As we celebrate the anniversary of the Giants' World Series triumph (can I get an "Amen"?!) I thought it'd be interesting to see how we and other teams have been acquiring that championship talent. In particular, I'm talking about the All-Star, MVP, Cy Young type players - every playoff team needs adequate role players, but I think one would be hard pressed to find any contender that doesn't have at least one marquee talent - a 5+ WAR player is almost essential for any team that wants to get into the postseason.
Personally, that means that finding the marquee talent(s) is Step 1 on the list of things a contender needs - role players and depth are all well and good, but those are building blocks which need a foundation. So I wanted to find out how teams got their foundations.
To that end, I actually did a little research. As grueling and horrific as spending a couple hours on Baseball-Reference was, I think the results make a lot of sense and provide a pretty obvious picture of where baseball is going when it comes to getting big players. So for each season 1995-2011, I looked at the top ten batters and pitchers by rWAR (I would have used fWAR as I do prefer it, but Fangraphs does not have an easily accessible transactions page and would have required a lot more searching) and sorted them depending on how they were acquired.
I separated acquisitions into three categories: draft, trade, and free agency. Draft includes both players drafted in the Rule 4 amateur draft (Rule 5 would have been included if any players were acquired that way) AND international amateur free agents, which typically meant Latin players. The reason for including them is simple: much like the amateur draft, international free agents require amateur scouting and development time once signed. There is a significant difference in that there are no slot recommendations or exclusive negotiating rights, but for the most part I do not think this changes the equation enough to consider these players true free agents. Like the amateur draft, teams participate in acquiring players via international free agency to the degree of their desire, and the fact that the vast majority of these players are years away from the major leagues makes them kin to Rule 4-eligible amateurs.
Trades are obvious: any player acquired via trade, including players acquired while they were in the minor leagues, fits into this category.
Free agency includes both Major Leaguers who qualify AND international free agents, which here always meant players from Asia (and only meant two players - Ichiro Suzuki and Hideo Nomo). The difference here is that international free agents from this perspective are Major League-ready players who do not need development time and command significant commitments in Major League contracts - they are much more like regular free agents than most Latin players. It also includes a team signing its own free agent, even if that player was originally acquired via draft or trade - Albert Pujols coming back to St. Louis would be considered a free agent acquisition for the 2012 season.
Last, players traded midseason counted for 0.5 - for example, CC Sabathia was traded from Cleveland to Milwaukee in 2008. As Cleveland drafted him and Milwaukee traded for him, Sabathia put 0.5 into free agency and 0.5 into trade for 2008.
The most immediately obvious thing is what most people likely suspected - teams are now much more likely to get their big-name players by developing them internally, particularly on the pitching side. While the late '90s did see most of the top hitters acquired via the draft, until 2005 pitching was picked up fairly equally among the three methods. Starting that season, on both sides of the ball, teams began and continued to get their big players from their own farm systems.
Clearly, then, there was a larger emphasis on drafting and development as a means of getting stars in the preceding seasons, likely beginning as early as 2000 but more likely around 2002. I would imagine this is at the very least partially a product of Moneyball - as cliche as it is to cite that book as the reason why everything is done nowadays, the timeline matches up pretty closely. Moneyball was published in 2003, but the baseball world started to take notice of Oakland's methodology a year or two earlier, and three years after signing is when the top draft choices would be reaching the majors, implying that many of those players during the initial jump were drafted in 2001-2003, or right around when Oakland started to make noise.
More to the point, it indicates that teams are now more protective of their top prospects, which is something we already knew but nice to see holds up under analysis. Everyone now realizes that those six years of cheap, non-guaranteed contracts are a gold mine of under-market value at a very low risk, and that most players now hit free agency towards the end of their peaks, meaning that big contracts tend to cover the decline phase. Teams also like to extend their own players much more, producing the relatively weak free agent classes of the last few years - from 2009-2011, a grand total of four players (three batters and one pitcher) acquired via free agency made the top ten in rWAR. Another glob of junk excepting a couple gems this offseason promises similar results for 2012.
Anyway, if you're a modern baseball executive with a farm system sorely lacking in impact talent and looking to add a big piece to your potential contender...good luck.