The Free Agent-Superstar Myth and Why Many Believe These Deals Are a Quick Fix

Even Frank Costanza Knew that $12 Million Dollars for Hideki “I Rob You” was a bad deal.

The year was 1990.  When the Oakland A’s added Willie McGee and Harold Baines in late season trades, teaming with Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, and rookie of the year Walt Weiss, every pundit with a byline in the local fish wraps was already handing the championship trophy to those Bay area bullies.  The moves were seen as so lopsided at the time, that one player on a rival team commented, “who else did they get, Frank Viola?”  (the “sweet music” of pitching maestro Frankie V helped him earn a Cy Young award in 1988 and was generally regarded as one of the best pitchers of his era).  The way the pundits figured it, such a star-studded lineup like that couldn’t possibly lose.  The problem was, the Cincinnati Reds did not get the memo—the heavily favored A’s didn’t win one game in the fall classic.

Despite this example, and countless others, fans continue to believe that the acquisition of stars, primarily through free agency, is the quickest path to a championship in pro sports.  But just like grandma’s advice that a good skull cap can ward off the winter cold, this inaccurate wives’ tale persists to this day.  As Einstein said, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result.

So when Vince Young, formerly of the Tennessee Titans, declared the Philadelphia Eagles a dream team, because they acquired a really good corner back and a few other guys that undoubtedly see themselves as rock stars, I had to laugh.  Not because the messenger has no credibility (he doesn’t), but because Young continues to repeat the oft-held belief that rooting through another team’s garbage is the best way to build the foundations of a championship team.  It is not.

As a Yankee fan, I grew up in the eighties watching George Steinbrenner try and fix the Yankees by buying a shiny new toy or three each year, the quick fix that was supposed to end the Yankee championship drought.  Dave Winfield.  Jack Clark.  Andy Hawkins.  Roy Smalley.  Steve Balboni—to name but a few of the icons that brought their “talents” to the Bronx.  In 1981, George Steinbrenner signed Winfield to a record contract of 10 years and $23 million dollars, a move that was supposed to immediately upgrade the offense and allow the Yankees to attract other free agents and build a consistent winner (or really, to replace Reggie Jackson, who the stubborn Steinbrenner drove out of town).  Winfield would never play in a World Series game for the Yankees, and after winning back-to-back titles in 1977-78, the Yankees would reach a nadir in 1990 when the most successful franchise in the history of organized games finished unceremoniously in the cellar.  Even still, the key date for the future of the New York Yankees  in the modern era was July 30, 1990.  That was the day the “Big Stein” was suspended from the game of baseball for what would be an ironic twist of fate (I once penned an op-ed piece entitled “literally ironic” which featured a bunch of figurative coincidences, but scrapped the project because I figured no one would get it)—George paid a gambler and degenerate name Howard Spira $40,000 to dig up dirt on his highest paid employee, who Steinbrenner not so affectionately dubbed Mr. May (if you are thinking that’s no way to run a business, you are correct sir).  This was key because baseball decisions were turned over to a baseball man, Gene “the stick” Michael, who immediately began investing in his organization through the draft.

Perhaps Big Stein’s best free agent signing–a gambler and a degenerate he hired to dig up dirt on his highest paid employee, set off dominoes that lead to another Yankee dynasty.

Rather than trade his blue chip prospects, the Yankees scouted, drafted, and developed them, a novel concept for a team who thought they [redundant “l” word omitted here] could buy a winner.  Though the club hit a low point when they lost 95 games in 1990, they would soon begin to invest in the foundations of a dynasty.  When the Yankees won four of five championships from 1996-2000, they did it with a core of their players–Andy Pettite, Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera, Ramiro Mendoza, Bob Wickman, and Jorge Posada to name but a few, with many of their other parts dealt for key supporting pieces, such as the trade of home grown Roberto Kelly for Paul O’Neil and three pieces to include someone named Sterling Hitchcock for Tino Martinez (now, what are the odds someone named Hitchcock is going to be a game breaker?  Common’ Mariners, ya gotta be smarter than that!).  It was not until the culture changed that the Yankees became a consistent winning team again (at one point, Gene Michael had to step in and nix a trade that would have shipped off a lanky right handed pitcher named Mariano Rivera to the Mariners for a stop gap shortstop named Felix Fermin in the twilight of his mostly mediocre career–though officially banished by baseball, Mr. Steinbrenner still tried to stick his two cents in from time to time).  Not coincidentally, as this core of players aged after an epic World Series in 2001,  the Yankees reverted to “business as usual,” buying and selling big ticket items like Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield, Jaret Wright, Javier Vazquez, Carl Pavano, Johnny Damon, and Alex Rodriguez.  The result was that first round flame-outs and playoff losses to teams that spent a fraction of  the Yankee coin on payroll became the norm on 161 street in the Bronx– As Tom Verducci points out in the Yankee Years, after Alex Rodriguez was obtained, he of the ridiculous 10 years $252 million dollar contract, the Yankees won zero pennants and were 10-12 in postseason games his first five years in pinstripes (in the five years before his arrival, the Yankees won 4 pennants and were 42-24 in post season games) .  Insanity indeed Mr. Einstein.

Fans continue to believe in the free agency quick fix because it appeals to our inherent sense immediate gratification—and because as Americans, we have learned that every problem can be solved by throwing a few dollars at it.  Organizations that have long periods of sustained success know that such an approach is fool’s gold.  For the most part today, every team locks up players that are productive and in their prime, letting players go only after their skills have diminished, they have proven themselves to be very disruptive in the clubhouse, or both.  Because of the inefficiency of the free agent market, shrewd teams will only sign a player here or there that fits a specific need within their system, as the Pittsburgh Steelers of the NFL did in the mid to late nineties and the oughts, allowing them to play in three SuperBowls and win two.  Only those teams that understand the value of the draft and the limited use of free agent acquisitions can sustain success long term.  When faced with a declining skill set, the Yankees fell back into the pattern of trying to plug holes with free agents, an exercise in futility.  After the loss to the Diamondbacks in 2001, the normally quiet Yankee captain, Derek Jeter, took a look around the clubhouse and commented that “things just aren’t the same around here anymore.”  The Yankees had traded the development of professional players who fit their system, who played certain roles necessary to win a chamionship, for hired mercenaries whose talents would soon be declining–the precise model that lead to the club’s futility in the eighties.  Despite having spent more than a billion dollars on salaray after 2001, the Yankees would not win another championship unitl 2008, proving that championships can’t simply be bought and paid for on the old credit card.

 After signing a four year $39.5 million dollar deal, Carl[a] Pavano was more famous for cracking a rib in a car crash with a supermodel than the 26 mostly sup-par starts he gave the Yankees.

In baseball, two key financial decisions changed the scope of the game by increasing payroll parity, at least to the point where smaller market teams could keep a number of core players in their prime: 1) a revenue sharing system was installed that, by 2001, transferred $169 million dollars from the big market teams to the small market teams.  By 2008, that figure increased to $408 million; and 2) Major League Baseball Advanced Media was created to capitalize on digital and internet assets.  By 2007, it was generating upwards of $400 million dollars, and baseball decided to split this money equally amongst the 30 teams.  The result, as Tom Verducci wrote in The Yankee Years:

The effect of these changes was that by 2008 every team in baseball knew before it sold a single ticket or negotiated its own local media packages that it started with a nut of $29 million…More teams have signed guys who are pre-arbitration eligible and even to cover free agency, said Chris Antonetti, the Cleveland assistant general manager.  That happened with Roy Halladay, Chris Carpenter and, with us, C.C. Sabathia…What this does, especially because of the timing of it, is limit the available players in their prime years.  So if you sign a starting pitcher through his two through eight years[?]  Those are going to be the years of his highest leverage.

Such analysis explains the small to mid-market Twins inking Joe Mauer to an eight year $184 million dollar deal.  Locking up these players is key, because, a market anomaly exists in sports—players salaries increase as they age because they are paid based on past performance, even though this is precisely when their skills begin to decline.  While there will always be exceptions to the rule, such as a market scarcity that will drive values at particular positions to artificial levels (e.g. elite starting pitchers in baseball or quarterback in football), recent history has taught us that most free agent signings are for a Johnny Damon in the twilight of his career rather than a King Felix in the prime of his (Seattle signed him to a long term deal as well).  For teams that blow it in the draft, they compound the problem by signing other team’s head aches or has-beens with the “one contract too many” philosophy, probably because GM’s believe players play to the back of their baseball cards, and because GM’s know that failing to win immediately often has them seeking employment elsewhere.  After several bad seasons in a row, the pressure for the quick fix only intensifies, with the vicious circle repeating itself ad infinitum.  Before long, a once proud franchise becomes but a laughing stock punching bag of the league (I ‘m looking at you New York Mets and Chicago Cubs).

And it’s not just baseball.   Matt Maicco wrote an excellent piece where he analyzed the draft picks of all NFL teams for the last five years.  His piece starts off by saying: “The Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints won the past two Super Bowls.  It’s no coincidence, their recent drafts have been the best in the NFL.”  The article ranks the teams, 1-30, in draft proficiency, looking at the total number of picks selected over that span and the number of players both still on the roster and starting games for that team.   The top ten teams look like this: 1) Green Bay Packers; 2) New Orleans Saints; 3) Indianapolis Colts; 4) New York Jets; 5) Atlanta Falcons; 6) Baltimore Ravens; 7) Minnesota Vikings; 8) Pittsburgh Steelers; 9) New England Patriots; 10) Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  In that same time span, 30 of the 60 playoff spots were taken by these ten teams.

Now, the bottom ten according to Maicco: 21) Oakland Raiders; 22) Denver Broncos; 23) Jacksonville Jaguars; 24) Carolina Panthers; 25) Seattle Seahawks; 26) Miami Dolphins; 27) St. Louis Rams; 28) Dallas Cowboys; 29) Arizona Cardinals; and 30) Cincinnati Bengals.  This motley collection of teams have garnered only 12 playoffs spots out of 60 in that same time span.  And notice that four of  last five Super Bowl winners come from the first list (the New York Giants were the other, and Maicco had them 11th)  and that, only one team in the second list even played in the game (I argue the Arizona Cardinals result was a fluke, as they somehow got their hands on a sure-fire future hall of fame quarterback, that even the Cardinals initially believed was but an aging back-up).  That teams on the bottom, those who have experienced considerably fewer wins would have retained far fewer draft choices is paradoxical because those teams that fair the poorest annually draft the highest, meaning that they have a shot at acquiring the best talent on the draft board.  This further underscores the importance of correctly evaluating, drafting, and developing talent, and like most things in life, some people have it figured out, and others, well, not so much.

The bottom line is those teams who have consistently made the playoffs in the NFL are building and developing through the draft consistently.  It’s why the Patriots, for example, have horded 12 picks in next year’s draft, trading away surplus players like a marginal back up quarterback for a high round draft pick, and why teams like the Raiders, Cowboys, and Bengals, continue to sign retreads and malcontents like Chad Ocho-“cero”, Pac Man Jones (wah, wah, WAH!), and Tank Johnson (just typing this list gives me a tip for NFL GM’s–if the guy has an ominous or stupid nick name, steer clear).  For every Kurt Warner left for dead and pulled off the scrap heap, dozens of NFL GM’s have made the “one contract too many mistake” with guys like Emmitt Smith, Deion Sanders, and Joey Porter’s of the world.  Here is one article that debates the worst free agent signings in the last decade, with many of the teams in spots 21-30 above featured prominently once again.  Similarly, check out Jon Heyman’s article detailing the 20 worst free agent signings in baseball, and immediately the reader notices that the list is comprised almost exclusively of once great stars who later in their careers commanded significant contracts but little else (I think the Mets are still paying Bobby Bonilla and Mo Vaughn).

“The A’s have the best talent in baseball,” said Reds first baseman Todd Benzinger” speaking about the two contestants in the 1990 Fall Classic.   “But we have the best team.”  And what of that 1990 Reds team you ask?  That’s right, the core of that  team featured a bunch of home grown talent, like the nasty boys in the pen, rookie of the year third baseman Chris Sabo, Barry Larkin, and one of the most talented guys to ever play the game, Eric Davis.  Watching the Dallas Cowboys fall flat on their face each year, or the Mavs upend the Miami Cheat, or the countless other examples that present themselves each year like the San Francisco Giants winning the World Series, will probably never convince the scores of fans who operate as arm chair general managers, that acquiring yesterdays super-star at top dollar is probably the worst way to build a championship team.

Insanity indeed Mr. Einstein.  Insanity indeed.

Editor’s Note: The Seinfeld clip above was included mostly because I am a huge Seinfeld fan and think it’s funny.  Though King George once referred to him as a “fat toad,” this Yankee fan is mindful that Hideki Irabu killed himself this year.  Rest in peace my man.

Categories: All things Sports, Major League Baseball, National Football League

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2 replies

  1. Michael,

    I think the success of free agency is predicated on 3 factors, the sport, the position and the need. In baseball, if you pick a pitcher (say Cliff Lee) he can demonstrably help your team (just like at Sabathia) But picking a a bat with the expectation that you can just pop in the lineup and bat .280 to .300 is a dangerous proposition. The responsibility for success being diffused between 25 players precludes this from happening. The same can be said for football. Only a quarterback, D-end and corner are able to provide material success on their own without the reliance of their teammates.

    Conversely, hockey and basketball are two sports where the pickup of a single individual can demonstrably change the success of a team. Any pickup at any position (point, goalie, center, wing, forward) can be plugged in and change the look of a team. Just look at the Miami Heat and the Boston Bruins whose respective acquisitions propelled them both into the finals of their sports.

  2. vandiver, thanks tor the comment. I think you are spot on–the only thing I would say about a dominate starting pitcher is that his value in the regular season is somewhat overstated in that: 1) he takes the ball only every fifth day; and 2) injuries to pitchers are so commonplace. In the playoffs, however, this completely goes out the window as the true aces tend to dominate the sport in October much like the great quarterbacks do in football or a hot goalie does in hockey (and the true aces also tend to be very durable guys who can throw a lot of innings like Sabathia and Halladay, which furthers this advantage). I also pointed out that the pitcher was indeed an exception, as I think a market scarcity exsists for great starting pitchers, which clearly leaves financially challenged franchises at a significant disadvantage (this is another way of saying that free agent signings for star pitchers in baseball are indeed more significant than say signing offensive players–e.g. see 2011 Red Sox, who signed two good to great offensive players and lead all of baseball in total runs scored, and are still in second place as I write this). Thanks for the comment, it sounds like we are on the same page.

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