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Daily coverage of the Mariners during the season and all year long.

October 29, 2012 at 1:01 PM

World Series champion Giants prove once again that teams can overcome even major free agent mistakes

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Another baseball season has come and gone, this one in sort of anti-climatic fashion after a four-game World Series sweep by the San Francisco Giants. Watching the final was clearly a disappointment from a competitive standpoint since, once again, the Detroit Tigers fell short of expectations – as they did in 2006 – by stumbling early and never regaining their footing.
It happens.
But for me, there was something very interesting to take away from the two teams that made the World Series this year. And it will have pertinence for Mariners fans as we look ahead to a winter full of debate over the types of players the team should be looking for.
Hopefully, this World Series finally put to rest the notion that taking a significant financial risk in baseball is automatically setting a team up for doom and gloom down the road. You’d think this notion would have been laid to rest by now, since, no matter how catastrophic some free agent failures have seemed to be over the years, baseball teams run by wealthy and generally intelligent people keep on coming back for more.
And yet, despite this, every winter we get dire predictions from those who obsessively preach cost-consciousness in baseball as if the money being spent is coming out of their own pockets. Heck, it isn’t even coming out of owners’ pockets in most cases, since many have been set up for life by revenue-generating ballparks built courtesy of taxpayers, not to mention lucrative television contracts built on the backs of increasingly-gouged consumers held hostage by bundled programming.
Despite this, we still hear nonsense each winter about how this contract, or that contract, could set teams up for years of financial distress or — perish the thought — even bankruptcy down the road. Never mind that no baseball team in history has ever gone bankrupt because of a salary given to any player or group of players. Those pointing to A-Rod and Tom Hicks really should do some homework on the former Texas Rangers owner and what led to his downfall. Same with the Wilpons and the Mets and Frank McCourt and the Dodgers.
Repeat after me: no huge contract has ever financially crippled a franchise, or led to its insolvency. At worst, a big-payroll franchise trying to offload huge paychecks might have to rebuild a year or two — no, not five or six — but that’s about it.
Back to the Giants and Tigers.
Last winter, we saw months of debate over whether a lengthy Prince Fielder contract would be worth it. Those opposed, by and large, trotted out the whole financial ruin argument and mentioned that the Tigers would ultimately live to regret the deal they gave Fielder on the back end. Meaning, once Fielder was old, slow and not producing, the Tigers would be paralyzed by financial instability because of a massive portion of payroll he’d take up.
For me, the Giants and Tigers represent the two sides of the Fielder debate.
The Tigers represent the good that can come to a franchise that takes a chance and pays the freight for a player who makes an immediate impact.
And the Giants represent the other side: a team that signs away a hefty part of future payroll for a free agent — in this case, Barry Zito — who goes completely bust and leaves them stuck.
So, tell me, which team is in misery this morning? Exactly. Neither of them is.
Photo Credit: AP


That nightmare scenario preached by may who opposed the Fielder signing is exactly what happened to the Giants with Zito. And yet, here we are on the most punitive, back-end portion of his seven-year contract and the Giants just won their second World Series in the last three years.
How is that possible? Because the logic I’ve heard preached far too often by those preoccupied with saving every penny for owners worth hundreds of millions of dollars says that the Giants should be feeling it pretty bad right now.
Just like the Tigers will be in five or six years. Or, so the false logic and myth of franchise bankruptcy/paralysis tells us.
No, the Giants are not paralyzed. They just won their second championship in three years. They did it by spending around the Zito deal, to the point where they fielded a $131 million payroll this season. Last year, they were up at $117 million and looked headed to the playoffs again until their offensive lynchpin, Buster Posey, got hurt.
This year, with Posey back healthy, the team made some modest expenditures on $6 million slugger Melky Cabrera, then took on the $10-million contract of Hunter Pence at the trade deadline. They were already paying top dollar to pitchers Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain — two starters who helped them capture the 2010 World Series with a rotation that was designed to overcome Zito’s non-production.
Sure, the Giants are thriving because they made a great draft pick in Posey.
I’m sure all the people who spent the past decade mocking Giants GM Brian Sabean will give him his due for that, as well as the fact he’s now got two championship rings and three World Series appearances.
Actually, no. I won’t hold my breath on that one. Many of the people who obsessively preach cost-consciousness in baseball for franchises with values that have doubled and tripled the past decade don’t tend to like Sabean or others of his ilk. Those GMs tend to take risks with money and — as with any risky proposition — can make mistakes. Sometimes, huge mistakes, like Zito.
But in the end, they win. And their teams keep getting wealthier.
As for the Tigers, sure they wanted to win the World Series. But they’ll have to settle for the AL pennant in their first year of the Fielder deal.
For those keeping score, that’s one more AL pennant than the Mariners have managed the past 35 years.
Without Fielder and Miguel Cabrera providing the most lethal 1-2 hitting punch in baseball this season, the Tigers would not have even made the playoffs never mind the World Series. Those two carried a Tigers team that was hampered all season by mound injuries and non production from the Nos. 5 and 6 spots in the order.
And when they stopped carrying the Tigers in the World Series, the end result was what might have befallen Detroit all year if not for Fielder and Cabrera: a bunch of 2-0 defeats.
Still, it was only the third pennant in 28 years for the Tigers. Not a bad start to the Fielder era.
Some have tried to argue that the Tigers winning just 85 games somehow takes away from their AL championship. Sure, just like the 1987 Twins sit there pained by having won only 85 games. Or, the 87-win Yankees of 2000, wishing they could have padded their regular season total so their third straight world title would mean more. How about the Cardinals of 2006, or 2011? Think they would trade their results for a few more regular season wins?
No, they would not. Nobody who knows anything about baseball would. The goal in MLB is to make the playoffs, gain home advantage if possible and go as far as you can.
The Tigers came four wins away from a championship. They had a successful season.
And so did the Giants, in spite of a Zito contract that wieghs them down.
Look, this isn’t some clarion call for teams to go out and waste money. There is a lot to be said for trying not to overpay on players and to assemble teams with as much financial flexibility as possible.
But at some point, you have to take risks. You can build and build for years with safe, cost-effective players and always keep putting the end goal off in the distant future so that you never really fail.
For some teams, though, there is a goal beyond not failing. The goal of winning. And at some point, that involves taking chances and perhaps having things blow up big right in your face.
At that point, you can tuck your tail between your legs and never try again while you wait years for one bad deal to run out.
Or, you can do what the Giants did, suck it up and keep on trying. Somehow, the Giants managed to do that with Zito. They managed to do it in a non-East Coast market, in a city roughly the same size as Seattle, with the same types of industries driving it. They did it even with another MLB club camped right on their doorstep competing for the same baseball dollars.
Both the Tigers and Giants have taken some of the biggest chances on free agents in the history of baseball. One has worked out very well so far, the other was as big a flop as any nightmare scenario envisioned.
And yet, both franchises are thriving today.
This should be a lesson to those who tend to get overcome with fear when free agency is discussed. Not fear based on baseball reasons. Just the fear of risk-taking and the fact they lack the stomach for big deals that many MLB teams do not.
There is nothing wrong with a little fear. We all have some of it within us. But sometimes, our biggest fear is derived more from our imagination of what could happen than from anything based in reality.
In the case of the Giants, they have already lived the worst-case disaster with Zito that those opposed to a Fielder deal keep warning about. And the Giants just won their second World Series title in three seasons.
So, this winter, when folks start warning about how signing Free Agent X, or trading for Player B could paralyze the Mariners financially, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Challenge those people who try to tell you what your baseball team really can and really can’t afford. Then, go out and challenge them again.
For too long, the baseball debate about free agents and salary has been dominated by those who preach cost-consciousness and modest payrolls. Dominated because of a fear of what spending a little more might entail. A fear that, as we’ve seen from a team hit by the worst free agent mistake of the past 20 years, proved largely unfounded.
Most teams could be spending a lot more than they do. And when, each and every winter, a few of them start to move the barometer, it gets the fear meter going. But that doesn’t make it the wrong move. In fact, if we weren’t all so afraid of seeing owners worth nine and 10 figures risk a little personal money, fans of teams that don’t make the playoffs all that often might actually be asking some questions that matter.
Like, what the true goal of those teams really is and whether they have any specific timeline for on-field success.
In San Francisco, they aren’t asking those questions this morning. The cold grip of fear that took hold when Zito first stopped producing has long since dissipated. Giants fans know the truth about such fear: that any mistake, no matter how bad, can be overcome if a team uses its financial resources to do so.
That fans should not fear teams that take risks. They should fear the ones that stop trying, or never take a shot in the first place.

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