The well-known proverb reads "hindsight is 20-20." Every casual sports fan loves to grill their team management when a big-money player contract doesn't lead to the return anticipated. And since there can only be one Champion each year, there sure is a lot of second-guessing.
But no matter how poorly a player personnel move pans out, there is always a tenable antecedent justification for the move. "Carl Pavano had a 3.00 ERA and won 18 games," Yankee management (or any of the other suitors who were willing to pony up $10 mil a year) might say. Certainly, however, there are varying levels of GM blunders. Even worse than a busted free agent signing is when a team trades away a top prospect for a few months of an aging "established" player (see Jeff Bagwell and Scott Kazmir, though some will argue that they were the correct moves at the time). In the end, it's all a matter of managing risk.
What's inexcusable, however, is when team management gives another team an arbitrage opportunity at little to no current benefit gained for the risk assumed. You might say "we're not dealing with money markets, so where's the arbitrage?" I can think of two recent examples, both involving Baltimore Orioles management. The first was in the offseason before the 2005 season. The Orioles signed utilityman Chris Gomez to a relatively innocuous, under-the-radar contract worth around $1 million. The problem with the signing, however, is it occurred before the Rule V draft, and the Orioles were forced to place Gomez on a minor league roster. Since they chose not to protect Gomez, instead protecting young prospects, the Phillies astutely selected Gomez in the draft, leaving the Orioles holding the bag and without a player whom they planned to be on their roster. They were forced to pay the Phillies an undisclosed amount of cash to reacquire Gomez. The Phillies' selection of Gomez, whereby they rightly assumed the Orioles would pay to reacquire their asset, was essentially arbitrage, and could have been avoided if the Orioles simply waited until after the Rule V draft to sign him.
The next possible blunder committed by O's management is the recent trade of Chris Britton for Jaret Wright and $4 million. On its face, it seems to make sense. The Orioles' starting rotation struggled last year, and Wright last was successful pitching in Atlanta under current Orioles' pitching coach Leo Mazzone, famous for his reclamation projects (of which Wright has already been a subject). Britton isn't a particularly high-upside relief prospect, and while he had a decent rookie season in 2006 (3.35 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 41:17 K:BB ratio in 53.2 IP), there are enough concerns about his lack of a quality secondary pitch and his 6-foot-3, 278-lb. size (the Orioles have had their fair share of PR disasters regarding overweight pitchers, deserved or not, with Sidney Ponson and Steve Bechler) that don't make him a can't-trade type of guy. So what's the problem?
One has to look into the details of the contracts. Jaret Wright is signed through the 2007 season with $7 million remaining on his contract. The Orioles, in receiving $4 million in cash from the Yanks, will be paying Wright $3 million of their own money. The figure seems to come from the $4 million buyout the Yankees had for Wright's contract, for the '07 season, which they had to exercise by this Sunday (Nov. 12). It seems, therefore, that the Yankees were perfectly willing to exercise that buyout, with Wright having performed poorly in pinstripes the last couple years. Which begs the following question: why did the Orioles give up a promising bullpen prospect when they potentially could have signed Wright when the Yankees cut him loose?
The answer would seem to go along the lines of "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." The Orioles are guaranteed having Wright on their roster, without having to battle other teams for a free agent's services. The next question would seem to be how much Wright would command on the open market. At the peak of his success, he earned a three-year, $21 million deal from the Yankees. At that time, the next highest offer was believed to be three years and $15 million from the Braves. Given his poor performance the last couple seasons, it would seem that Wright wouldn't command much more than the $3 million the Orioles are paying him currently, and his injury history would probably indicate that he wouldn't get much more than a one-year deal. The Orioles had the second-worst bullpen ERA in the majors last year at 5.25. Other than closer Chris Ray, Britton was the only other reliever with a sub-4.00 ERA, and the only other one who could have been termed to have had a successful year. Given the gaping hole the Orioles had in middle relief, it doesn't seem to make much sense that they would deal a young, minimum-salaried reliever for a starter the Yankees probably would have released anyway, paying him a salary that he probably would commanded on the open market. Even if many other teams were willing to spend $3 million on Wright, you'd figure the Orioles could spend more than that figure, under the theory that keeping Britton, locked up for the near future with arbitration years away, on the roster would be worth that much. One could also argue that Wright, in an effort to resurrect his career for a second time, might actually be interested in signing with the Orioles to work with Mazzone once more.
In the end, it's a minor roster move and won't engender any more second-guessing than others. However if the Orioles could indeed have had Wright for a similar amount in free agency without yielding Britton, and it's true that there are many assumptions that must be made along the way, it could end up resulting in the giving of a gratuitous premium to a division rival, and be another example of bungling on behalf of Baltimore's much-maligned front office, especially when the Orioles continue to lose games in the 6th through 8th innings.
Posted by Bret Cohen at 11/12/2006 6:13:00 PM