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Free Agency And Contemporary Competitive Balance

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Anybody know who has the second best run differential in MLB right now?

That’s right, your Seattle Mariners:

OAK +129
SEA +64
LAAOA +60
LAD +57
WAS +45
DET +33

To dramatize the geographic power shift in the American League, the three top teams in baseball are all in the AL West. I don’t think the Mariners are actually the second best team in baseball or anything, but with better-than-even odds of making the playoffs I’d say that as of now Keri’s analysis of the Cano signing is looking better than mine.

I should elaborate a bit on why I agreed with Jonah conceptually although I disagreed with him about the specifics. I do agree that there’s a certain Stockholm Syndrome among some analytically inclined fans, who look at things from the perspective of the interests of the owners rather than the interests of the team. There are exceptions; if you’re a fan of the As or the Rays, the revenue potential of even an excellent team is so relatively limited that you have to worry about the $/WAR ratio. But, otherwise, winning is the point, not maximizing efficiency. What’s relevant is not whether someone is “overpaid” but the opportunity cost. As a Phillies fan, you should have hated the Ryan Howard signing, not because it cut into the owners’ profits but because it practically saddled you with an unproductive player for years (and not just in the back end after years of elite performance either.)  But if a guy can play, and signing him doesn’t make it impossible for you to sign someone else because baseball doesn’t have a salary cap, that’s a different issue. There’s some opportunity cost risk associated with Cano on the back end, but (especially with increasing revenues likely to produce salary inflation) if he delivers several years of elite level performance, you can live with that, as long as the team is competitive during the period when the player still has a elite value. To my surprise, the Mariners in year 1 are competitive.

The other relevant question is whether this is just a complete fluke. But — and I can’t really understand this — but I don’t see it. Zunino is playing right in line with his ZIPS projection. Both Smoak and the new jobholder Morrison have been slightly better than replacement level. Cano has actually been below projection — although he’s still been essentially as good as any 2B in baseball except Kinsler and Altuve. (Which is exactly why rare elite free agents are a better gamble — they have value in an off year that mid-level free agents don’t.) Miller’s in line with expectations. Seager is having a good year, outperforming his ZIPS, but at 26 I wouldn’t assume his first half performance is unsustainable. The OF and DH slots looked like a train wreck before the year…have has been exactly that. King Felix has perhaps even been better than expectations, although not dramatically so, but if anything the rest of the rotation has underachieved; if Paxton cam come back before the end of the month there could be some improvement. The bullpen looked solid-not-great and has been exactly that. I don’t see any reason why the Mariners shouldn’t be similarly competitive in the second half. Indeed, the black holes in the OF represent the potential for improvement if the organization is serious, which is another way of testing whether the Cano signing make sense. There’s no point in springing a big salary for major talent if you’re not going to try to find some real outfielders once you have a real threat to make the playoffs.

At any rate, as long as the current condition of major league baseball — i.e. very high levels of competitive balance and elite free agents, especially at up-the-middle defensive positions, rarely hitting the FA market in their primes — persists, signing those elite free agents may well be a better strategy than is commonly assumed. There’s not a lot separating below- and above-average teams right now, and in that context a 5 or 6 WAR player (let alone higher) has a very significant impact.

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