To begin what will unoubtedly be a sprawling, semi-coherent, Bill Simmons-style post, I'm gonna invoke another shallow, sprawling, semi-coherent, Bill Simmons-style analogy:
Free agency is a lot like planning a wedding reception. You either splurge on what you want and make sure it's quality, or you don't do it at all. No one should foreclose on their house just to show their friends and family a good time, but then again, please--none of this cashbar bullshit.
The live band blows your budget? Fuck it; rent a nice sound system, and hook up an iPod. Can't afford two entrees and sweet table? Make it one entree, forget the sweet table, and stock the bar with black-label booze.
Wait, what was I talking about? Oh yeah. Free agency.
I've long been a believer in this wedding reception approach to free agency. And as a Cubs fan, I have good reason to be. Why? Because I've seen how collosally the opposite approach can often fail.
So now I'm gonna pull another Bill Simmons move and use homer anecdotes and homer facts to make a homer point. But I believe it's relevant. First of all, the Cubs have had the economic flexibility to be competitors for most major free agents in recent years, therefore giving us a concrete example to analyze. And secondly, if anyone has demonstrated the failed version of the win-through-free-agency model in recent years, it's the Chicago Cubs. Or the Orioles. But remembering and looking up stuff about the Orioles is more effort for me. So the Cubs it is.
Let's start with two simple lists.
Top shelf guys the Cubs should have and could have signed through free agency throughout my cognitive baseball years:
Greg Maddux ('92, that is)
Barry Bonds ('92 also)
David Cone (after '94)
Moises Alou (after '96)
Albert Belle (after '96)
Kevin Brown (after '98)
Randy Johnson (after '98)
Robin Ventura (after '98)
Second-shelf guys the Cubs used that well-apportioned cash to sign in aforementioned time period (first year with Cubs, average annual salary and brief subjective commentary on thier performance in parentheses):
George Bell (1991, $2mill; all-star in '91, resurgent season turned into trade value)
Jose Guzman (1993, $3.6mill; out of baseball after one year, paid for three more)
Randy Meyers (1993, $3.9mill; durable, good for a reliever, reliever nonetheless, therefore overpaid)
Jaime Navarro (1995, $1.3mill; pitched well, was a bargain)
Jaime Navarro (1996, $3.6mill; less of a bargain, still pitched well)
Terry Mulholland (1997, $2.4mill; pitched admirably, averagely)
Mel Rojas (1997, $4.6mill; famously awful, mercifully traded)
Jeff Blauser (1998, $4mill; was awful, a joke)
Rod Beck (1998, $3.6mill; one year of good glamour stats, average actual production, weight problem)
Todd Hundley (2001, $5mill; was awful, became almost-sympathetic figure, drinking problem)
Tom Gordon (2001, $2mill; a bargain for his first year, can't be blaimed for getting injured the next)
Jeromy Burnitz (2005, $4.5mill; astoundingly average)
Jacque Jones (2006, $6mill; decent, can't field, played to that description)
Bob Howry (2006, $3.6mill; good, see Randy Meyers)
Scott Eyre (2006, $3.6mill; okay, see Bob Howry)
A few notes about these lists:
1) Some of the wish-list guys are interchangeable, i.e. Kevin Brown and Randy Johnson. They should not and would not have signed both.
2) I used my own fuzzy, selective memory and judgment (which is still way better than most people's selective memory and judgment and also most people's skewed researched opinion) to make these lists. There are undoubtedly glaring ommissions and errors, so I'm putting it on you, the reader, to call me out and make additions/subtractions.
3) I tried my absolute best not to be hidsight-20-20-ish. Thus, I included guys like Kevin Brown, who, given subsequent injuries, ended up as relative busts, and guys like Jaime Navarro, who ended up being worth the dough.
4) I'm not saying that every substitute for the marquee guys was a total louse, per se. Again, I'm trying my best to analyze these players at the time of their availability as best I can.
5) The second list only includes the skimp signings the Cubs have made over this time period. I'll address a few others in the next paragraph.
The Cubs did splurge a few times over this time period, and actually fared pretty well. They came through on their second chance at Alou before the 2002 season (three very productive years at a market-value price). They were also wise enough to extend Sammy Sosa for market value prior to his best season in 2001 (which he would follow with two more very good seasons before falling off significantly).
The only truly marquee, top-dollar (literally) signing that backfired on the Cubs, that I can remember, was the 1992 contract given to Ryne Sandberg. Yeah, it's hard to pick on a guy whose slightly resemblant bronzed face now rests in Cooperstown, but his highest-in-baseball-contract turned out to be a bust (one productive but unspectacular year, followed by retirement). But then again, at the time they offered him the contract, he was very much worth it and did nothing to foreshadow a severe decline.
Anyway, enough rehashing of the past.
Allow me to begin my free agent analysis with a few graphical exhibits. They basically sum up, in highly scientific parameters, my theory on free agency.
As we see by these exhibits, Mark DeRosa probably is only worth $1 million, or a couple million at the most. Neifi Perez, by comparison, deserves federal minimum wage, and Albert Pujols deserves a blank check and his own sovereign nation.
If these graphics seem absurd, it's because they are. If they seem inaccurate, that's also because the are (except for the "Neifi zone" of the curve, which is irrefutably accurate). But if you're a weird-ass freak like me who understands all concepts--even abstract ones--in graphical format, these should make sense. They convey a philosophy on baseball economics, which essentially is this:
(The crux of this entire post)
All, all, free agents are overpaid. Compared to non-tenured young guys, non-roster invitees, and other such bargains found on each and every major league roster, any tenured, free agent eligible player is comparitively overpaid. People seem to forget this. Even taking into account the magic of arbitration, open-market free agents make more than they are worth to any major leauge roster.
Look at it this way: A free agent-eligible, semi-established player with a few good years under his belt will probably make five-to-ten times what a non-tenured player would make. But throughout the duration of such a contract, how much more production do these players typically provide versus a series of hypothetical average, middle-of-the-bell-curve non-tenured players? In my wildly inexact estimation, I would say almost none. Which is to say, over the duration of such contracts, the generic second-shelf free agent offers no more production long-term than a series of well-utilized non-tenured players.
(Aside: Is it just me, or did I just use a ton of hyphens? Anywho...)
I guess it all comes down to one simple question for GMs: Why bother?
Why bother spending money on a supposedly established player if his established reputation is a player only equal to or marginally better than a replacement making a fraction of the price? What GMs and baseball fans need to realize is that free agency can only go so far in altering the balance of talent and the inevitable ups and downs of every major leauge franchise. Single-offseason patchwork creations typically have no net positive effect for a baseball team.
But then again, there are those other guys. There are guys like Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, Greg Maddux, Ken Griffey Jr., and Pedro Martinez. These are guys who, in their primes, absolutely blow up the bell curve of talent. For a temporal yet relatively expansive period in their careers, these guys contribute what almost no other individual can. They literally contribute as much to winning--if you're a Win Shares person--as three or four other fourth-quintile-type players. And how often can teams can find that kind of production from the young talent pipeline and low-tier free agency alone?
Free agency is about turning salary-committed money into a frivilous thing for the sake of winning and--more importantly--for making a high-risk investment toward the long-term marketability of a franchise. Does a guy like Jeff Suppan or Mark DeRosa truly contribute to those goals at the cost of five times a non-tenured player?
I always wonder how often agents and quality GMs double over in scotch-spitting laughter after convincing some clueless team that a eighth-year third baseman with a .700 OPS is worth $7 million or that a guy who throws 80 innings per year with 1.35 WHIP while racking up 45 meaningless tokens known as "saves" is worth $10 million.
(Another aside: As everyone throws their panties at Dave Dombrowski for being The Man Who Turned Around a 119-Loss Franchise and Got Them to a World Series Three Years Later, let us all remember that he was also The Man Who Thought a 35 Year-Old Troy Percival Was Worth $6 Million a Year.)
Again, I'd hate to reduce this whole argument to flimsy analogies, but quite simply, free agency does come down to paying top dollar for a true value or paying big money for generic quality in a slick package.
Which gets to my next point.
Contrary to popular opinion, top-notch free agents are not paid such sickeningly extravagant salaries because fans and owners put them on too high of a pedestal. Rather, they are compensated fairly (i.e. proportionate monies per rarity and quality of skills, based on the Bergl curves) compared to other free agent signings. The outrageous salaries are the creation of GMs and agents convinced that guys like Jeff Suppan are worth $6 million per year. By comparison, of course Alfonso Soriano is worth $19-$23 million.
So now getting back to the Cubs, what does my know-it-all ass think they should do? Very simply, sign Soriano. They wisely re-signed Ramirez, and now the only other guy out there worth the free agent plunge is Alfonso Soriano. Carlos Lee? Almost. Zito? Nah. (I can offer up a whole post on why the Cubs should not sign him and would be more than glad to if challenged).
Sign Soriano; he's not quite Beltran, but he's still special. And then have a good laugh and a scotch toast to the poor sons of bitches who spend $5 million on Jeff Suppan.
Then again, I'm only wishing. The Cubs themselves will probably be those poor sons of bitches.