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August 6, 2012 at 8:59 AM

The benefits of “free talent” as part of the formula to helping build a winner

Read an interesting piece late last week in ESPN reminding us all about how “free talent” can be just as important to helping build a winner as some of the other key ingredients. For me, there are three components every championship contender must have in putting together a roster that will achieve sustained success:
1. A youthful core of some extent
2. Free talent
3. Successful free agent purchases
And not necessarily in that order, either.
Much of it depends on the money you have to spend as a ballclub. For teams that want to spend money, you can afford some misses on the free agency part of it. The youthful core part of it also doesn’t have to be as plentiful.
If you’re trying to win on a budget, your free agency purchases can’t miss. Often, your free agency purchases will be the low-cost/high-upside, or, “catch lightning in a bottle” types of spending. And your youthful core, naturally, will have to be strong at multiple positions in order to free up money for the free agent purchases.
It’s all about cost, not some altruistic idea that players in their mid-20s are somehow better than those in their early 30s. Often, with the experience factor at-play, that’s simply not the case. But young players with less than six years of service time — or even those rare gems who can contribute prior to arbitration, like Buster Posey did with the champion Giants two years ago — simply cost far less in general than good players who have hit free agency.
So, unless you plan to spend $200 milion or $300 million every year buying up the best players and keeping them around, it’s a good idea to always have some semblance of a developing youthful core to save on costs. Contrary to popular belief, the Mariners had one when Bill Bavasi was the GM. They had Jose Lopez at second base, Yuniesky Betancourt at shortstop, Jeff Clement at catcher and Wladimir Balentien in the corner outfield by the time the 2008 season was one month in. Not to mention Felix Hernandez and virtually the entire bullpen outside of J.J. Putz. The problem is, the core didn’t turn out to be as good as had been hyped, other than Hernandez and relief pitcher Eric O’Flaherty. And when that happens, it’s going to be a big factor in why that GM eventually loses his job, as was the case with Bavasi. No, it wasn’t just the Erik Bedard trade.
Anyhow, between the young core and free agency, you have the concept we’re discussing today — free talent. And it does often get overlooked by those examining how winning teams got built. Because like young talent, the “free talent” equation usually saves you big money as well and doesn’t cost valuable players in return.
In the item I’ve linked to, it correctly points out how the Rangers, in addition to trading Mark Teixeira to form much of their youthful core, were also able to pick up Nelson Cruz, Mike Napoli, David Murphy, Colby Lewis and Alexi Ogando for next to nothing player-wise in return.
The Giants of 2010 might be the best example of using free talent to build a winner, adding Cody Ross, Pat Burrell and Andre Torres to round out a roster heavy on pitching talent but in need of bats.
Talent is never “free” since every player costs money. But the free part comes in teams not having to give up value on the roster in order to acquire value.
On the current Mariners roster, you can argue that Eric Thames would be “free talent” if he ever becomes a contributing part of a championship club. Or, even if he merely gives the M’s something more in value down the road than they’ve had from other fourth-outfielder types. Thames was acquired for Steve Delabar, a low-cost reliever with average numbers whose hard-throwing skillset was duplicated by many others either on the current roster or in the minors.
So, giving him up really didn’t cost the team value. And developing Delabar sure didn’t cost the M’s anything, since he was signed off the scrap heap last year.
Tom Wilhelmsen could be considered “free talent” since he was also a scrap heap pickup and has emerged into one of the better relievers in baseball. This one’s a little trickier, though, since he was not a waiver-wire pickup, but technically a Class A pitcher. You almost want to credit the Mariners for developing Wilhelmsen as a “homegrown” talent, but, for me, that would have required taking a chance by drafting him. They didn’t do that — the Brewers did a decade ago. So, that makes Wilhelmsen the equivalent of a minor league free agent — to me — and thus an excellent “free talent” pickup.
So, who else?
Photo Credit: AP

Well, so far, you’ve got another relief pitcher, Lucas Luetge, who was claimed as a Rule 5 draft pick by the Mariners last winter. Yeah, he had to be kept on the roster all season but he’s earned his spot. Again, that’s a guy the M’s got for nothing in return. Free talent.
Moving on down the line, you see pitcher Kevin Millwood and infielder Munenori Kawasaki. Both were invited to camp as minor league free agents and are now on the major league team. Millwood is clearly contributing more at this stage and at $1 million isn’t costing the team all that much for a starting pitcher.
So, for me, Millwood is a good example of “free” talent.
Hisashi Iwakuma, not so much, since he wasn’t brought here on a minor league deal. He came over on a major league contract that was guaranteed and didn’t actually start earning his money in his expected role until halfway through the season. Not quite a bargain.
There is an argument to be made that John Jaso is an example of free talent because the M’s got him for another redundant relief pitcher, Josh Lueke, who has spent most of this season in Class AAA for the Rays after getting belted around in the majors. But I can’t go that far as to proclaim Jaso as “free” talent, since it took Cliff Lee to get Lueke in the first place and that’s a pretty hefty price. So, no-go on that.
And that’s about it.
So, as you can see, other than relief pitchers Wilhelmsen and Luetge and corner outfielder Thames, the M’s are a tad short on the free talent side when it comes to anybody who will still be here in 2013.
I know that the team has spent much of 2012 trying to develop its young position players, but the M’s, quite frankly, could have bolstered that effort by bringing in some older, more established bats to take pressure off the lineup. That wasn’t done, either through free agency or a “free talent” pickup of any substance. Last year, you had Adam Kennedy filling an important role — way beyond his mid-30s ability level — for much of the season at a cost of next to nothing for the team as a minor league free agent pickup. Never mind what his final stats turned out to be after the M’s ran him into the ground, he was employed as an everyday regular at multiple positions and throughout the batting order — even at cleanup — during the season so that younger players wouldn’t have to drown by swimming before they were fully ready.
This year, prior to going on the DL in late-July, Kennedy had hit .250 with a .331 OBP for a contending Dodgers team when used in a more limited fashion.
Prior to Kennedy, the M’s attempted more “free talent” pickups in the early years of the regime of GM Jack Zduriencik. Utility-man Bill Hall was picked up in a waiver claim in August of 2009 and the M’s eventually traded him for Casey Kotchman. Had Kotchman produced, you could have argued that the whole thing was a success, but now? Not really.
Same with the Ryan Langerhans pickup back in 2009. At first, the Langerhans move was hailed as “free talent” by some observers since he was acquired for a 1B/OF with no real use to the Mariners. Under further review, however, the price of Mike Morse now seems a rather hefty one to pay for Langerhans, currently plying his trade in AAA for another organization.
(Somebody in the comments thread mentioned Russell Branyan as well, who indeed was an excellent “free talent” signing by Zduriencik prior to 2009 and delivered for four excellent months that year. Mike Sweeney also delivered value for next to nothing in cost that year.)
David Aardsma might have been the biggest example of “free talent” success for Zduriencik, given how he was acquired for a minor league pitcher named Fabian Williamson. The Mariners got two good “free” seasons out of Aardsma as a closer at the cost of essentially zero in terms of player talent. Unfortunately, they were not able to capitalize on that any further by dealing him at the July 2010 deadline and the pitcher was hurt after that.
So, you can argue that the three biggest “free talent” pickups of the Zduriencik regime were all relief pitchers — Aardsma, Wilhelmsen and Luetge — with the latter two and outfielder Thames still here. Going forward, the Mariners could certainly use a boost in the “free talent” department from a position player standpoint.
That’s not rocket science. This offense is still well below average and not all of this “young talent” is going to cut it down the road. The Mariners will need some fallback plans to be brought in next winter and unless ownership is suddenly going to throw the vault door open, it wouldn’t hurt if Zduriencik could find himself a freebie that also knows how to swing a bat with some authority.
No, it isn’t easy to do that. But as you can see in the article I’ve linked to above, most of the contending teams usually find a way.

Comments | Topics: Hisashi Iwakuma


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