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March 14, 2011

Ahead in the Count

Battle for the Beltway

by Matt Swartz

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This past month, I moved back up I-95 from Washington to Philadelphia, where I’d spent all but the previous eighteen months of my life. There has been only one major-league franchise in the City of Brotherly Love since the Athletics forsook Philly in 1955, but as I discovered during my sojourn in the District, many baseball fans in the DC area have been torn between the Baltimore Orioles, for whom many of them grew up cheering, and the Washington Nationals, who emigrated from Montreal in 2005. Neither team has been good during their years of geographic coexistence, and the metropolitan area has not seen a playoff game since 1997, but both teams have slowly begun to develop the young talent necessary to compete. Although animosity stemming from Orioles owner Peter Angelos’ opposition to a Washington franchise has cost the O’s some fans, many in the DC area have yet to determine their allegiance.

However, short-sighted moves have plagued both franchises in recent years. Many rebuilding teams get sidetracked with moves that serve only to move them from 65 to 70 wins, but in the Baltimore-Washington area, these transactions can be particularly costly. When the Phillies spun their wheels making short-term-oriented moves in the mid-1990s, there was nowhere else for Philadelphians to turn. While it took over a decade for the team to return to the playoffs, Phillies fans were ready to jump back on the bandwagon when their club proved successful. The Nationals and Orioles do not have this luxury—if one starts to succeed, the other might very well lose some portion of its potential fan base. With two teams fighting over one market, plenty of spoils await the first to succeed, but paradoxically, the one that sucks up some losing now might stand to gain the most in the long run.

Since repeated last-place finishes are not good for job security and the fruits of a slow rebuilding process may not go to the patient general manager who sacrificed small improvements in the standings for a future pennant, GMs of weak teams are naturally tempted to splurge on the free-agent market to improve their rosters, even when they know that quick patches will not help them make the playoffs. However, the owners of those teams would be better served by employing GMs who stay the course and build real contenders without succumbing to the temptation of counterproductive short-term improvements. The real money in baseball comes from the revenue generated by putting a team in the playoffs. This has been demonstrated empirically many times, and clubs generally behave in a manner consistent with those findings. Most of the money spent on free agents is dispensed by teams on the cusp of making the playoffs, and teams that are close to contention generally increase their spending in pursuit of these potential gains in revenue.

In recent years, both the Nationals and Orioles have been prone to moves intended only to keep them out of the cellar, with little hope of additional upside. After finishing in last place with the second-worst bullpen ERA in the American League in 2009 (with 22 blown saves to match), the Orioles signed Mike Gonzalez to a two-year deal. The $12 million price tag was not the only cost, though the cash could have been better utilized at a point when they might have had enough talent that further spending could conceivably have brought their fans a division title. The additional cost was the 53rd pick in the 2010 draft that the Orioles surrendered to the Braves. This pick is generally worth about two wins, because the player drafted will produce without being paid at a market rate until he accumulates six years of service time. Even with Gonzalez in Orioles orange, the team again finished second-to-last in the AL in bullpen ERA the following season.

No team can compete without young talent. In an article last season, I broke down how much WARP came from players with different amounts of service time. Only a third of all wins were generated by players who had reached free agency, and only the Yankees would have reached .500 with just these players and replacement-level players filling out the rest of the roster—in fact, only five teams per year from 2007-09 had enough AM WARP (or “Auction Market” WARP) to avoid 100 losses with only replacement-level players filling out their other roster spots. Every other team in the league needed a substantial contribution from players it drafted, so every time a team like the Orioles signs a Type-A free agent, it surrenders a couple of wins from its next competitive team.

The Gonzalez deal was not an isolated incident. The Orioles lost their second- and third-round picks in 2007 after signing Danys Baez and Chad Bradford, respectively, and their second-round pick in 2006 after signing Ramon Hernandez. Brian Roberts would have been a Type-A free agent after the 2009 season and could have netted the Orioles two draft picks (including a sandwich pick), but instead they signed him to an extension before he reached free agency. Melvin Mora would have been a Type-A free agent after the 2006 season and could have netted the Orioles two picks as well, but they signed him to a three-year extension. That adds up to eight picks in five years that could have turned into productive youngsters alongside Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, Nick Markakis & Co. on the next contending Orioles team.

The Nationals are guilty of the same tactics. This offseason, they handed Jayson Werth a seven-year, $126 million deal, in the process surrendering the 66th pick in the draft. Not only could that pick have generated multiple wins in the future, but seven-year contracts are usually worthwhile only for competitive teams because players signed to such deals are generally worth more than their salaries over the first halves of the deals and less on the back ends. Striking a Faustian bargain in exchange for savings over the first half of a deal makes sense for a team that's putting together the pieces of a championship contender, but the Nationals have signed up for a likely overpay during the period when they might hope to be competitive.

General Manager Mike Rizzo has defended the deal on the grounds that he’s making Washington a palatable destination for future free agents by showing a commitment to winning, but actually winning would serve the same purpose. If the Nationals develop a core of young talent built around Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, and Bryce Harper and begin to push towards .500, free agents will take notice. My article last year also showed that many teams enjoyed sufficient contributions from their pre-free agency players to approach .500, but required free agents to get past that point. Setting a rebuilding team back by forgoing draft picks that could turn into young talent and tying up funds that could be budgeted more effectively elsewhere isn’t likely to make free agents feel warm and fuzzy inside. If a move like signing Werth had made it easier to lure other potential talent to DC, that could have changed the calculus, but the Nationals still failed to lure a top starter as they intended to do this offseason, despite the early inking of their new right fielder. The hypothetical cost they should have considered was not the need to overpay for free agents in the future, but the pair of wins they cost themselves on average by surrendering an early second-round pick.

More minor moves have also set these teams back this offseason. The Orioles spent $8 million on Vladimir Guerrero (after signing Miguel Tejada to a $6 million deal last winter). The Nationals signed Jason Marquis to a two-year, $15 million deal for 2010-11, and Adam LaRoche to a two-year, $16 million deal for 2011-12. None of these moves pushed the team in question into contention. If anything, such acquisitions only weakened their draft positions, making it that much more difficult to compete in the future. Moving down in the draft is not as costly as surrendering a pick altogether, but Vladimir Guerrero and Adam LaRoche are not going to turn their divisions upside down. With Balitmore projected by PECOTA to reach .500 for the first time in 15 years, one might argue that the Orioles were wise to import veterans, but worshipping the Golden Half is no way to build an enduring winner. Without Guerrero and Lee, the Orioles would be projected to go 77-85, which amounts to the difference between a 50 percent chance and a 30 percent chance of reaching .500. And even with the pair of signings, they have just an eight percent chance of reaching the playoffs.

This is not to say that the Orioles—or any team, for that matter—should tank the season entirely. The O’s should be applauded for moves with multi-year implications, like trading for Mark Reynolds, who is just entering his prime at 27, with four more years under team control. He could be a part of the next contending Orioles team that retakes a fan base flirting with the Nationals. The issue that Orioles fans should have with management is when a player is signed that pushes the team toward .500 in 2011 while detracting from its ability to compete in 2013 or 2014. If the team is going to try to follow its market companion’s plan to “show a commitment to winning,” moves such as trading for Reynolds represent the best way to do that.

Since Washington entered the market, neither team has fared well when signing free agents. The following table breaks down the cost in dollars and draft picks and the wins added by each free agent recently signed from outside either organization and paid more than $5 million. (Thus, it does not include extending one’s own potential Type-A free agents, which carries a higher cost in draft picks because teams forgo a sandwich pick on top of a pick transferred directly from the player’s would-be employer.)

YEAR

PLAYER

TEAM

YRS.

$MM

PICKS LOST

YEARS SO FAR

WARP SO FAR

2005

Steve Kline

BAL

2

5.5

 

2

1.6

2006

Ramon Hernandez

BAL

4

27.5

#53

4

4.9

2007

Jay Payton

BAL

2

9.5

 

2

1.6

2007

Danys Baez

BAL

3

19

#69

3

1.6

2007

Jamie Walker

BAL

3

12

 

3

1.2

2007

Chad Bradford

BAL

3

10.5

#99

3

3.9

2007

Aubrey Huff

BAL

3

20

 

3

3.4

2009

Koji Uehara

BAL

2

10

 

2

3

2009

Miguel Tejada

BAL

1

6

 

1

2.4

2009

Cesar Izturis

BAL

2

5

 

2

-0.3

2010

Mike Gonzalez

BAL

2

12

#53

1

0.6

2011

Derrek Lee

BAL

1

7.3

 

N/A 

N/A  

2011

Vladimir Guerrerro

BAL

1

8

 

N/A  

N/A  

2011

Kevin Gregg

BAL

2

10

 

N/A  

N/A  

2005

Vinny Castilla

WAS

2

6.2

#52

2

-0.9

2005

Cristian Guzman

WAS

2

8.4

#84

2

-1.8

2008

Dmitri Young

WAS

2

10

 

2

3.3

2010

Adam Dunn

WAS

2

20

 

2

6.7

2010

Jason Marquis

WAS

2

15

 

1

-1.6

2010

Ivan Rodriguez

WAS

2

6

 

1

1.8

2011

Jayson Werth

WAS

7

126

#66

N/A  

N/A  

2011

Adam LaRoche

WAS

2

16

 

N/A  

N/A  

So far, these acquisitions have combined to amass 31.4 WARP at a price of $186.1 million and about twelve wins’ worth of draft picks worth another $60 million. Those twelve wins in the future could easily generate a playoff appearance that would add more revenue than the 31 wins added to bad teams (especially when supplemented with $186 million of spending money).

Nate Silver investigated whether revenues of teams in the same geographic market correlate with each other and actually found some evidence of a positive relationship in Los Angeles and New York to go along with neutral relationships in Chicago and the Bay Area. However, the most compelling reason he cited was the substitution effect, whereby baseball fans cannot find tickets to sold-out games in one stadium and choose to visit the other. This is not a problem in Washington or Baltimore, where neither stadium regularly approaches full capacity.

Additionally, each of the four markets that Silver looked at has housed at least one good team (and often two). There is no precedent for a market with two teams failing to finish over .500 for six years in a row. The closest has been Chicago, where both teams finished under .500 three years in a row from 1986-88, and the Bay Area in 1983-85 and 1994-96—and many of those teams flirted with .500. There has never been a market featuring a pair of teams as consistently outmatched as the Nationals and Orioles. In the other four two-team markets, there has been only one non-strike season in which both teams failed to win 70 games (Chicago in 1949). That has been the case for three years running in the Baltimore-Washington market, wherein fans are up for grabs to an unprecedented degree.

While signings such as those listed above may attract a few fans in the short run, both of these teams have struggled to fill their stadiums even halfway in recent years. The Nationals played at only 54 percent capacity in 2010, and the Orioles checked in at only 44 percent capacity. The number of fans that either team has stolen from the other by pursuing its recent short-sighted strategy pales in comparison to the gains that either could realize from putting together a contender. In the last decade, the two World Series winners with the largest spikes in attendance from the year before their championship to the year after were the Angels and the White Sox, both of whom hail from competitive two-team markets: the Angels saw their attendance increase from 24,703 per game in 2001 to 37,330 in 2003, while the White Sox saw their attendance increase from 23,834 in 2004 to 36,511 in 2006.

It is also worth noting that teams in northeastern urban markets of equivalent size, such as the Phillies and Red Sox, sell tickets at nearly twice the price that the Nationals and Orioles charge, which means that if they sell twice as many tickets, they can quadruple the less popular teams’ revenue from attendance alone. That is the upside to putting together a championship contender. The downside is causing some fans to doubt your commitment to winning, but even the Pirates and Marlins—two teams whose meager spending has raised eyebrows—have averaged roughly 19,000 fans per game over the last two years, only slightly fewer than the 22,000 fans that both the Nationals and Orioles have drawn on average over the same period. The perils of potentially appearing apathetic until rebuilding comes to fruition don’t figure to harm either team dramatically, but the benefits could be on the order of a four-fold increase in revenue. The patient approach is not fool-proof, and the extra picks could flame out, but historically there has been greater economic upside to playing for the future than prematurely outbidding teams willing to pay a premium to win now.

Winning is how baseball teams generate significant increases in revenue, and building with draft picks is the best way to jumpstart that process. Free agents can supplement a homegrown core, but I have shown before that free agents signed from other teams tend to age very poorly, which makes awarding multi-year deals to outside free agents a poor means of building for the future. That’s not to say that the Orioles and Nationals should start trading away potential contributors to future contenders like Markakis and Zimmerman, but they should not be outbidding teams for decaying assets on the basis of the publicity that derives from making a show of attempting to win.

Some teams do not suffer from a fundamental misunderstanding of the importance of draft picks. The Rays have ten of the first 75 picks in the 2011 draft all to themselves, and those picks represent significant expected value in the future: approximately 21 wins above cost, according to my WARP-based interpretation of Sky Andrecheck’s Draft Pick Value Calculator, and 17 wins added above the value of the two turns they would get without draft-pick compensation. The Nationals and Orioles may be costing themselves only two wins at a time, but money allocated toward making the present just a little less awful is not in the best interest of the fans. While the Rays aren’t rebuilding in the traditional sense, a strategy aimed at adding draft picks and international free agents is what gives a team a solid NM WARP base to which it can add free-agent talent later. Is there risk associated with draft picks? Of course, but the range of potential outcomes extends in both directions. The Rays could draft well and end up with 35 wins from these picks, or they could end up with seven. The Orioles and Nationals can expect approximately two wins per pick, but each pick could be a potential bust (picks from the first two rounds make the majors about 50 percent of the time) or an all-star waiting in the wings.

Fans may claim that they enjoy seeing a 70-win team more than a 65-win team and that that difference justifies short-term-oriented signings, but they show with their wallets that they don’t pay much more for the privilege; the cash really starts to flow only when teams reach playoff contention, and in this market, playoff contenders have been few and far between. Neither MLB team has been successful for a long time. The NBA’s Washington Wizards and the NFL’s Washington Redskins aren’t strong either, and while the Washington Capitals are decent, the NHL is an afterthought for most American fans. In Baltimore, the Ravens have been good, but they’re the only other sports franchise in town. The area I leave behind is full of fans looking for a team on which to lavish money. Unlike other franchises that apply self-defeating roster band-aids, these two teams are in direct competition for the affections of the local fans. The first to sacrifice the present and make a real investment in the future could make inroads that the other may never erase.

Matt Swartz is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Matt's other articles. You can contact Matt by clicking here

36 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

R.A.Wagman

"the NHL is an afterthought for most American fans" - On the whole, this premise is not far off. But in Washington, it is quite wrong.
According to ESPN, the Nats averaged 22,568 fans per home game last year - from a capacity of 41,222.
This season, which is winding down, the Capitals have averaged 18,397 per home game (10th in the NHL) . Remember that their home arena, the Verizon Center, seats only 18,277 - they average over-capacity. I think it is reasonable to assume that if the Verizon Center had 5000 more seats, their attendance might more closely rival that of the Nationals.

Mar 14, 2011 04:54 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Matt Swartz
BP staff

Right-- which I think is evidence of how much the area wants a winner! There are Caps jerseys all over the place, despite the fact that hockey on the whole is not that popular in America. People are rabid about the Redskins for the first two weeks of the season too. It's just an untapped market for a winner!

Mar 14, 2011 05:37 AM
 
R.A.Wagman

I just think it is a bit of a straw-man argument to say that hockey is not popular in the US. In large parts of the US it is not popular. However, in the NE and Upper Mid-west it is almost as popular as it is in Canada.

Mar 14, 2011 06:03 AM
rating: 4
 
HalfStreet

It is only telling part of the story to complain about the Nats losing a second round pick for signing Werth. The Nats got a first and a sandwich pick for Adam Dunn, and LaRoche was both cheaper than Dunn and someone who didn't cost picks. Add in the fact that the Nats traded Josh Willingham for two prospects, and losing that second round pick seems minor in context. You had a lot more draft-pick-losing examples for the Orioles.

Consider beyond that the fact that Michael Morse looks like he could match or exceed Willingham's production in LF. He cost the Nats Ryan Langerhans. If Morse has a breakout year, will you say it was a mistake because the extra wins will cost the Nats draft position?

Finally, it is grossly unfair to blame the Nats as part of a pair of teams "not above" .500 for 6 years. The team was willfully mismanaged by MLB in the years preceeding the move to DC, and for the first 2 seasons in DC. Although the Nats finished at (not above) .500 their first year, the team has had to try to refill the minor leagues which were damaged on purpose by the other 29 owners when they owned the club. They didn't sign the big free agents, as you suggest. They suffered to get high draft picks (Strasburg and Harper), as you suggest they should.

We fans have suffered enough. The Lerners have the money, and the Werth signing is actually only the very first time they successfully signed a big free agent they had to compete for. The Nats should continue to try to use free agency along with the draft to take them the next step.

+1/2St.

Mar 14, 2011 05:54 AM
rating: 6
 
BP staff member Matt Swartz
BP staff

What the Nats got for Dunn and Willingham as irrelevant to this situation because they would have gotten those players regardless of whether they signed Werth. Similarly, the fact that they have Strasburg already shouldn't affect it either. By signing Werth, they lost the pick and that is a cost associated with it.

However, you are correct that the Nationals have not been run as poorly as the Orioles have during 2005-2011, and that a lot of their under-.500 struggles are a result of the mismanagement of the Expos franchise. The only reason I highlighted their collective records was to discuss how unique the market was in lacking an above average team for an extended period of time.

I agree that using free agency along with the draft is a smart strategy, but in a way that enhances the Nationals when they are going to be good. Free agents from other teams generally derive most of their value in the first year of their contracts. This is especially important for a team that is so positioned to improve over time as the Nationals are poised to do.

Mar 14, 2011 15:32 PM
 
rcrary

"In Baltimore, the Ravens have been good, but they’re the only other sports franchise in town"

Yeah. I'm a Phillies fan living in Baltimore. The city is positively obsessed with the Ravens.

Mar 14, 2011 06:39 AM
rating: 0
 
MWSchneider

I think the Werth signing will turn out to be regrettable--he is likely to be done long before the Nats are contenders and it's not clear he is that good anyway. And the idea that free agents will be attracted to Washington is disturbingly similar to the Redskins philosophy--where aging free agents went to be paid after their productive years were past. But, as long as the Nats don't trade away prospects for marginal improvement, I think they are still on track.

The real problem in Washington, though, IMO, is not the Orioles but the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, Phillies, Braves, etc. The choice between the Nats and the O's is, to a large extent, based on where someone lives in the area. But, unlike Baltimore, Washington is a city of transplants, especially from the East Coast, who already have allegiances to other teams. (I'm a Braves fan myself, having grown up in the South.) Under the best of circumstances, it will be hard to wean people away from their original teams. Right now, when the Phillies play here, you might as well be in Philadelphia. Even if the Nats begin winning, there are always going to be lots of people rooting for the other team.

Mar 14, 2011 06:57 AM
rating: 3
 
BP staff member Matt Swartz
BP staff

I agree with the issue of having a city of transplants, as it is somewhat unique to baseball. Since baseball is a game that often is shared between fathers and sons, it is probably more likely to affect a transplant city where the younger residents share team loyalties with transplanted parents. Still, Strasburg-mania dulled those concerns, since I realized how many people wanted to be Nationals fans if they had a reason to be.

Mar 14, 2011 15:34 PM
 
TGisriel

I absolutely agree that the O's and the Nationals should not be signing free agents to expensive long term deals which cost draft picks.

Where you lose me is condemning short term (1 year)free agent signings that do not cost draft picks, especially if the signing does not block a prospect who is ready. As I understand your argument, you are saying that these players cost the team draft position, and therby retard development, because they will help win games.

Surely the best way to alienate fans is to give the impression that you would prefer to lose (even in the short term) in order to gain draft position.

Moreover, signing a free agent to a one-year deal could help the team's future if that player is traded in season for prospects, as the Orioles did with Tejada last season.

Bottom line: I am skeptical of the portion of your argument that condemns short term free agent signings that plug a hole in the line-up.

Mar 14, 2011 08:10 AM
rating: 5
 
BP staff member Matt Swartz
BP staff

Yeah, I wrote an article actually about when one-year deals work here (http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=9869), and that actually does condone moves like signing and trading Tejada at times. At the same time, I still would like to see the money spent elsewhere in most situations. Especially with teams projected to lose 90 games or more, I think resources should be managed differently. It's a smaller loss, but why not use the $10 million that a Lee-type player costs towards international free agents and towards a free agent a couple years down the line?

Mar 14, 2011 15:36 PM
 
McNulty

Casual legacy O's fans in DC may well jump to the Nats if they become a contender first.

Casual O's fans in Baltimore will not jump to the Nats. It won't happen.

Evidence? You see any Ravens fans in DC that aren't from Baltimore?

Mar 14, 2011 08:33 AM
rating: 0
 
TGisriel

I agree that fans in the immediate Baltimore area will never switch to the Nationals. Baltimore hates D.C., and D.C. teams do not attract Baltimore fans. Remember that the NFL tried to get Baltimore to follow the Redskins during the period when Baltimore had no football team, and it just didn't happen.

I live in Baltimore, not D.C., so it is hard for me to gage D.C. interest in the Orioles. Certainly, before the Nationals arrived, the Orioles had a significant following in D.C.

The battleground for the teams are the Maryland counties between Baltimore and D.C. I assume the Nationals will gradually claim Montgomery County and Prince George's County, which are the Maryland counties that border D.C.

The questions are Howard County, Frederick County, Anne Arundel County and Calvert County.

Mar 14, 2011 13:07 PM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Matt Swartz
BP staff

I agree-- it's a lot of Maryland counties that are on the fence. I lived in Bethesda and it really seemed like an area that could go either way. I felt like I had a seat on the front lines, and neither army would get their act together!

Mar 14, 2011 15:39 PM
 
wmcdonal56

I don't really see how Bethesda or anywhere else in Montgomery County could truly "go either way" anymore. Unless the O's become a decade-long power and the win bandwagon fans from all over the larger region. There's just not much of a cultural identification with Baltimore in Bethesda. And by Metro standards, its not even that distant of a suburb.

Mar 14, 2011 21:14 PM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Matt Swartz
BP staff

Obviously just an anecdote, but I saw a lot of Orioles gear in Bethesda. I suspect if they were good, they'd have a much larger following, particularly if they sustained it.

Mar 15, 2011 04:05 AM
 
lonechicken

Anecdotal... The sports gear stores in Montgomery County Maryland, I've noticed sell at least as many Nats clothing if not more than Orioles (but then I've only been paying attention since Strasburg-mania started). In DC (where I work) and Northern Virginia (where my family is from), it's no contest, Nats gear way outnumber Orioles gear.

I don't know about the "demand side", but the "supply side" seems to tell me that the reach of the Orioles is shrinking in this area.

Mar 14, 2011 08:36 AM
rating: 2
 
Richie

Interesting note about the "transients" thing from MW. Which also applies to the Florida teams, to the D-Backs some, perhaps? Has this phenomenon ever been studied? Not sure how you'd go about it, but am sure it could be usefully done.

Mar 14, 2011 08:52 AM
rating: 1
 
Agent007

Ya gotta give the fans something, and that's why the Orioles capitulated, a bit, over previous McPhail era moves. They made a lot of mistakes in the pre-McPhail past... terrible decisions that cost the club plenty. They've drafted better recently, which should help, and the Gonzalez deal (though not terribly expensive) should provide a cautionary note about signing relievers. However, this year they restrained themselves, signing Guerrero and Lee to one-year deals only, much of this to placate the fans. If the Nats and Orioles are battling for attendance, the expenditure the Orioles made this year may pay off this year, before the Strasburg-Harper begins in Washington.

Mar 14, 2011 09:17 AM
rating: 0
 
Richie

Maybe that's the politically acceptable and therefore optimally practical way to do it. Sign 'Big Names!' to 1-year contracts. Rinse and repeat till your youngsters are quality enough to carry you into contention.

Mar 14, 2011 10:26 AM
rating: 1
 
abcjr2

I agree with HalfStreet. If you are going to analyze the Nats' acquisitions you should consider all of the moves including essentially replacing Dunn with LaRoche and Willingham with Werth, plus the players picked up from the A's in the Willingham trade. Werth's contract is ludicrously long and expensive but you could argue they overpaid a little to get someone to put on the cover of the programs and in advertising.

Plus I think the article undersells the need to show the fans progress, some wins, and some stars to root for. BP readers can look with admiration on a building team that endures multiple last place finishes while keeping an eye on the long term, building through the draft, but the team has to convince fans to buy tickets or watch the team on TV in the meantime.

The Nats had their first round pick protected by their position in the standings, so I'd say the lost second round pick was more than paid for by Henry Rodriguez (23 year old flamethrower picked up from the A's) alone.

Mar 14, 2011 13:10 PM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Matt Swartz
BP staff

I'm sympathetic to your point, but I think that "showing the fans some wins" just isn't going well. These teams are selling 22K tickets per game, just 3K more than the Marlins and Pirates. I think that it's just not worth outbidding a team that is getting a combination of "showing the fans some wins" and actual playoff revenue.

Mar 14, 2011 15:41 PM
 
Ric Size

The attendance figure of 19,000 for the Marlins & Pirates suggest to me that there is a "replacement level" for MLB attendance.

Mar 14, 2011 13:49 PM
rating: 4
 
BP staff member Matt Swartz
BP staff

Yup, I think that's the key here. It's not quite that simple because we need to factor in ticket prices and their effect, but the downside of fans distrusting your willingness to win just isn't THAT much lower than what the Nats and O's have been getting by spending on pretending like they're trying to win.

Mar 14, 2011 15:45 PM
 
Richie

That "replacement" level is well below 19,000 per game, though. The Marlins are drawing that while on the cusp of contention. It's probably more around what the Marlins drew in their 'mailing it in' years, no more than 15,000 per game.

Mar 14, 2011 19:38 PM
rating: 2
 
Poogman

As a life-long White Sox fan living in Montgomery County and a season-ticket holder for the Nats since their return to D.C., I can comfortably assure you that the Werth signing was a necessary signal to local baseball fans that the Lerner family was committed to investing in a winning baseball team. Nobody pretends that Werth will be worth his contract for all 7 years. But it was a sign to the community that Rizzo had the authority to put a better product on the field, a commitment that was overlooked for the first couple of years of Nats existence when it was assumed that the mere return of baseball was enough to sustain fan support. Werth has not been sold as anything more than a winning ballplayer who will complement others in the lineup and provide major league caliber defense. The loss of one draft choice in the 60's is more than offset by the ones coming our way from Dunn and the 2-4 productive years Werth will provide. O's fans in this area who had no other local alternative will gradually fade away as the Nats organization improves. Those out of town fans we had to endure from Philly and Pittsburgh and New York when Yvon Labre was playing for the Caps no longer plague the Verizon Center. Look for the same transformation to take place at Nationals Park.

Mar 14, 2011 19:40 PM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Matt Swartz
BP staff

The draft choices provided by Dunn belonged to the Nats regardless of what they did with Werth. I don't think that the Nats are going to draw much better this year with Werth than they did in the non-Strasburg games of 2010, do you? And I also don't think that an actual winner on the field in 2013 would be ignored due to fans being turned off in 2011, particularly if they added a top free agent in the 2012-13 offseason, do you?

Mar 15, 2011 04:07 AM
 
Poogman

Yes, I do believe the Nats will draw better this year because they will put a better team on the field than they did last year. Folks are shying away from season tickets but a .500 team will bring out more fans as part of the team's climb out of the NL East cellar. It's not going to be 35,000+ don't bother coming down from Philly crowds but it will be an uptick over last year. I also think you underestimate the damage that has been done to the psyche of Washington baseball fans by the abominable treatment the franchise received from MLB and the longer than healthy relationship with Jim Bowden. A great deal of the enthusiasm for the return of baseball has been squandered by the poor product on the field. The Nats can't just come out with Strasburg and Harper...they need to build the organization at both the major and minor league levels to complement those immense talents. Why should fans care if Werth's contract is misplaced unless it prevents the team from resigning its own stars, i.e. Zimmerman, or competing for other free agents. Based on the perception that the Lerners now understand that money has to be spent (which they have readily done on draft selections) to improve the major league product, the loss of one draft pick is not going to kill this franchise when it means that in the meantime, Werth will be providing some years of quality performance beginning in 2011. Without him and LaRoche and a more stable (though hardly great) rotation, more of the same futility in 2011 would definitely hurt the franchise. Exactly because this area does have a transient aspect to it, the Nats just can't afford to shortchange the local fan base.

Mar 15, 2011 09:26 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Matt Swartz
BP staff

I don't underestimate the damage done to Washington baseball fans. I lived there, I saw it. It was nowhere near the psychological damage that Philadelphians saw when they had a decade of being called a small market team. I do not think that the Nationals will need to do anymore than the Phillies needed to do, which is win. And I'm not saying they will survive on Strasburg and Harper alone-- quite the contrary, I explained in the article that teams need free agent talent to supplement the product on the minor league system as it comes to fruition. But Werth is going to be a couple years older then, and it makes more sense to spending on the biggest free agent of 2013 (or whatever year looks like they're ready to compete) than to spend on Werth now and have less money to spend on players in their prime when Strasburg, Harper, and Zimmerman are all contributing.

Mar 15, 2011 16:37 PM
 
tomterp

So the argument is that the Nats signed Werth (or a top free agent TBD) a year or two too early? Perhaps, but I think the Nats simply viewed him as a relatively long term solution to a position of need, a player good enough to win with when other complimentary players are ready to contribute. The Werth signing alone will not prevent them from further augmenting the roster with outside talent when they appear poised to compete.

Signing Werth was never about winning in 2011, nor would meeting Rizzo's goal of getting a top of the rotation starter via trade have been about 2011 either. But Werth should still be a well above average player in 2012-2014, when emerging prospects Espinosa, Norris, Ramos, Marrero, Harper and Stras may well give the Nats a core they can win with.

Mar 16, 2011 07:47 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Matt Swartz
BP staff

The missing link here is that I've actually researched free agent performance in multi-year deals, and found that it declines pretty steeply after the first year: http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=10883 And that's particularly true for older free agents. There are plenty of exceptions of course, but statistically the Nats are basically getting a bargain in the early years and a net loss in the late years. But the Nats would have been able to add someone who is in the "bargain years" of his multiyear deal when they will have the most use for a bargain. There isn't a lack of elite free agents in any offseason. The Nats just as easily could have signed the best OF or 1B in 2013 and not paid the premium of a current superstar that won't always be.

Mar 16, 2011 18:13 PM
 
Richie

There's no defense for the Werth contract. No reasonable one. You don't spend $126 million dollars to show the fans 'we want to win!' Like concluding 'well, we perhaps ought to spruce up the bathroom some', and so bringing in a gold-plated toilet.

Mar 14, 2011 19:51 PM
rating: 0
 
Richie

Werth has all the makings of a 'DISASTER!' contract. 32 years old in May, coming out of a year well above his career norms. He'll start getting hurt again, lose his speed to play the outfield, no longer hit well enough to carry 1st base. In 3-4 years you'll be paying basically a good bench player $18 mill a year. And screaming for the Lerners to 'Spend More Money!' so as to put the team over the top. An awful, awful signing. Worthy of Daniel Snyder.

Mar 14, 2011 20:03 PM
rating: 0
 
rcrary

Ok, it's a bad contract, but you should at least try to characterize the player more accurately. Werth is not "coming out of a year well above his career norms"; he's had three straight very good years, of similar quality. And saying "He'll start getting hurt again" implies a long history of injuries, when in fact his major problem was his wrist, which was smashed by an AJ Burnett fastball, and hasn't been a problem in four years. He's not likely to be worth his contract in the later years, but frankly, he strikes me as the kind of player who will age fairly well.

Mar 15, 2011 05:54 AM
rating: 2
 
Richie

How To Keep Your GM Job While Rebuilding The Team

Year 1: "We've signed Famous-Name Hitter (to a 1-year contract) to teach our young guys how to play the game right! Come see us play!"

Year 2: "We've signed Famous-Name Starter (to a 1-year contract) to teach our young pitchers how to win! Come see us play!"

Year 3: "We've signed Veteran Reliever (to a 1-year contract) to keep us in close games and give our young players confidence! Come see us play!"

Year 4: (Ok, time to get serious. If you need one more year, you can throw the manager overboard. But that's your last bullet.)

Mar 14, 2011 20:53 PM
rating: 1
 
tomterp

Matt, I have a small question - which Beltway do you refer to in your article title?

For those not familiar with the region, Baltimore and Washington each have their own "beltway", and they do not intersect.

Mar 16, 2011 18:25 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Matt Swartz
BP staff

Yeah, I know, I just liked the alliteration. I guess I sort of meant the Maryland residents in the middle of the two. Bethesda is where I lived and, at least anecdotally, it seemed split down the middle.

Mar 17, 2011 04:12 AM
 
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