I wanted to point out a story on SI.com by Sky Andrecheck. He talks about teams, like the Jays, that have decided they won't compete this year, so they say they won't spend in the free agent market. He wonders, like I wonder, if it is really a good idea. He points out that the Jays were above .500 for the three years before this past year, when every starting pitcher was hurt, their two best offensive players from the year before tanked and they still scored more runs than they allowed.
He says out that .500 teams can sometimes get lucky and win 90+ games, just as better teams can get unlucky and lose more than they should.
I'll just pull a couple of bits out from his story.
Frugality on the free-agent market may be penny-wise, but it can often be pound-foolish. In a perfect world it would be wonderful to time a roster so that the current team matures at the exact moment when the ideal free agents are out there and ready to be signed. A young nucleus which is capable of winning 80 games on its own could be fortified with four or five free agents who could collectively be signed for $50-$60 million per year. The players would perform to expectations and the team would become a moderately priced contender. In reality, though, that rarely happens. Players don't develop exactly as predicted, and injuries can wreak havoc with even the most smartly constructed rosters.
This is something I believe, Alex Anthopoulos keeps saying he's going to pull a time to contend, but it is a lot easier to say you are going to do that, than it is to actually do it. Maybe you put together the team you think is going to do it and your second baseman and your gritty shortstop collide and you lose your second baseman for the year. And a couple of your starting pitchers get hurt. Maybe a player or two don't develop as quick as you hope they will. So you might be playing for a hoped for season in the future that doesn't actually turn out.
The other problem with the wait-and-rebuild approach is its effect on attendance and fan morale during the down years. While everyone's ultimate goal is a championship, there is value in winning games even if a team isn't going to be a World Series contender. An analysis of attendance and winning percentages will show that each win boosts attendance by about 500 fans per game. Signing a few free agents to go from 70 to 80 wins might not produce a pennant, but it will help at the gate, paying off at least a portion of those players' salaries. As anyone who has followed a 70-win team can tell you, those extra 10 wins sure make it easier to continue following a bad ball club. By spending at least enough to put a competitive team on the field, a team can avoid seeing its fan base erode due to years of poor performance, as has happened in places such as Pittsburgh.
I think we can easily emphasize with this, last year the season started out great and we were, foolishly as it turned out, full of enthusiasm. Then the season turned and it was tough to watch games. Attendance dropped to record lows. Life was not fun. And we still won 75 games. What would happen to attendance if we only won 60 games.
It's easy to say that people will come back to the stadium if, after a couple of years, the team starts winning, but would they? The Tampa Bay Rays started their major league life in 1998 drawing 2.5 million people to the park. 8 mind crushingly bad seasons pass and they finally put together a good team (it helps to have the first draft pick, year after year) and make the playoffs. Attendance the year they make the playoffs? 1.8 million. When you are thought of as a loser it takes fans awhile to catch on when you become a winner.
What would happen to the Jay's attendance if we lost 100 games next year? I think we'd struggle to get to 1 million paid customers. How likely would it be that Rogers would put money into the team if we did that for a couple of years?
Fortunately I don't think it will be that bad. As must as AA said he wouldn't get into the free agent market, he did sign Alex Gonzalez and John Buck. Not great players but it could have been worse, we could have gotten Jason Kendall and Yuniesky Betancourt. Can you imagine how depressed we'd be if that happened. And I'd imagine there will be more moves. We do have a bunch of good young pitchers, many of whom gained some major league experience last year. I don't think it is too far fetched to think we could be around .500.
But then why not try for better, being good next season doesn't mean we can't be good in future seasons. Baseball isn't an either/or thing. There is no rule that says we can't build our farm system for the future while trying to build the best team we can today.