and their lack of desire is their downfall in New York.

This should mean a new approach to free agency for the Yanks. They should be offering market value contracts to all potential suitors, and avoid outbidding their adversary. That way, the deciding factor comes down to desire, and if they choose to sign on with New York for the same amount they were offered in Cleveland, there’s more of a chance that the guy is a gamer.

Of course, that means missing out on a few big names that might have turned up huge in New York. However, I believe that’s just the price of smart business. The team can’t be wondering “what if,” lest they get caught back up in the same game of outbidding everyone.

This idea would also discourage prospects-for-All Stars trades. Though they’re not a terrible idea, mortgaging the farm for guys who don’t necessarily want to play in New York shouldn’t be a common occurrence. Sometimes it’s Tino Martinez, sometimes it’s Ken Phelps. There is so much uncertainty involved in these transactions that they should be few and far between, and obviously highly scrutinized before consummation.

New York is a unique place to play ball, with all the tradition and intensity involved. So why not adopt a bit of policy from the Atlanta Braves, since it makes sense in the New York market? Why not hold on to draft picks (read: don’t go splurging on free agents) and make educated, Billy Beane-esque selections? And why not keep them together as a unit and instill them with the sense of Yankee pride?

There was a great article in the Sports Illustrated college basketball preview about Coach K and the “Duke Way.” It mainly dealt with the five incoming freshmen and them adapting to this style of team play that Coach K is famous for. Aren’t the Yankees in a similar boat? Isn’t the “Duke Way” similar to “Yankee Pride?” If Coach K can get his team to fight and die for each other because of tradition, can’t the Yankees do the same?

The Yankees are in a situation that creates unnecessary risk with every acquisition. More than any other team, they should be focusing their efforts on developing young talent in the Yankee mold, since players who grow up in the system are more likely to come with the required intensity than imported parts.

Currently, the farm isn’t geared towards such a mentality. The guys go to play every game, knowing that their number could be called at any point, and off they go to another team’s farm system. That doesn’t really inspire team unity, does it? But if they know, for the most part, that they’re being groomed for the big stage, wouldn’t that have an effect on how they played not only as individuals, but as a team?

I know this strays from my normal, statistic driven diatribes, but the game sometimes goes beyond statistics. Cliché Alert: the stars of the team aren’t getting any younger, and the team needs to be creating a new blueprint for building a ball club in the unique setting of the Bronx, lest they regress to the 1987-1993 versions of the Bombers.