Note – this has nothing to do with eship - I thought of making some correlation to how the Rays are running a Lean franchise, but to be honest I just felt like writing about sports on the Metro North this AM.
The Yankees went on a run from 1995 – 2012 where they made the playoffs 17 times in 18 years. A number of good players came up through the farm system, and these players were supplemented by top, established talent signed in the free agent market. These players were low risk, and came with a prohibitively high price tag (the Yankees were one of a handful of teams that could spend the kind of money they spent). Their returns were predictable. These free agents were somewhere in the 28-31 age range, and would be at the top of the game until their late 30’s. I’ll use one quick eship analogy - The Yankees used the rest of the league like an incubator, with the last year or two of a player’s contract being their demo day. If they proved themselves, the Yanks would fund the hell out of them.
The above strategy was always weighted in one direction or the other – sometimes the homegrown talent were the ones signing the big free agent contracts – but any time during that stretch if the Yankees were weak at, say, first base, they’d simply sign the best free agent first basemen on the market. This was not always a formula for World Series titles, but it was always a formula to keep them safely in the top 3-5 teams in baseball every year.
In the PED testing era, this strategy no longer works.
I think the most glaring effect of the PED crackdown has been the length of time players are at the top of the game. Without PED’s, when players turn 32 their physical abilities start to dissolve and their propensity for, and time recovering from, injuries increases. Once players hit 35, the drop-off is pronounced, save for a tiny group of outliers.
What this means is that when the Yankee sign a 30 year-old player who’s been at the top of the league for 5 years, their window to stay at the top of the league is maybe 2-3 years as opposed to the 5-8 during the steroid era. Contract lengths haven’t adjusted, so players and agents expect the 8 and 10 year deals elite players were awarded in the early 2000’s when they sign that “second contract.” This means teams like the Yankees end up paying the Arod’s and Pujol’s of the world top dollar until they’re 40 and completely useless. We’ll see if Robinson Cano’s deal follows suit.
This heavily stacks the odds in favor of the model the Tampa Bay Rays have been forced to employ, since they couldn’t afford that “second contract” even if they wanted to. Developing and drafting talent, signing young players who have shown flashes of brilliance to long deals at reasonable prices (Longoria, Price, etc.) , then unflinchingly flipping them once they hit their prime (Shields, Garza, Crawford, Pena, etc.) for 4 more prospects like Wil Myers is a real strategy for sustained success.
It used to be that most 33 year old “superstars” were better than 25 year old superstars, simply because their physical skills were intact but they were 8 years savvier then the 25 year old version. That’s no longer the case.
So even though the Rays can’t afford their star players in that second contract, those players are almost immediately less effective then they were for the Rays when they were 25 - and are now under huge contracts guaranteeing the team will need to trot them out at high prices when they’re 36 and average. I’d argue it’s better the Rays can’t afford them, so it forces them into the right decision of flipping them in their prime. They’ll have an advantage at most positions by staying young.
Sure, experience plays a role when you’re trying to win a championship. The Rays showed a lack of poise when the made the World Series a few years back that cost them despite having a more talented team.
But as the average age of the best players gets younger, parity will increase, and the ability to draft and develop talent will become (already has become) far more important than the ability to buy it later on.
This year, the Pirates, Royals, Indians, Rays, A’s, and Orioles have either earned or are contending for playoff spots. The tides have turned.
The Yankee fan in me hates this shift. The entrepreneur in me loves it. Creativity and strategy are winning out over money. Unfortunately, my team is on the wrong side of that equation.