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11/23/12 10:00 AM ET
Smart moves, not big money, can make the offseason
Wheeling and dealing, shrewd signings often better in turning around a team
By Anthony Castrovince / MLB.com
The post-Thanksgiving spending spree taking place across the United States on Black Friday stands as a precursor, of sorts, to the high-dollar dealing that has been initiated -- but will soon explode -- within Major League Baseball. It is a fact that some clubs will try to buy their way into respectability this winter, try to use dollars to bridge the distance between a losing record in 2012 and October life next fall. Perhaps they'll be successful, though a less-than-spectacular free-agent market won't make that task any easier. The free-agent forays make for good discussion this time of year. But what's more interesting is watching general managers attempt to work their magic, molding a contender out of raw clay, sometimes in subtle ways. Baseball, at its core, tends to be a sport that appeals to and rewards the patient. Not just because of its pace of play, but also because of the decidedly deliberate manner of club construction it takes to build a winner. It is a sport in which it is especially difficult to go from worst to first, and a sub-.500 standing one year doesn't bode particularly well for a postseason berth the next. And yet, quite a few clubs have countered that assumption quite convincingly. Several shrewd GMs have sped up the timetable, so to speak. In very few of those examples, free agency was the obvious theme of the dramatic turnaround. Consider this: In the past five seasons, 10 of the possible 42 postseason teams (including four in 2012) were teams that had losing records the year before. Those teams are as follows: the 2008 White Sox, '08 Rays, '09 Rockies, '10 Reds, '11 D-backs, '11 Brewers, '12 Nationals, '12 Reds, '12 A's and '12 Orioles. Obviously, some of those examples are more extreme than others. The 2011 Nats, for instance, finished just one game under .500, while the '11 Orioles were 12 back of the break-even mark. But now more than ever, in an era of an expanded postseason field, clubs have the ability to talk (and work) themselves into a basis for belief, just as those 10 teams did. And it is interesting -- and perhaps instructive -- to note that none of those 10 teams made their leap after making major expenditures in free agency proper. I say "proper" because the most impactful spending among that group of clubs came in the international investments made by the '08 White Sox, '10 Reds and '12 A's in Cuban imports Alexei Ramirez, Aroldis Chapman and Yoenis Cespedes, respectively, and the '12 Orioles' signing of Taiwanese right-hander Wei-Yin Chen. This illustrates a grander point in the game, that an intelligent approach to the international waters is essential in building a ballclub, though the particulars of that environment changed considerably with last year's Collective Bargaining Agreement and the spending caps it put in place (it is worth noting, however, that Ramirez, Cespedes and Chen, all of whom were over 23 and playing in what is considered to be a professional environment, would not have counted against that cap, had it been in place at the time they were signed). More often, though, it's been an opportunistic approach in the trade market that has allowed clubs to make sizable climbs. There are many ways to approach that market. For the 2011 Brewers, '12 Reds and '12 Nationals, the approach was to deal from depth in the farm system to add impact arms in Zack Greinke, Mat Latos and Gio Gonzalez, respectively. Proven frontline starting pitching was, is and always will be the game's most important commodity when trying to build a World Series winner, though the costs in prospects can obviously be punitive (and the full scope of the costs from each of those deals cannot yet be analyzed). But each of those clubs was rewarded in the immediate for their willingness to sacrifice some of the future. Sometimes the right deal means knowing when to part with proven talent. With the 2008 Rockies, who dealt Matt Holliday for a package that included Carlos Gonzalez and Huston Street, it was a fairly obvious decision, in that Holliday was a year away from free agency and unlikely to sign an extgension. But for the 2008 Rays, who dealt Delmon Young in a trade with the Twins that landed them Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett, it was about knowing how to cash in on a commodity that still had a ton of affordable upside. Young had been projected as a superstar, but the Rays had enough concerns about his makeup and his solid-but-not-spectacular rookie year to give him up. Garza and Bartlett were key contributors to that year's American League championship team and later netted the Rays a prospect haul of nine players in two separate deals. The 2012 A's are the most dramatic (and possibly unrepeatable) example of a team using the trade market to turn around, as they dealt three All-Star pitchers -- Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill and Andrew Bailey -- to reshape their roster and build what turned out to be a division champion. And the 2012 O's are the most dramatic example of that aforementioned subtlety. Suffice to say when they signed Chen or Miguel Gonzalez or traded Jeremy Guthrie for Jason Hammel, people didn't start propping them up as Wild Card contenders. Point is, for the likes of the Royals, Red Sox, Pirates, Padres and several others with reasonable pieces in place, you can take that big step from one year to the next, provided you approach the winter in the right way. The Blue Jays have obviously made the biggest splash in that attempt, though their trade with the Marlins almost had a free-agent feel to it, in that it involved the acquisition of so much monetary commitment. A year from now, we'll know how well this approach worked. What we can assume for now, given recent history, is that somebody is going to jump from sub-.500 to the playoffs, and they'll likely have their offseason dealings to thank.