As Angels and Marlins learned, winning the winter means little
Sometime soon, one team is going to be the talk of the industry. They'll hold a press conference, then another. They'll introduce one star, then another. They'll commit millions, then millions more on top of that. We'll write about how they're going to score one thousand runs or win 100 games or have the best rotation we've seen in years. Whether it's the Rangers or Brewers or Cubs or another team, in a few weeks we'll be crowning the offseason's champion -- the team that wins the winter.
How important is winning the winter? Ask the Angels. They committed more than $300 million to Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson a year ago, and actually lost ground in the AL West, finishing third to the A's and Rangers, winning three more games in 2012 than they did in their second-place season of 2011.
The Angels' shared the winter crown with the Marlins, who made three splashy free-agent signings -- Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell -- and added a famous manager in Ozzie Guillen, only to finish last in the NL East for the second year in a row, losing three more games than they did in 2011.
Go back a year, and think about how the Red Sox' additions of Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez were supposed to make them unbeatable in the AL East. They won just one game more with those two in 2011 than they had in 2010. We can do this over and over again. Whether it's the Tigers in 2007 or the Orioles in 2003 or the Astros in 1992 or the Yankees in 1981 or the Angels in . . . well, every few years under the late Gene Autry, we look at the teams who generate the biggest headlines and the most future commitments and decide that those teams will run roughshod over the league the following year.
Think about those 2012 Angels for a moment. Pujols was worth more than four wins above replacement, and Wilson about a half-win. (I'm citing the WAR figure at baseball-reference.com, but I readily admit that Wilson's performance -- 202 innings of 3.83 ERA -- seems like it should be worth more than that.) Collectively, they did make Los Angeles about as much better as you could expect them to, realistically.
Of course, that's part of the problem; when big-time free agents are signed, they idea is that they're going to keep having their best seasons over and over again. You don't sign Pujols' baseball card, though; you sign a 32-year-old man. The former wins you the winter; the latter is what you go to war with in the summer.
More importantly, Pujols and Wilson didn't just join a collection of stats. Winning the winter also tends to involve unrealistic expectations not just for the new guys, but for the old ones as well. The 2011 Angels got 700 innings of 3.00 ERA ball from Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana, a level of durability and performance that was both remarkable and highly unlikely to be repeated. (The exact same situation played out in Philadelphia, where Jonathan Papelbon was added to a staff that had gotten amazing years from Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, with the assumption that the starters would be great again and Papelbon would save all their wins.)
Adding Wilson merely meant that the Angels were well-positioned to fade the regression they would get from their three returning starters. Too often, we just do the addition -- "they won 88 games last year and added eight wins in free agency and trades, so they're the best team in the league" -- without examining whether the 88 wins are coming back.
Even that is too simple. Driven by the commas and the zeroes -- and leagues' success in convincing fans that high prices at the park are a result of player compensation, rather than demand -- fans tend to believe that salaries should drive performance. However, pay doesn't guarantee performance. Players are underpaid at the beginning of their career and overpaid at the end, and if you're not going to expect Mike Trout to be terrible because he makes the league minimum, you can't expect Pujols to be the best player in the league just because he's paid that way.
In the abstract, in the sabermetric conversations, we talk about buying wins. In reality, teams agree to contracts with people, and those people perform based on their abilities. You can't buy home runs, or hits, or scoreless innings. You can only sign players in the hopes that they'll provide those things.
That's not to say that teams shouldn't look to improve themselves in the free-agent market when the right players are available. Sometimes, winning the winter does lead to winning the summer; the most recent -- and possibly the final -- example is the 2008 Yankees, who signed three of the top four free agents (CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett) at a commitment of $400 million, and promptly won the World Series in '09.
That was a perfect storm of an offseason, however, with two stars on the market in their prime in Sabathia and Teixeira. With every team now looking to sign the players it drafts and develops to long-term deals, however, it will be the rare offseason that sees even two stars of that caliber and that age hit the market -- and perhaps never again will we see one team able to snap them up if they do.
Even those '09 Yankees, though, had as much improvement from within as from without. Jorge Posada bounced back from an injury-plagued season to have one of his best years. Robinson Cano improved in every aspect of his game, as did Melky Cabrera at a lower level of performance. Brett Gardner emerged as a contributor. Philip Hughes and David Robertson and Alfredo Aceves threw important innings out of the bullpen. It's not that Sabathia, Teixeira and Burnett weren't critical -- they all had strong seasons -- it's that just signing free agents or making big trades is never enough.
Baseball isn't basketball; you can't reshape your franchise with one or two transactions. Think about last year's best story, the Orioles. They did almost nothing in the offseason, but players such as Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, Jim Johnson and Chris Tillman were all improved. Low-profile acquisitions like Chris Davis, Pedro Strop, Darren O'Day and Jason Hammel made them better as well. Across the industry, teams that improve get much more of their bounce from year-over-year changes in player performance than they do from buying free agents.
Winning the winter has its rewards. Fans disenchanted with recent failures can be wooed with the prospect of seeing a better team the next year, perhaps enough to get them to lay down deposits for season tickets. Signing a big free agent can push a team's profile higher in a multi-team market, stealing attention from teams in other sports. Some of the cost of any free-agent contract is rightly assigned to the marketing department, rather than the baseball operation. Big headlines and talk-radio buzz are what winning the winter is all about. Winning the summer -- and the fall -- takes more than just writing big checks to famous people.