Every time a GM seriously considers blowing the bank on some hard-to-resist free agent, he should close his eyes, take a deep breath and remind himself that one player just doesn’t make that much of a difference.
The Nats and the Dodgers are two perfect examples. The Nats’ big free agent signing this off-season was Adam Dunn. The Dodger’s biggest signing was re-signing Manny Ramirez.
At the time, I liked the Dunn signing, even though some commentators opined that it was a waste of money because in the two years that Dunn’s contract lasted, the Nats weren’t going to be any good anyway, and signing Dunn might get in the way of developing their talented young outfielders Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes.
My thinking was that the Nats got Dunn for a bargain price (at least in terms of contracts signed before this off-season), and one of the glaring weaknesses the Nats had last year was no big bat in the middle of the line-up. If nothing else, Dunn is a big bat. I also felt that signing Dunn shows the other players that the Nats are trying to get better and that’s its hard to develop young players when they get their brains beaten every night.
I’m not one to evaluate contracts before enough performance has happened over a long enough period to determine whether the contract is really a success or failure. Many, many times a big star free agent signs a multiple year contract, has big first year under the new contract, and the media declares the signing the best move since the Yankees got Babe Ruth from the Red Sox. The next year or two, the player stops performing (usually in a way that was entirely predictable from the moment the contract was signed), and suddenly the media declares the signing was a terrible move.
However, despite being everything the Nationals could have hoped for, Dunn has not helped the team all that much. He hit his 15th HR tonight, his OPS is about 1.000 and he’s tied for 3rd in the NL in RBI’s at 40. Meanwhile, the Nationals have the worst record in baseball by a wide margin.
The point is that one player just doesn’t make that much difference. Signing Dunn solved one glaring weakness the Nationals had in 2008, but didn’t solve the other even more glaring weakness: no pitching. The Nats pitching is as bad in 2009 as it was in 2008, and although their offense has improved, their pitching and defense have not.
As for Manny and the Dodgers, the Bums don’t seem to be missing him that much, do they? Manny’s last game was May 6. Since then, the Dodgers have gone 11-7, and that’s including losing 4 of the first 5 games after Manny was suspended. On May 6, the Dodgers had a 6.5 gave lead over the 2nd place team in the NL West. After tonight’s games, the Dodgers’ lead stands at 8.5 games.
The Dodgers are not a good team because they have Manny Ramirez. The Dodgers are a good team because they have a good TEAM. Even without Manny, the Dodgers still have a good team.
High priced free agents really only make sense if you are really certain that your team will be fighting for a playoff spot, where even a few games difference might mean the difference between playing in the post season and going home. For at least half of major league teams, signing even the best single free agent out there isn’t going to make that much difference.