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Sheehan: Money Can't Buy Rings

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The dominant story of the offseason is the lack of movement. As 2018 dawned, almost all the top free agents were still looking for employers. No free agent had signed a new deal for more than three years, and just two had signed for more than $50 million: Carlos Santana with the Phillies, and Wade Davis with the Rockies.

With so many stars going wanting, the biggest move of the offseason remained December’s trade between the Yankees and Marlins, in which the Fish embarked on their latest rebuild by sending Giancarlo Stanton to the Big Apple in exchange for Starlin Castro and two prospects. The deal relieved the Marlins, under new ownership in financier Bruce Sherman and shortstop Derek Jeter, of more than $250 million in potential salary obligations. It didn’t do much for the team on the field, but the debt-laden ownership group prioritized getting out from under Stanton’s contract over baseball concerns.

That the Yankees had acquired a player owed $295 million through 2027 caused panic in the streets. “The Evil Empire is ready again to snuff out the baseball universe,” wrote Kevin Kernan in the New York Post. “The Evil Empire always does get around to trying to rebuild the Death Star,” volunteered Chad Finn. In the season of “The Last Jedi,” there were as many references to Brian Cashman’s force as to Kylo Ren’s. Never mind that the Marlins had worked out deals with the Cardinals and Giants, only to see Stanton nix them with his full no-trade clause.

When the smoke cleared, however, the Yankees had not only acquired Stanton, but they had done so without abandoning their goal of getting under the 2018 luxury-tax threshold of $197 million. The Yankees still project to have one of the highest payrolls in baseball. They could acquire Stanton not just because they have high revenues and motivated ownership, however, but because they have done such an exceptional job of drafting and developing their own talent. In Aaron Judge, Luis Severino, Gary Sanchez, and Jordan Montgomery, the Yankees have a young, homegrown core that will make less than $3 million in 2019. Those four hit 85 homers, drew 167 walks, combined for 60 starts with a 3.38 ERA. They produced more than 20 Wins Above Replacement, about 40% of the Yankees’ overall total. For that work, they took home $2.2 million. That is why the Yankees can take on Stanton and his $25 million salary and hope to stay under the tax threshold.

Look around baseball, and you’ll see that for all of the talk about payrolls and revenues and tax thresholds, the teams to beat are the ones who have these inexpensive young cores. The Astros bumped their payroll last year by adding Josh Reddick, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, and Justin Verlander. They could afford to do so because they paid Jose Altuve (8.3 WAR), Carlos Correa (6.3 WAR), George Springer (5.0), and Dallas Keuchel less than $20 million in total. Their Series opponents, the Dodgers with their $250 million payroll, paid Corey Seager (5.6), Chris Taylor (4.8), and Cody Bellinger (4.2) less than $2 million. (The Dodgers did pay $64 million to players who never took the field for them, and another $40 million to Adrian Gonzalez and Andre Ethier, who barely did. It’s a parlor trick, really, to set $100 million on fire and still win a pennant.)

Go back a year. The curse-breaking Cubs paid less than $6 million to MVP candidates Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, and another million in total to All-Star Addison Russell and Cy Young finalist Kyle Hendricks. Their World Series opponents paid $11 million to Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Corey Kluber, and Carlos Carrasco.

The dominant team of the decade, the Giants, won three championships by drafting Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner, Buster Posey, Brandon Belt, and Brandon Crawford in short succession, adding in Pablo Sandoval from the international side. The Red Sox won three titles in ten years with Jon Lester, Jonathan Papelbon, Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, and Jacoby Ellsbury, all drafted, plus a no-name plucked off the free-talent pile who become David Ortiz.

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Money is going to matter. Good baseball teams employ good baseball players, and good baseball players will earn higher salaries. What we can see, though, is that what matters more -- what matters more now than at any time in the free-agency era -- is bringing along a young, productive core around which to place free agents. You can’t build a team just by spending money, in no small part because the very best players in baseball no longer reach the market during their prime years. Higher revenues and greater revenue sharing mean that every team can retain the stars it develops.

What that leads to is fewer superstar free agents. Of the 30 best players in baseball this century, just eight were ever free agents in their prime, and one of those, Barry Bonds, was on the market back in 1992. By comparison, for the previous 17-year period, 13 of the top 30 players hit the market in their primes, including inner-circle Hall of Famers like Bonds, Rickey Henderson, Greg Maddux, and Randy Johnson. We’ll wait to see whether Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw ever hit free agency, and whether impending free agents Bryce Harper and Manny Machado have those kinds of careers.

For now, though, it’s abundantly clear that the path to success in baseball is through player development, through having a core of pre-arbitration and pre-free agency players who combine top-level productivity with little salary leverage. Free agency, or the kind of quasi-free agency represented by the Giancarlo Stanton trade, is what you do after you find 20 wins for $2 million, not before.

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