Efficiency Not Money Separates Good and Bad Franchises
With the news that the Pittsburgh Pirates extended the contracts of their manager and general manager this past off-season, it’s important to understand what makes for a good baseball front office and what makes for a bad one. Pirates’ manager John Russell and Pirates’ general manager Neal Huntington are taking a lot of heat because their team will more than likely extend their consecutive losing seasons record to 18. But the new regime that came in in September 2007 (under president Frank Coonelly, Huntington and Russell) have taken the franchise in the right direction.
Too often fans want to put too much emphasis on results, which is understandable, particularly in the case of a team that hasn’t won anything since Boyz II Men topped the charts. The point is to win, after all. But, especially in the early going of a new regime taking over a franchise in pitiful shape, we must remember to look more at the philosophical direction of the franchise and what the front office is doing to set the team up for success.
The Pirates weren’t going to win anything with Jason Bay, Nate McLouth, Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson. If your team isn’t going to win with players who are expensive, will soon be expensive and are in or past their primes (i.e., they aren’t likely to get any better), why not trade those players for youth and/or players with cheaper contracts?
You will hear it often that teams like the Pirates and Royals can’t compete because of money. But what actually separates good franchises from bad ones is actually payroll and roster efficiency. The Tampa Bay Rays were in a similar situation to the Pirates and the Royals. The Rays started to turn things around when they took an approach similar to the current Pirates’ approach. Tampa Bay traded any tradeable commodities and went younger and cheaper.
It’s true the Rays got some luck along the way. Many of the players they drafted actually became quality Big Leaguers and some of the players they took fliers on (Carlos Pena) actually exceeded expectations. But the front office did it’s part to let their youth develop and resisted the temptation to acquire veteran players who are more costly than other players who provide similar production.
The Twins are another example of a team without the resources of the teams in New York, Boston, Los Angeles and Chicago yet Minnesota seems to be competitive every season. They do this by trading players right before or as soon as those players become too expensive relative to their production, and the Twins usually get young and useful players in return. Minnesota also resists signing those veterans who provide no more production than cheaper players. Most importantly the Twins trust their scouting and player development.
If we look at teams like the Baltimore Orioles and the Kansas City Royals, it’s hard to see any particular organizational philosophy, especially not one centered around payroll and roster efficiency.
Baltimore acquired quite a few past-their-prime veterans before the 2004 and 2005 seasons. Many of these players were still productive but a) the Orioles had nothing else with which to surround those players and b) they weren’t able to sell high on these players. In their defense, the Orioles seemed to have gotten back on track at least somewhat with some good draft picks and savvy trades for young players.
Kansas City’s roster is filled with the likes of Jason Kendall, Scott Podsednik, Yuniesky Betancourt and Rick Ankiel, Gil Meche and Kyle Farnsworth. Most of these players are past their primes, they aren’t good and they make more than players who couldn’t do any worse. The Royals are baseball’s poster child for inefficiency. If the Royals had all the revenue they could ask for and still ran their franchise like they currently do, they would look something like the Orioles of 2004-2007.
Even the Yankees and Red Sox do more than rely on overpaid-for-their-production, veteran acquisitions. They still trust their player development when they have to and they go out and get players that make less than others relative to their production (by Yankee and Red Sox standards). The Yankees and Red Sox have standards of payroll and roster efficiency, even if the threshold of what they can pay is higher.
It is disingenuous to ignore the fact that the Yankees and Red Sox have legit shots at 95-plus wins every season and to pretend that money doesn’t play a roll in that. But it’s also important to realize that teams can have a measure of success even if they don’t bring in the revenue of a team playing in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, or Philadelphia. It’s true that it will be tough for the Rays to compete for 15-20 consecutive seasons like the Yankees and Red Sox can, and that’s because of money. But the money excuse only goes so far. It’s also true that it would take some luck for Pittsburgh or Kansas City to have a few 95-plus-win seasons somewhere down the road, no matter how good a job their front offices do. But it’s also true that a few competitive seasons are bound to eventually crop up if Pittsburgh continues to pay a great deal of attention to payroll and roster efficiency and if Kansas City starts to.