Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Hey Neukom! My Giants Business Plan: The Phoenix Strategy of Rebuilding (tm)

I have not written to this series in a while (see here for TOC), but a commenter got me thinking of it again (which drove me to create the TOC) and I thought of another addition to the plan, since a number of commenters seem to think they know how to rebuild a team: the right way to rebuild.

Phoenix Rebuilding Strategy (tm)

The best way to rebuild a team (but not necessarily the best way to run a baseball team) would be to tear down the team once it is clear that reaching the World Series is a likely impossibility, when you have to trade away talent in order to get the payroll into shape. Much like how the A's have been run since Charlie O. Finley, heck, all the way back to Connie Mack, the best way to rebuild is to trade away all the players of value to get prospects back who can be good in a few years or less (the Marlins would make Connie and Charlie O. proud)

Lose Big, Draft High

Meanwhile, as I noted about the draft, the best draft picks in terms of efficient gathering up talent for your re-building team is to ensure that your team is among the Top 5 picks overall, or better yet, the one with the top pick overall. So your team has to stink, pretty much on purpose, and get you those top picks. That apparently is the strategy that they Rays did for all these years, building up a lot of talent in their farm system that is paying off now, and the Marlins have been basically following that strategy during its short life in the majors.

That is the apparent strategy that Bobby Cox used when he was GM of the Braves, before he picked up the pieces he thought he could win with, at which point he took over as manager.  It was examining his tactics, tied to my memories of the A's (Connie and Charlie) that led me to this strategy.

By playing mostly the remaining farm prospects you have, who might develop but maybe not, to see if they can do the job, while not picking up free agents to boost up the team, other than a vet or two or three who could mentor one or more of your top prospects, you ensure having a team that is not that good and sure to struggle and lose a lot of games, earning a top draft pick overall, year in year out.

Those are the best picks to have, they can cut your rebuilding time in half or even a quarter if the talent is there. That is because the top 5 picks have the highest chance of delivering you a good starting player by far, roughly 45%. Once you fall down to the 10th, you are talking about half that, or about 23%; once you fall down to the late teens, that is roughly 15%, and if you are competing for the playoffs (i.e. picks 21-30 overall, generally, except when some team fails to sign a first round pick the season before), it is roughly 10%, or half again that of the 10th pick overall. Assuming all the following picks (2nd round and beyond) are roughly equal (because at that point the probability of finding a good player is so small with any of those picks), the main difference between any team's chances of finding a good player is your first round pick, and you can cut your rebuilding time in half (in terms of finding a star player) by being a losing team, and by three-quarters by being one of the worse teams in the majors.

Spackle With Vets When Rebuilding is Nearly Done

Then as your top prospects start coming up and sprinkling your major leaguer roster, you sign key veteran free agents to fill spots where you don't have any good prospect coming up, in order to not block them should they grow and develop, plus pass on their veteran savvy to their young charges.  The Giants have done this, first with Matt Morris mentoring Cainer, then later when Randy Johnson mentored Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Jonathan Sanchez.  They also did that with Bengie Molina mentoring Buster Posey.

Of course, as per the business plan, the draft focus is on the pitching staff and on having a defensively superior lineup that is offensively adequate enough to allow the pitching staff to win at least 90 games and position the team to make the playoffs. And once you get into the playoffs, your team will be positioned to maximize their chances of winning because of the superior pitching staff, superior closer, and good fielding defense (plus a bit of team speed for a cherry on top but not necessary), while being supported by a steady stream of prospects coming up over the next 4-6 seasons from when your team was re-building (and thus still losing).

A couple of good hits while competing for the playoffs (by drafting prospects that should have been drafted earlier but dropped due to some reason and/or finding a starter via international free agency, like Braves picking up Andruw Jones) will help keep the good times rolling longer than expected.


  1. The Giants used their run of high draft picks to great advantage. I think they are currently in a position to build on that success rather than tear it down again.

    The can drop several pretty big contracts after this year: Ross, Torres, Fonty, Tejada, Burrell. They can all be easily replaced with prospects. The $$ Saved goes to pay the young starters.

    The following year, they can drop Rowand and Freddy Sanchez and the year after that they can save about $13 million by buying out Zito's option.

    Again, replacements from the farm system are all in the pipeline.

    The one area that may be getting too expensive to maintain is the bullpen. Wilson may be a candidate to be traded for prospects. J Sanchez will probably be traded somewhere along the way.

    The other dicey decision Sabes has to make is which players to sign to long term contracts as they hit free agency. Not sure you want a guy like Sandoval on a 5 or 6 year deal. Ditto Timmy, or any pitcher for that matter, but that's what you have to do if you want to hang onto your homegrown talent. Big, big decisions when that time comes.

  2. Huff comes off the books the same year as Freddy Sanchez and Aaron Rowand. That's a total of $28 M.

  3. Sorry I didn't make it clearer, but I'm not saying the Giants are in position to tear it down. As I noted in the post, when making the World Series appear to be an impossibility is when you start tearing things down.

    I totally agree with your points made about money clearing up and paying for our young pitchers, while we get cheaper replacements coming up via the farm system. The pitching near future looks great with Wheeler and Surkamp looking good, and there are a lot of options to turn to for most of the position players, in case of injury or lack of performance.

    I agree about Brian Wilson. As much as I love having him lock things down, I think the Giants pay him the big money until they need the money to pay the young starters.

    However, if the young starters don't want to stay, then there might be money to keep Wilson. It will be a delicate dance Sabean will be doing in the coming seasons.

    That reminds me, I had written a post about the odds of keeping our young pitchers, and not all of them are sure things to stay into free agency. I think I lost it somewhere (do all my writing on paper first still, on the go), so here's the short version. Cain is the only one I think we have a good chance of keeping. He's good but not Superstar great, so his salary will be relatively modest and he has roots here with his wife, I think they are the only ones to own a home in SF and live there, and he didn't have a childhood team he rooted for, he has said before.

    Lincecum might price himself out of our price range. I think this off-season is do or die with him, either it's a 4 year, $90-100M contract, or he'll be going free agent in two.

    Bumgarner is an even less likely into free agency prospect. He had his dispute about his salary this season. Plus, more importantly, he has deeeeeeeeep roots in his ancestral home, I don't see how he won't be trying to sign with the Braves in order to be able to live at home among his family year round.

    Sanchez I see almost zero chance of a long-term contract. He has Boras as his agent, and while his clients have signed such a contract before, the vast majority have not. He's never said anything that I've read that suggests that he loves being here.

    My best hope is a long term deal with Cain and maybe Lincecum, so it is good that we have young guys like Wheeler and Surkamp looking like they can take the middle of the rotation and run with it, because I don't currently see a way to keep most of the group together.

    But you never know.

    I think Pablo is too good a hitter not to sign long-term, as long as he's still controlling his weight when he's nearing free agency and the Giants have to make the decision. Posey too. I think we have a better chance of keeping those two than we do of the pitchers, frankly.

    But long term deals, from what I'm talking about is covering the last couple of years of arbitration and 1-3 years of free agency. These guys are very young, and I would like to see contracts keeping them on the Giants to when they are 30. At that point, the Giants would need to decide whether it is better to make them lifers or to trade to replenish the farm system

  4. This year, we have four guys making 8 figures (Zeets, Tim, RoRo, and Huff). Next year, we will have those four plus Cain. In 2013, we have the first inflection point for Sabean. He'll have Cainer as a FA, and I'd hope they'll extend him this year so he doesn't test the market. Assuming we let RoRo and Huff walk, that leaves Zito, Tim, Cain, and Wilson as big money contracts. I'd guess Posey and Panda will be signed to a long term deals that won't get too pricey until 2014. So, in 2013 Sabean's dilemmas will be: how much for Cain; how much for Wilson; and whether to re-sign Chez, trade him in 2012, or let him walk for the draft picks.

  5. At this point, I think things have aligned fortunately to allow us (at least the choice) to keep our best farm-raised talent.

    Rowand is gone when Cain hits free agency. Cain is getting paid $15mil in 2012, but we will be saving about 12mil with Rowand coming off the books for '13. I doubt Cain would take more than $25mil/year, and I think it's far more likely he could be signed for something like 5y/90m...hardly a raise from his 2012 season's earning, but $10mil more than this year.

    Likewise, I do think we will try (and can) keep Lincecum, even if he costs more $25m/year+, unless he shows injury problems or declining performance. I personally think since both Lincecum and Cain are 27 and 26, the will continue to get better through 30 until injury strikes; they will improve command, learn new pitches, and so forth. I would hate to see Timmy reach free agency because he is the ace of young aces. Since coming to the big leagues, he has been consistently dominant, and has evolved as a pitcher as well. That said, I have a feeling he wouldn't want to go the Yankees or Phillies (they won't be bidding anyway unless they lose Hamels), but maybe he'd play for the Red Sox if they gave him the best offer. Likewise, I doubt the Mariners could afford him, especially if they plan to keep Felix.

    Most importantly, Zito's contract comes off the books that year. If Timmy continues to dominate, he is worth a Cliff Lee-like contract, and the Giants could afford it.

    I agree that Sanchez will be long gone.

    Wilson is a wild card. If he continues to be an elite closer, it would be great to have him, but even $15mil/year is pushing it, especially when we have Romo, as well as Hembree showing great potential in the minor leagues. That said, I think Wilson would love to stay in SF. He also won't be a FA until 2014. That's time to wait and see if he should be kept, as well as time to stack some money to pay the man if he's worth it.

    Bumgarner won't be a FA until 2016. If he experiences 5 more years of success on a contender, I don't think family roots in North Carolina would make him go to the Braves. I highly doubt that.

    When great players are developed in a winning franchise, experience enormous success, and have developed alongside and along with great team chemistry with other home-grown players, I think there is little incentive to want to leave. Heck, Heath Bell wants to stay with the Padres... THE PADRES OF ALL TEAMS!!! And he's said he's willing to take a discount. They don't even have fans. Same with Adrian Gonzalez.

    Also, I do believe the Giants will be a perennial contender for the next half-decade, at least. I believe they will continue to sell-out a majority of their home games as long as they are contending, even if they don't win the WS this coming year.

    I don't think any of the Giants young, home-grown players would really want to leave. SF is a great place. They have enormous fan support, and they completely dominate a very good market.

    Also, I do think we have minor-league talent who will take over in positions of need currently occupied by free agents.

  6. Please allow me a rosterbation fantasy, one I'm sure we've all been having:

    Our 2013 25 man roster:
    Starting rotation
    1. Tim Lincecum (20-25mil/year, final arb year)

    2. Matt Cain (Making around $20mil/year, first FA year)

    3. Madison Bumgarner (5-10mil/year, 1st arb year)

    4. Zach Wheeler/Eric Surkamp (rookie salary, rookie)

    5. Barry Zito ($20mil/year, final year of contract.) Or we've traded him if Surkamp and Wheeler both significantly better. Money still sunk though. Would like Zito to mentor Surkamp though).

    (About $70-75mil for the rotation, dropping below 60 once Zito is gone in 2014 unless MadBum goes Cy on us too.)

    Brian Wilson ($10mil, final arb year)
    Sergio Romo ($3-5mil, 2nd arb year)
    Heath Hembree (rookie salary)

    Can't really speculate on the other 4 guys. Could be a mix of cheapish free agents who are good, guys in the current pen (ramirez, lopez though he'd be 35), and good relievers from our system who would never make the ridiculous starting rotation. At least 2 would be lefties. Maybe Bochy the younger? Stoffel? Verdugo? Correa? No idea.

    ($20-25mil max. Wilson even at $10mil a year is tough to pay unless these sell-outs keep up. Enough org arms and cheap relievers out there that I think it will be less than $20m)

  7. The diamond:
    C: Posey (first arb year, ~5-10mil)

    1B: Belt (pre-arb)

    2B: ? lots of possibilities - Panik if he can't stick at SS or isn't blocked by Crawford (or is at least ready), maybe Culberson/Duvall. If none pan out, free agent vet. (Rookie Salary or surely less than $10mil/year for a new Freddy)

    SS: Crawford. I believe he will be at least a 3.0 war player on defense alone (on track for it so far this year). I think he will become a decent enough hitter, and will earn enough time to become one due to his defense. I think he can hover between 80-120 OPS+ by this time. He's a great player if so. If not, and Panik sticks at SS, he's another possibility if ready for 2013, but I see him at 2B unless Duvall turns into Jeff Kent. (ROSTERBATION FANTASY!!!)

    3B: PANDA!!! ($5-10mil/year in Arb)

    LF: Either Belt if Posey platoons with Hector Sanchez at C, or more likely, a guy like Thomas Neal, Jarrod Parker, Kieschnick, Peguero, or if they all can't stick, a Pat Burrel or Cody Ross cheap vet. (Rookie salary or ~5mil/year). The system is top-loaded in outfielders with 3 in the top 10, 5 or more in the top 20. I believe one can be at least a 90 ops+ or better. I hope better.

    CF: Gary F'ing Brown. Maybe Peguero. But I believe in Gary. He's got too many tools, projects to be too good a defender, gets on base, and is still (and will continue) getting better. (Rookie Salary)

    RF: Nate Schierholtz. I'm with OGC. I think he's for real. (2nd arb year, less than $5mil)

    (About $20-25mil total, maybe less assuming we can fill up most of the roster with org guys or cheap vets. Up to $35 if we have to buy a good 2b, but I don't think we'll have to. We're winning with terrible 2b play right now.)

    Hector Sanchez, C
    A fontenot type, either Vet or from the farm
    A cheap pat burrel type, or rookie OF platoon bats
    Platoon bats.

    Hopefully we don't spend $20mil+ on a worthless bench like we currently do with Rowand and DeRosa. MY GAWD.
    I hope $5mil, tops for the bench.

    Total est roster cost, assuming no more Zito, Rowand, DeRosa, Huff or Tejada disasters: $115-130m.

    This is rosterbation with a team made almost entirely of home-grown players, but I truly think it is near-possible as long as we dont get hasty and trade any good pieces from our system in a desperation move. If a roster 75% like this were to appear, I think we'd have a very legitimate contender on our hands. Pitching at least if not more dominant than now. Hitting that projects at or better (I think much better) than league average. If we can hover at the top of a bad NL west now...just imagine. Cant wait.

    The sell-outs continue. We buy more rowand and zito's so as to give less money back to the sharing pool. Cuz we do it like that. We're the Giants: Where superstar veterans come to die.

  8. I will say though: we better hope that the sell-outs continue and we can run a budget near $150-170mil a la the Phillies by 2015 or so. Otherwise, it might be tough to also keep Panda, Posey, and Madbum.

    So, yea. I think Wilson is a goner if he's still awesome.

    Or: we just avoid buying any free agent veterans on the downslope of their careers and let cheap rookies struggle and learn and be tested instead. A guy can dream right?

  9. Good column, OGC - I like your musings.

    I'm hesitant to look at any ballclub in terms of "total payroll". Of course it matters, but, it's the sum of decisions made player-by-player. Saying "Zito is gone (or not gone) so we have (or don't have) $xxM" shouldn't preclude individual roster decisions - if a player outperforms his contract in terms of money earned for the team, it's a good decision. But we've already been there.

    I tend to agree with the "all-in" or "all-out" approach, and you make an excellent point about rookies. The higher draft picks are a bonus, but you just don't know if a player can play unless you play him. This works better as a generalization, but, for instance, Belt should be in the majors. Huff should be in the outfield. Crawford should continue to play. There's no reason to stay with a known quantity (and he is, despite all the hand-wringing) such as Tejada. I think there's a lot of waste in situations like that, in terms of development, salary costs, etc. I also happen to believe that a good part of someone being an AAAA player is created - you can play in AAA too long and develop bad habits. See whats-his-name (first baseman, I forget) - he could lay off hard sliders and so on in AAA because there were, overall, many more hittable pitches. You hit 300/400/500 in AAA and you figure you're doing fine, so the motivation may not be there. As time goes by, you know less about what a Nate is worth, not more.

    Absolutely agree as well with the mentorship - I really do think that that is part of Zito's purpose. Part of that money was "veteran presence", and remember, when he was signed, the pitching staff as currently constituted was not in place. I sound like Murray Chass, but stability and consistency and experience is worth something in being a teammate.

    One more tiny rant - a flaw I see in your plan is asses in the seats. People threw rocks at me at the time for suggesting this, but Michael Tucker. Or hell, Jeter right now. Casual fans knew the name Michael Tucker, his time with the Braves gave him name recognition and some of that team's success gets credited in people's minds. So that signing had some PR in it, looks like the club was trying, people would pay more attention when he hit, and so on. A bad baseball decision, but it's possible (at least on paper) that it looked like a good financial decision. That in itself is a delicate balance - the same team with the same number of wins will draw more if there's name recognition. In the long-run, it's probably a bad decision all around, but you can only anticipate the long-run up to a point. The "play all rookies" concept can badly damage a team if rebuilding takes too long.

    Thanks again - this is the best Giants site for intelligent discourse by far.

  10. Lance Niekro. These things always come after you press "post".

  11. Thanks for the comments everyone!

    And thanks for the compliment Marc!

    I agree that you don't know if a prospect can play unless you play him. But there is a delicate balance between keeping the hometown fans interested and developing your prospects.

    My plan won't really work in reality usually. I readily admit that the concept came to me from studying Bobby Cox at Atlanta. My plan is basically what he did.

    He blew up the team, and it lost horribly for 6 seasons, until he finally drafted the guy who would make things easier for him, Chipper Jones. He also got other guys too, but Chipper was the core of his long success streak as manager.

    So I agree with you, but to a point. Let's take your example of Lance Niekro. He really didn't show anything in the minors until the 2004 season in AAA. After that, the Giants gave him a lot of chances over the next two seasons to do something, heck, he was the starter for long stretches, before they gave up on him. So I don't really see him as an example of someone hurt by how the Giants handled his development.

    As a counter example, I would note the long drawn out apprenticeship of Rich Aurilia. I was so mad that he was not the starter much, much earlier. But that did not seem to affect what he eventually did in the majors.

    Going through recent prospects, the only one I was wondering why they held him down longer was Ishikawa. Not that he did great but Dodd Stadium did mask a good but not great season, so I was never too put out about that, other than that fans held that against Travis as a prospect.

    And the Giants for the most part have given a number of opportunities in recent seasons when a young player showed some promise. Niekro, Jason Ellison, Kevin Frandsen, Pablo, Ishikawa, Schierholtz, Bowker.

    And that is just position players, I find that the pitchers seem to get short shrift in these types of discussions, but the Giants have not held back any pitching prospects that I have seen, from the majors, when they appear ready, they get brought up.

    Since you brought up Nate, I guess he is one that maybe has been held up. But as I've noted before, he has gotten a number of chances to start, in 2009 and 2010, but his frozen streaks and injuries have kept him from holding onto the starting RF position. His recent hitting skein is similar to ones he has done before, and as I noted in a recent post, his strikeout rate is greatly improved this season (and last) so he may finally be ready for the spotlight and starting position. That Bochy is batting him 4th is a great sign of their confidence in him right now.

  12. About Tucker, there was zero PR in that move, he was a complementary player, heck, he was never a full time starter. People didn't care that the team was trying because all they saw was the draft pick lost by signing him a day early. They don't remember that he saved the team's bacon in RF that season.

    I think it was a good baseball decision, given how the rest of the off-season was handled. I still think they should have signed Vlad, then made due with whatever leftover major leaguers at the other positions, much like how they picked up Huff and Uribe last year.

    But once they made the moves they made, this was a calculated risk move.

    The odds was very great that the missed pick would never turn out to be even a major leaguer for a day. Even greater that he would not be a good starter. So punting a back of first round pick is a calculated risk that should work out for you the vast majority of the time. Especially if you are willing to sign signability picks later in the draft. It is doing that regularly where it starts to hurt you.

    That saves the team $1-1.5M that Sabean could then use to get a usable starting (for the most part) RF for the Giants. Imagine if we had to use Jeffrey Hammonds in RF all season...

    The thing is that at that point, the Giants were trying to win. That is totally at odds with rebuilding, which the Giants probably should have started in earnest that season, but because Bonds was hitting so well, they didn't, they wanted to try to win it all finally, with Bonds.

    The problems with starting rookies from the start when you are trying to win is that if he fails - and many do - then your team's chances of winning that season is screwed, wait until next season. It is not like you can stash a starting player on the bench cheaply in case you need one later. And trading for that mid-season reduces greatly your chances of winning in future seasons, so there is always that delicate balance between present and future.

    The Brewers gutting makes some sense, Prince is leaving next season, so they want to try to win it once with him. However they just blew out the future, once he goes free agent, they have nothing for him for another 4-6 years, if ever, because of the massive failure rate. Rickie Weeks too.

    They really probably should traded him for a big bundle of near-ready prospects that will come up in a season or two. But with Braun around, they probably thought they should go for it now. So it is hard to say what the absolutely correct thing to do is. They had to balance their needs and obligations to their fans, and judge the future.

    But the future looks bleak. Their best players are just hitting prime, but leaving soon or underperforming, only Braun around long-term. They have a good pitcher in Gallardo, but Marcum is 29 already and Greinke is injured and gone after 2012.

    The Giants at that time wanted OK players at a number of positions, instead of adding a Vlad and picking up leftovers for the other positions. It was a choice they made for the franchise, a wrong direction, in my opinion, but that's water under the bridge now.

  13. Oh, didn't finish the thought: but signing Tucker was the right decision given what they were doing.

    Ideally, Magowan would have given Sabean the Maddux Money earlier and he could have gotten better players AND drafted someone as well (also, should note that perhaps the Giants thought they would not get anyone they liked enough at that pick, that is something that could have played in that decision that we'll never know about).

  14. there's much more to comment back on, but what I'm referring to with Tucker is the impression given to the unwashed millions - the extra fans that are added on top, whether at the gate or watching TV. NOT the people who really follow the game - they have no idea about draft picks or anything like that. But those fans are pure profit. They see Michael Tucker and they say "i know him", they see Joe Schmoe (who may be better) and they don't pay attention.

    I'm not so sure Sabean was trying to win in the latter Bonds days - he was trying to make it look like he was, while the farm system developed. You have to admit that the late aughts Giants had a ton of players who were more famous than they were good.

    I leave out Durham - always liked him, a shame his hamstrings ended up dogging him.

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  16. Glad you like it, please let me know if you have any questions, I'll be happy to try to answer it for you.

    Assuming you like business plans, most any book you can buy that is popular will give you a good overview of what a business plan is all about. I prefer perusing them in a book store first and finding one that fits my style, but with book stores going by the wayside, that option is not really available anymore except for the most popular.



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