Does anyone else remember that free agency used to be much more exciting, or is it just me? Ten years ago, it seemed like there were always two or three worthy free agents at every position, and if a free-spending team wanted to go nuts, they could. Things done changed. Now only a handful of premium free agents slip through the cracks, and the free-spending teams go nuts on them. The Cleveland Indians model of the late-‘90s – buy out the arbitration years of young superstars in exchange for below-market long-term contracts – is now the model of choice for almost every franchise. Take Hanley Ramirez, Grady Sizemore, David Wright, Chase Utley, and, uh, Eric Chavez, just to name a few: by the time the rest of baseball gets a crack at those players in free agency, they’ll all be on the wrong side of 30.
With a shrinking pool of quality free agents, the key to building a successful franchise in Major League Baseball is to take advantage of the built-in indentured servitude. It always has been, but now it seems even more important. Franchises control the rights to their players six years after the players reach the majors, and for the first three years, the contracts are barely over the league minimum. The NBA and NFL would kill for this system; it’s what makes a salary cap completely unnecessary to build a winning team. It’s why the A’s had a crazy amount of success until last year, why the Marlins have two unfortunately timed World Series rings, and why the Devil Rays were in the World Series this season. The best players in baseball are often players in their mid-20s. Players in their mid-20s are usually really cheap. Feed those two sentences into the ol’ Logictron 3050, and it’ll tell you that teams should try get some o' them good players in their mid-20s through smart drafts and scouting.
So the Giants are going about things the right way. They’re talking up the minor league system to fans, trying to spread the word. But when a team tries to build from a desolate farm (for position players, at least), the process will take a while.
You know all of this. A lot of the season ticket holders who received the letter from Brian Sabean might not. They think, hey, this team has money. This team makes money. The park is always packed, and the television money is rolling in. Why are the Giants refusing to pay for free agents? The Giants need a power hitter. What are they doing signing an old shortstop? Where is the big bat?
Right now, a lot of good Giants fans are angry. Fear of losing leads to anger. And anger leads to the Giants spending $120M on the wrong free agent. I’m terrified of a losing season, especially one that involves Edgar Renteria hitting .240, because I’m worried that would create a fan revolt. I’d guess that the Great Fan Revolt of aught-nine would involve decreased attendance, a new front office, a $150M contract to Matt Holliday and a Madison Bumgarner-for-Dan Uggla swap. Maybe that combo would allow the Giants to compete in the short term. Maybe. It’s more likely that impatient moves like that would futz up the Giants’ long-term and sensible plans.
So this whole post is just a long comment starter that boils down to this: How do the Giants overcome the perception that they’re cheap and/or unwilling to add offensive talent? How does the organization convince an impatient fan base to be patient?
I’m willing to watch losing baseball in 2009 as long as it’s building to a brighter future. The Giants have the baseball nerd vote secure; now they just need to make the idea attractive to everyone else. I have no idea how they’ll do it.