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As long as it is dry....

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Planning to build a team almost entirely through free agency is freebased goofiness. Yesterday's post was more a flight of whimsy than anything, trying to flesh out some options for a team with few constants going forward. The problems with counting on the free agent route:

  • Things change, and they change quickly. In January of 2004, here was how I rationalized the Giants not getting Vlad:
    Vladimir Guerrero wasn't the birthright of the Giants fan. He would have been nice, no doubt, but he wasn't the only player worthy of a post-Bonds franchise tag. If the front office had legitimate reasons to doubt his health, and not fictitious reasons invented for a public relations smoke screen, they were very wise to wait until next offseason. With Nomar Garciaparra, Richie Sexson, Derrek Lee, Carlos Delgado, Troy Glaus, Magglio Ordonez, Eric Chavez, Lance Berkman, Carlos Beltran, and Jose Vidro free agents after this season, there is no reason to give out long-term, high-priced deals to a player whose health you are unsure of. With the majority of the NL West treading water, it could turn out to be a smart play to wait a season for the perfect fit.
    Things changed. Lee, Chavez, and Berkman all signed extensions, and they were perhaps the top three players other than Beltran you would have liked to lock up at the time. Magglio had some dodgy injury problems, and Nomar became a Reader's Digest version of himself. Both weren't even close to franchise players when free agency rolled around.

    Only Beltran, Delgado and Glaus made it to the market resembling the players they were in January of 2004. Delgado and Glaus were signed to uncomfortable contracts, but both stayed productive enough to trade away. Beltran was signed for a whole lot of clams, and has been an initial disappointment.

  • This isn't a video game. In Baseball Mogul or MVP 2005, I can generally get the players I want by offering $5.00 more than the next team. In the cruel physical world forced on us, there are times players don't want to go to a city, no matter how snazzy the PowerPoint presentation is. Javier Vasquez demanded a trade from the Diamondbacks to get a shorter plane ride home. Players tend not to go to Detroit unless they have injury problems which hurt their value, or are grossly overpaid. Give the Giants one more sub-.500 season, and they aren't going to be the easiest sell in the world. They won't have the problems of Pittsburgh or Detroit yet, but they wouldn't exactly be the Giants from the beginning of the decade, either.
  • Counting on free agents for every single hole can force teams to overpay mediocre players, and only the rich teams can get away with doing that. In a lesser free agent market, even the Yankees had to panic. The Giants organization makes me nervous because they haven't gone after a premium free agent since Barry Bonds, depending on how you felt about Moises Alou in 2004. They've shown their preferred alternative is to acquire second- and third-tier free agents, hoping Bonds can make up the difference. That's the definition of putting all of your eggs in one basket, and it worked for the better part of a decade because Bonds was just that good. Without Bonds, that philosophy would be as desirable as drinking Egg Beaters straight from the carton.
Now, here's an off-the-cuff blueprint for the Giants to succeed in 2007, but it's still very reliant on free-agent help. Please let me know where I'm off base, or if I'm missing something crucial.
  1. Noah Lowry and Matt Cain must continue to progress, or unnamed youngsters will have to do miracle charges through the system to replace what is expected of them.
  2. At least one free agent pitcher will need to be signed, the quality of which is dependant on the reliability of Lowry and Cain. Trying to pick up free-agent aces from Costco in bulk never works out, and hopefully more pitchers from the minors can help the back end of the rotation.
  3. The Giants will need to cobble together good-to-great hitters in the middle of the lineup, whether through trade, free agency, or the farm system. The chances aren't great for Eddy Martinez-Esteve, Nate Schierholtz, or Travis Ishikawa to be dependable 3- 4- or 5-hole hitters by 2007. The chances also aren't great for the Giants to stumble upon someone like Luis Gonzalez or Jeff Kent, who both surprised the world with their transformation from useful to indispensable. So the Giants will need to count on identifying top talent, pursuing top talent, and praying they can win the bidding war, whether the war is in dollars or talent to trade. The Giants are never going to be able to replace vintage Bonds, but they can replace overextended #3/Bonds/overextended #5.
  4. Once the middle of the lineup is secure, the other players can fall into place. That's when you start playing footsies with players like Ray Durham, Omar Vizquel, Mike Matheny, and the like. Acceptable-to-desirable players like that can be found in trade, free agency, or the farm. The Indians just picked up a young center fielder for an overpriced reliever, the Red Sox acquired a competent second baseman for a backup catcher, and the Giants were able to get a starting center fielder last season for a backup catcher and a pitching project. Hopefully the farm can help out in some respect, allowing holes to be inexpensively filled.
If Lowry or Cain falter, the outlook is grim. If the Giants can't get hitters who are well above-average, the outlook is grim. It's a precarious balancing act, and the odds are stacked against teams without immediate farm system help to promote or trade. Number three sounds great in theory-land, but it's obviously the hardest hurdle. You have to hope players like Derrek Lee aren't locked up by their current team, want to come to San Francisco, and don't completely ruin an operating budget.

There also that small detail of Lee being far superior to the rest of the free agent class. Where the initial example mused over Berkman, Chavez, and Beltran, the reality of next offseason is Derrek Lee, Carlos Lee, and old-timers like Gary Sheffield and Jeff Kent. That's not encouraging at all, especially if Lee ends up elsewhere. There's room for hope, but not necessarily optimism.