There have been plenty of opinions ventured back and forth about what the rammifications of baseball’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) will be when it comes to how teams draft and sign amateur players and stockpile young pros. And the smart money will tell you, we won’t fully grasp the outcome of these changes until some time goes by and teams adapt to the new reality.
That said, the aim of the rules appears pretty straightforward: to limit the ability of teams to horde young prospects as part of a long-term strategy to build a contender. In other words, the union and Major League Baseball — especially teams not in the bottom rung — want to see teams spending more money so that the gap between “rich” and “poor” is not as pronounced as it currently sits.
For the union, this should lead to more money in the pockets of big league players. And for Bud Selig, it addresses complaints that some smaller market teams are merely pocketing revenue share money while putting out farcical big league products for years at a time under some perpetual rebuilding plan.
Selig has spent years trying to convince fans that baseball is not a “rigged” game and that smaller market teams can compete for the playoffs just as easily as the Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies and others. The Moneyball book helped sell that idea for a time, but now, even the book’s star general manager subject, Billy Beane, admits that exploiting undervalued market commodities no longer works for teams unless they have the cash thrown in to go with it.
And when you look at it, the Yankees and the big spending teams are still making the playoffs or competing up to the very last week almost every year. It’s one reason why they just introduced a second wild-card team to the equation for 2013: the teams that don’t spend as much simply aren’t in the races as much and thus the sport risks turning off fans in too many markets long term.
For every recent success story like the lower-budget Rays (who, again, spent a decade losing big in order to compile their homegrown talent base), there are teams like the A’s, Blue Jays, Royals and Indians that keep spinning their wheels no matter how many sabermetric consultants or Ivy League grads they hire. The Blue Jays and Indians used to spend in the highest echelons of baseball back when they were winning, but now have smaller payrolls than a decade ago (for the Blue Jays, look at the U.S.-Canadian dollar differential between 2001 and 2011 to get the true picture of their spending). The A’s have never spent under Beane, which made them Moneyball darlings nearly a decade ago but one playoff berth since 2003 has changed all that.
So, what this new CBA does is prompt teams to spend more. Got a smart GM? Great. Give him some money to go with the brains.
Which brings us to the Mariners, not exactly a small market team but one whose payroll expenditures have been going the down route since the 2008 stock market crash. What do some of the new changes mean for them?
On the international front, not much. Sure, there will be a limit of pool cash that can be spent on international signings, but that should not alter things very much for a franchise with one of the better reputations in baseball abroad. During my time in the Dominican Republic in 2005, when I spent a week interacting with buscones (street agents) and various baseball scouts and officials, it became clear that teams needed to do more on the ground there than just wave a wad of cash around. The teams that have built up the networks in the Dominican and Venezuela are often the ones that get the first tipoffs about a true prized prospect. Not the players every baseball fan hears about sitting in front of their computer. The ones only a select few clubs will get first crack at. Some of the street agents in the Dominican prefer dealing with established teams and team employees they can take at their word, knowing they won’t be strung along aimlessly for months without a payday. Street cred matters in these places and sometimes it will go further than the extra few dollars dangled by a high-rolling team nobody can trust.
And the families of some players in these countries may be dirt poor, but they aren’t going to give their kids away to just anybody like they would a pet hamster. Again, the reputation of teams matters in these cases, and established ones like the Mariners will often have a decisive edge when it comes to how players will be cared for.
So, internationally, a team like the M’s will still have the edge at gaining access to and finding the best gems hidden in the pile. In the end, the international game isn’t really about signing the priciest bauble — though that’s often a nice side benefit. The true reason for going international has always been to buy up a pile of dozens of players for the cost of one high-round U.S. draft pick, then sift through it and try to find two or three great prospects.
On the domestic front, the strategy of stockpiling young prospects by the boatload through free agency compensation appears to be over with. But the Mariners have never really been experts at this game. At least, not the way GM Alex Anthopoulos of the Blue Jays has become (and he’s likely a main reason for some of the new rules).
What the Mariners do have going for them is a GM in Jack Zduriencik, who has built a reputation for identifying top prospects outside of the obvious choices.
And as a result of some very high draft picks and some good talent evaluation in the later rounds — not to mention trades — Zduriencik has compiled a decent-looking list of players in the lower levels of the minors as well as some on the fringes of Class AAA and the majors.
Pitching-wise, he has James Paxton, Danny Hultzen and the organization’s minor league Pitcher of the Year, Taijuan Walker, working up through the ranks and projecting as top-end rotation types. In the outfield, we’ve already gone over the glut of corner types — Casper Wells, Trayvon Robinson, Michael Saunders, Carlos Peguero and Chih-Hsien Chiang, to name a few — lurking in the upper minors and major league entry level. Not all can stay.
Though the farm system is not completely “rebuilt” from the Pat Gillick and Bill Bavasi eras, very few organizations around the game can say that they are fully stocked. Some are in much worse shape than the Mariners.
And right now, the Mariners have the type of surplus young stock that could greatly benefit some teams caught a little short in their systems. You may remember two years ago, how the Mariners were able to parlay youngsters Phillippe Aumont, J.C. Ramirez and Tyson Gillies (all surplus types in Seattle’s system) into a trade for one of the best pitchers in baseball in Cliff Lee. One of the reasons they accomplished this is because Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. was worried about the lack of depth in his own farm system.
That type of worry is likely permeating through more than one front office these days, as teams caught short in the young talent department now realize they won’t be able to use the same loopholes and draft rules to build it back up again.
It will take time, but eventually, folks will find ways to exploit the rules to their advanatage.
But for now, heading into these winter meetings, Zduriencik should have a bit more of an edge in his corner now that the new CBA is in place. It’s quite possible that the value of some of the surplus talent — whether it’s pitching, outfielders or infielders — he has in the minor leagues just went up. And if that’s the case, it just may help him get a deal or two done within the next 12 months that he would not have been able to complete a few weeks ago.
We’ll see how it all pans out. But on the face of it, the new rules probably won’t impact the Mariners as much as some suspect they will. In fact, with the right GM at the helm — and this is why Zduriencik was hired, no? — their existing circumstances might give them an edge both at home and abroad.
Unless, of course, the team slashes payroll even more dramatically. Then, all bets are off, because the new rules are definitely not geared to help the cost cutters. As we mentioned, the CBA changes will likely lead to a general increase in overall team spending down the road.
For now, I’m just interested in seeing what Zduriencik can get for what he’s been stockpiling.