Sports

Alex Speier

Royals offer a reminder of free agency’s limited impact

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 01: The Kansas City Royals celebrate defeating the New York Mets to win Game Five of the 2015 World Series at Citi Field on November 1, 2015 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. The Kansas City Royals defeated the New York Mets with a score of 7 to 2 to win the World Series. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

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The success of the Kansas City Royals illustrated that championships are more often built than bought.

The visitor’s clubhouse at CitiField won’t be dry by the time baseball enters its annual whiplash-inducing U-turn from the World Series to the offseason market. Yet perhaps the scent of champagne from the Royals’ celebration following their five-game triumph over the Mets will suffice as a compelling reminder about the coming market frenzy: Championships are more often built than bought.

Unquestionably, free agency represents a considerable opportunity – particularly given this year’s loaded class of top talents who will hit the market. The teams that sign players like David Price, Zack Greinke, Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmermann, Alex Gordon, Jason Heyward, Chris Davis, and others will feel that they’ve improved their roster – and rightly so. But if any of those players proves the final piece of a championship roster, they’ll represent the exception rather than the norm.

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In the offseason of 2006-07, the Royals signed Gil Meche to a five-year, $55 million deal. That was the last free agent whom Kansas City signed for as much as $40 million. Indeed, the most expensive free agent signees on Kansas City’s roster were Omar Infante (four-year, $30 million deal signed after the 2013 season) and Jason Vargas (four-year, $32 million deal signed that same offseason). They beat a Mets team whose big-ticket free agent was Curtis Granderson, signed to a relatively modest (welcome to baseball, c. 2015) four-year, $60 million deal after the 2013 season.

A look at the last 10 World Series winners suggests that few relied on players who had been acquired through a plunge into the deep end of the free agent pool. The Giants, for instance, had largely passed on big-ticket free agency after their signing of Barry Zito after the 2006 season. Zito was a limited contributor to the 2010 and 2012 champions rather than a centerpiece; he was gone in 2014, when San Francisco’s most expensive free agent signee (not including re-signed players who represented known quantities – chiefly Angel Pagan) was Tim Hudson, recipient of a two-year, $23 million deal.

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Thanks to their August 2012 Dodgers blockbuster, the Red Sox had restructured their roster after their spending binge of 2010-11, leaving John Lackey as their most expensive free agent signing. Not counting Matt Holliday – whom the Cardinals had gotten to know after trading for him as a rental in the 2009 season, before re-signing him for seven years, $120 million – St. Louis’ most expensive true free agent signing on its title roster of 2011 was Lance Berkman, who had joined the Cardinals on a one-year deal. The 2008 Phillies were almost entirely built through homegrown players and trades; ditto the 2006 Cardinals.

In the last 10 years, the only teams that have leaned heavily on high-end free agency to construct a championship roster were the 2009 Yankees (CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, A.J. Burnett) and the 2007 Red Sox (J.D. Drew, Daisuke Matsuzaka – who was acquired via the posting process, rather than as a true free agent – and Julio Lugo). Free agency has been most effective during the last decade as a complement to a core rather than as the source of that core.

Shopping for sales in the championship aisle
A look at the 10 most expensive free agent signings* on the rosters of the last 10 World Series winners
Year Team Biggest free agent Terms
2015 Royals Jason Vargas (2013) 4 years, $32 million
2014 Giants Tim Hudson (2013) 2 years, $23 million
2013 Red Sox John Lackey (2010) 5 years, $82.5 million
2012 Giants Barry Zito (2006) 7 years, $126 million
2011 Cardinals Lance Berkman 1 year, $8 million
2010 Giants Barry Zito (2006) 7 years, $126 million
2009 Yankees CC Sabathia (2009); Mark Teixeira (2009) Sabathia: 7 years, $169 million; Teixeira: 8 years, $180 million
2008 Phillies Adam Eaton (2006) 3 years, $24 million
2007 Red Sox J.D. Drew (2007) 5 years, $70 million
2006 Cardinals David Eckstein (2004) 3 years, $10.2 million
* - Excludes players who were re-signed as free agents
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference.com, Cot's Contracts, Associated Press

In late August, a pair of analysts from the Royals front office – John Williams, the director of baseball analytics for player personnel, and Daniel Mack, the team’s director of baseball analytics for research science – discussed how Kansas City had gone about the long-term process of constructing a winner, at a time when the Red Sox were mired in a position of relative despondency. They were asked what they would do in the shoes of new Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski.

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“I would try to amass a core of young controllable players. I think that’s the only way you’re going to succeed over long stretches of time,” said Williams. “And I would know, in his position, I could afford to keep those players as long as I wanted to.”

That approach has been a staple not just of the Royals’ success but also of most of the champions of the last 10 years. While the onset of free agency will create an immediate and hysterical sense of possibility, the Royals offer a reminder that it is typically far from the most important component of building a winner.

Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.
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