Wednesday, March 25

The Price Tag of Prior Actions

I feel like I should apologize for sullying the mass of prior posts that were nothing but college basketball with a post that's unequivocally baseball-related. On the other hand, this is the first activity here in ages, so at least it's some kind of content (even if half the people that read this blog just closed it as soon as I uttered the b-word). It's been way too quiet here; I'd like to do something about it, but quite honestly spring practice isn't worth writing about in most cases, and even though Lane Kiffin has done a fantastic job raising hell, everyone else is already kind of on top of that and I'm already kind of over that.

Anyway. The Nats were bad enough last year to be gifted with the first overall pick in the draft this year, and as it happens, there's also a pretty quality pitching prospect out there named Stephen Strasburg. He's a college kid with the kind of stuff that not only makes scouts drool, it makes them leave wet spots on their bedsheets at night. It helps that his frame is "projectable", which is supposed to mean he'll fill out in a manner that will support his further development. I just think it means the scouts think he has a nice ass. Either way, he's a big deal, the biggest of this draft class.

And then, things got funny. Peter Gammons broke the story first that Strasburg's agent Scott Boras - did I mention he already has an agent? Because he does - is asking for 6 years, $50 million. (I apologize that the link there isn't to the Gammons article; it's behind a paywall but it's there to reflect what I'm saying. If you want to read a summary of the news in random italics and bold, that site will be heaven to you.) If that seems unruly and out of control, it is; most guys get no more than 20% of that, if even that. David Price, the 1st overall pick in 2007, only pulled in $8.8 million, which is kind of Tom Boswell's point. As for me, I'm wondering what the difference is if there's no guarantee the money will be spent.

Now, I've been a fan of the erstwhile Expos for going on 15 years, so it's not like I'm unfamiliar with the franchise not willing to spend money. I've gone through that on more than a few occasions, and the only difference this time around is that it's a new owner (the 3rd - technically 4th, if you want to count MLB - that I've seen so far) not willing to spend cash. This time though, it's less being unwilling to spend money and more continuing a trend.

Since the Lerners took over, they've shown a continual unwillingness to spend. Those of you that are smart can figure out that this may devolve into an OMG TEH LERNERS ARE TEH CHEEP rant, but since I haven't had one of those in a while, hear me out. 2007 was home to the Replacement Pitcher Parade (which actually wasn't a bad idea, but that's neither here nor there for the purposes of this conversation); 2008 was the parade minus the NRIs that drove the parade. The one free agent signing you've heard of since they moved was Adam Dunn this offseason; Alfonso Soriano was a trade, and if you knew they signed Daniel Cabrera, you're either already a fan or you're lying. They've signed more than that, but those were all minor signings.

Numerous players have gone through arbitration for matters that would normally be trivial. I can immediately recall taking Felipe Lopez to arbitration over $300K (not a big deal in baseball terms); they took Shawn Hill to arbitration this year, then when he won, they cut him. They've been unwilling to commit to signing Ryan Zimmerman to a long-term deal. There are more than a few examples beyond those, but they'll do for now. Sure, they were involved in the Teixiera deal, but I was always of the suspicion that they were involved in the negotiations precisely so they could say they were willing to spend money without willing to commit to actually spending the money. They were unwilling to sign Aaron Crow out of the draft this past year - admittedly his agent may have been a bit shady, but to put this season's draft in perspective, Crow might be the 2nd best pitcher in the draft.

When the stadium finished construction in 2008, the Lerners refused to pay for some additions (change orders) to the construction above and beyond the original construction. They were late paying their own employees at a couple of points during the season. Now, I offer up that information with a realization they've had issues getting income, too. Ticket sales are abysmal considering the newness of the stadium. The TV ratings are terrible (and they don't own their network, instead leasing time from Peter Angelos' network MASN), and saying the radio ratings are terrible implies enough people listen to the radio to even get a rating. I think I might've been 5% of the listening audience.

I paint this picture to give you a feel for what's there. Given that backdrop, I can't see a reason not to draft Strasburg that has anything to do with baseball. I can't believe that the Nats would figure out a way to invest the money they'd save on a better player - because I have no reason to believe they know how to do that. A cheaper signing would be just that - a cheaper signing. Given what I said above, there's no rational way you can spin drafting Crow instead of Strasburg, so you're stuck drafting a hitter. That's not a problem necessarily, but again, if you're going to draft someone, you might want to sign him.

The one thing I'm not talking about at this point is flameout potential. Pitchers, as a general rule, have a higher percentage of flameout compared to hitters. Factoring that in, in most cases you'd want to minimize risk if skill levels are equal, meaning you'd draft the equally skilled hitter. That's not the case in this draft; there is no comparable hitter to Strasburg. That turns the equation into how much you're willing to pay to take on a higher ceiling with an increased risk. With a franchise who - for lack of better wording - you trust, you may be okay with that risk reduction. I think it's clear at this point where I stand on that.

There's a reason not to draft Strasburg - it's pretty much that previous paragraph. However, the Nats have pretty much hamstrung themselves on this particular choice. If they opt not to draft Strasburg because they're worried about his potential for flameout or injury or one of 1,200 other reasons that have to do with baseball, it'll be tough for everyone not to hear "we didn't want to shell out the cash." When you've established a culture of not willing to go the extra dollar, that's going to be the conclusion that everyone comes to when you don't go the extra dollar.