Building from within key in today’s MLB

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

This offseason’s barren free-agent market has left many teams scrambling to fill holes and improve their clubs via trade. The hottest names available are two-time Cy Young Award-winner Johan Santana and the National League’s best young slugger, Miguel Cabrera.

The Twins are hoping to maximize Santana’s trade value by dealing him before the season starts without risking losing him to free agency. Cabrera, meanwhile, is arbitration-eligible, which for the cost-conscious Marlins is motivation enough to deal their best player.

The Dodgers and Angels have been most closely linked to Cabrera, while the Red Sox, Yankees and Mets have been frequently associated with Santana trade talks. Adding a legitimate superstar might seem like an attractive option, but the asking price is so high that whoever lands them will almost certainly regret it.

Though some people believe that general managers tend to overvalue their prospects, given today’s out-of-control free agent market hoarding young talent has never made more sense. When a minor leaguer gets called up to the major league team, he can’t become a free agent for six seasons. That equals six years of service from players at a fraction of their market value and limits the need to overspend on free agents.

Teams should look no further than their own past mistakes to understand just how valuable it is to have talented, cost-controlled players. The Angels were forced to hand out $145 million in contracts to center fielders Gary Matthews Jr. and Torii Hunter in back-to-back winters. The Red Sox paid over $200 million for the services of Daisuke Matsuzaka, Julio Lugo and J.D. Drew. The Dodgers gave $92 million to Juan Pierre and Jason Schmidt. The Yankees were so desperate for pitching that they gave Roger Clemens a prorated $28-million deal. The Mets, who are still wondering what they’ll get out of their $53 million investment in Pedro Martinez, recently dolled out $25 million for light-hitting Luis Castillo despite his clearly diminished skills.

Though truly superstars, neither Cabrera nor Santana come sans risk. Cabrera, who will likely command hundreds of millions of dollars when he is a free agent in the winter of 2009, will struggle to remain at third base due to weight issues. Santana is reportedly asking for a deal starting at $150 million over six years, which would make him 30 years old when his record-setting deal begins.

While teams will debate how much of their futures they are willing to mortgage to make improvements today, they may find that their immediate futures wouldn’t be much brighter even after a Santana or Cabrera acquisition. Would the Angels really win that many more games after giving up second basemen Howie Kendrick, who hit .320 at a premium position and figures to contend for batting titles on an annual basis, catcher Jeff Mathis, on-base machine Reggie Willits and top pitching prospect Nick Adenhart? Wouldn’t the Dodgers be a better team in 2008 with James Loney, Andy LaRoche and Clayton Kershaw? Is it unreasonable to suggest that Kershaw, the Yankees’ Phil Hughes or the Red Sox’s Clay Buchhholz could approach Santana’s production over the course of his contract at a fraction of the price?

Santana is undoubtedly the game’s best pitcher, and Cabrera will likely soon surpass Alex Rodriguez as baseball’s top-hitting third baseman. Still, teams are much better off holding on to their prospects and re-investing the money that they would have spent on lucrative contract extensions for Cabrera and Santana in the draft, on international free agents and re-signing their own players, dipping into the free-agent pool only when they need to.

Tom Trudeau ’09 is cost-controlled by his parents until 2009.

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