The Dangers Of Micro-Managing A Budget, Part 2

Bob Levey

In the conclusion of this opus, I'll have a look at what players are worth and how a team should determine "worth."

With the Cubs' recent signing of Jose Veras, I can finally put into words what I couldn't in Part 1. It involves the roster, and a spending maximum. But more than that, it is the micro-managing of a salary maximum.

To be absolutely clear, I have never been in a baseball front office discussion, That said, rightly or wrongly, I think most of us have an idea how that might have looked historically. Over a few different pow-wows, a team likely goes from....

This is how much is on the payroll for next year, and this is how much we plan to spend. These are our main trade chips, and these are our main holes to fill...

in October or November, to...

Whew. We have all of our roster spots filled. I think we will be a competitive squad, if we can stay healthy. We have about (insert amount here) to add to the roster before camp opens, and if we are in the hunt, we can add (larger amount here) to add talent down the stretch...

in late-December to mid-January...

I think most of us are somewhat comfy with this way of doing things, as if your team is supposed to have an $85 million payroll or a $135 million payroll, this makes sense.

Except, I think this is an entirely foolish way of doing things.

***

Your willingness to pay a pitcher or right fielder shouldn't be based on how much you have left in the piggy-bank to pay him. And on your roster needs. That buys you Milton Bradley and Aaron Miles in the same off-season, after jettisoning Mark DeRosa. The question should always be, "What is (insert player here) worth?

If, tomorrow, Hanley Ramirez were released because he likes Greek yogurt more than American yogurt, the question shouldn't be "Why do we want him when we have Starlin Castro?" The question should be "What is Hanley worth?" And "Can we find a way to locate that money?"

More than likely, Ramirez would end up elsewhere in the case of ChobaniGate. However, a front office should always be ready to pounce financially on price-appropriate talent. It seems that, all-too-often, the budget has been very close to a maximum. This works in the case of an Andre Dawson blank-check scenario, or a Reed Johnson "I think we can afford a million for a guy that fills out our bench" situation.

Sometimes, though, the roster/budget is filled already, and then, a guy becomes available. It has seemed the front office was committed to their earlier plan, and didn't see fit (or couldn't afford) to add a solid addition at a good price. And a more financially flexible team added a nice piece on the cheap.

Over the last three years, most of the big name free agents have hauled in monstrous contracts. Many of us would have liked to have added some of that talent. But, and you can say this with me for many of the cases, "Not at those prices." It isn't the front office hasn't inquired. They mainly didn't like the going rate. So they've waited.

Masahiro Tanaka is available now. An attempt to sign him will be made. Other Japanese players may be posted soon. Offers will be exchanged.

Some other veteran players who tried to get a multi-year deal may get blocked out by other signings. There will be some decent contracts late. As always. If a team is still roster/finance flexible, some contracts will be bargains.

***

No, meandering into a season with an $85 million level isn't as hope-inspiring as a $105 million one. A city like Chicago with pricey tickets perhaps ought to be closer to the latter than the former. However, it's folly to "decide" to spend a figure, overspend to reach it, and watch as better talent goes for cheap later. How many bad contracts need to be given to veterans to "prove" management is serious?

If Shin-Soo Choo signed with a non-competitive team for an amount lower than the numbers would represent he should have gotten, then yeah, perhaps a more solid effort should have been made. However, many big-money deals are somewhat toxic. The question should be "How much for (insert player here)?" To wonder how the team will reach some idyllic threshold is foolish. The goal should be to make the team better. If a good reliever is a free agent next week, the thought should be "How much?" not "What about Blake Parker's role on the team?"

Last season, the Cubs added Ryan Sweeney and Brian Bogusevic for virtually nothing. This site nearly imploded when Kevin Gregg was added on a minor-league deal. I know that I thought none of those three would make valid contributions. I was wrong, as were you if you thought they'd be a wasted roster move. I don't know. You don't know either. Nate Schierholtz was added last off-season as well. The current brass seems to have a feel for which under-priced talent might produce well. Add Scott Feldman and Paul Maholm to that list.

It sounds like a few teams, including Texas and Seattle may be nearly financially played out. If Alex Rodriguez suspension is overturned, the Yankees will be facing a big decision regarding their budget. And, in about three weeks, a number of free agents will realize they (or their agents) overplayed their hands. And, the Cubs may be in line for a few more good contracts.

***

"Those good contracts will crater attendance, and the ChiSox are improved this off-season," says the cynic.

Part of the reason the White Sox could make trades is that they had good, cost-controlled pitchers other teams want. Alas, the Cubs didn't have an Addison Reed to trade, or a Hector Santiago to deal. To make trades, the Cubs have had to sign free agents (often at a discount), build their value, and then trade them. It's been that, or add a bad contract.

A large part of the reason I'm good with the rebuild has to do with the farm system. I'm overly-interested in that angle of the organization, and pled guilty to that long ago. However, when it comes to helping the parent club get better, that road has signposts as well. Good contracts tend to make a team better. Or, at least, more financially healthy.

And at some point, the win-loss percentage needs to tick up more than two or three games in a season.

This figures to happen when the team adds players that are more than marginally better than the one they just replaced. This doesn't necessarily always happen during winter meetings, or during negotiations with a high-rolling free agent. Sometimes, it's dumb luck. Or great information gathering. But rarely does it happen when a front office says, "We're tapped out." or, "We don't need another pitcher."

Improve when and where you can. Obviously, a budget is important in all sports. Particularly, when the team in question is a serious contender. However, an opportunity may spring from the next cell phone call, be it with an agent or a GM. It would be foolish to not have some sort of ability to spring for a suddenly available talent. By micro-managing a roster budget entirely in one time period, you risk passing on a shot to improve your club later. To again quote the Guess Who, "These Eyes" don't like that the Cubs used to do that far too often.

******

I'm mentally putting together a series on Cubs prospects. It will be off-kilter. You should be seeing it soon. And, for now, my queue is empty.

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