Counter-Intuitive Moves

I mentioned in a post last week that I’ve been really getting into baseball.  One of the things that scratches an itch for me in baseball enjoyment is that I’m not just interested in how the game itself is played, but the machinations and decisions in the front office.

As I was talking Friday with a friend about baseball I mentioned offhandedly that the home-run leader from the National League (co-leader I later was reminded when researching this post), Chris Carter, remains an unsigned free agent with Spring Training only a couple of weeks away.  Carter had 41 homers last year and 94 RBIs while playing first base for the Milwaukee Brewers.  He was playing out a 1 year contract at $2.5M, and granted free agency at the end of the season.

41 home runs and 94 RBIs is nothing to sneeze at.  So why has no one signed him?  And what did the Brewers do instead of keeping him?  Here’s an article that deals with the logic of Carter (and several other heavy hitters) still waiting for a team in February, and to the point where Carter (age 30) is considering going to Japan to play:

“A run is a run is a run.””What you’re looking for now is good players,” said that exec, who requested anonymity because his organization prefers to have its GM talk publicly about topics like this. “And a good player is a guy who puts runs on the scoreboard or keeps them off. It doesn’t matter how.”

Source: Does baseball still dig the long ball?

Now here’s where I try to write without getting all baseball-geeky (especially since I’m new to the baseball nerd thing, and I still am grappling with understanding things quite frequently).  Note in the article linked above that:

“…not only is the ability to hit 40 home runs now officially overrated, according to modern baseball thinking, it’s now so overrated that it enabled Carter to make history — by becoming the first home run champ in the free-agent era to get non-tendered.

Professional baseball, as you’d imagine, is extremely competitive.  While (especially big market) teams have quite a bit of money to spend, like with any business the people who own/run the team want to get value for what they’re spending.  If they think they can contend for the playoffs, which sells more tickets, they’ll spend more if they have it, generally speaking.  But as Billy Beane is “quoted” in Moneyball:

There are rich teams and there are poor teams.  Then there’s 50 feet of [fecal matter] and then there’s us [the Oakland A’s].  It’s an unfair game.

It’s not a level playing field because cities like Milwaukee and Oakland have a smaller fan base than teams in cities like Chicago, New York, Dallas, Houston or Philadelphia.  And because baseball has yet to enact a salary cap that exists in the NBA and the NFL, teams can spend more if they have more.  And a smaller payroll means teams have to compete in other ways than paying the most for players.  The Yankees will always have more money to spend than the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Additionally, a player like Carter, who is not a fantastic fielder or base runner has limited use in the major leagues.  Your “power hitter” can play limited positions in baseball, especially in the National League.  You’re limited to first base, left field, and the designated hitter (in the American League only).  And even the left fielder and the first baseman need to have some decent mobility.

And so the Brewers chose to go another direction.  I don’t think it’ll be certain until April how they’ll handle first base and the batting order, but Chris Carter wasn’t what their GM wanted to spend money on.  And no other team has an obvious need for him in a way that caused him to be snapped up.  I don’t know what he’ll be worth in Japan, but currently his agent hasn’t found a matching salary with any MLB team.  At age 30 he’s probably desiring a longer than 1 year contract, and if he’s willing to take something around $1M/year he may find it.  If he’s drawing a line at 4 years and $15M (average $3.75M/year) then nobody is willing to pay that.  And only the GMs they’ve talked to, the agent, and Carter himself know what offers are being thrown out and turned down and what their bottom line is.

So while it’s seemingly counter-intuitive to find out that the guy who hit more home runs than anyone else in the National League last year isn’t currently invited to Spring Training anywhere, it’s explainable when we look at what most teams value and have need of in a player.  If you, like the Cubs, have an established gold-glove first baseman and no need of a designated hitter, Chris Carter isn’t attractive at all.

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