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Small-Payroll Teams Don't Need Jacuzzis

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Some odd point-counterpoint from Neal Huntington and Dejan Kovacevic. Huntington:

History has not been kind to teams in markets like Pittsburgh that have invested heavily in a closer. As a result, we will build depth, give ourselves options and see who steps up to take the ball and get the final outs in our close wins.

Kovacevic:

Here again, what do Pittsburgh or anyone's market size have to do with this concept?

If the Reds regret signing Francisco Cordero to close at his huge contract, how is that different than the Mets regretting signing J.J. Putz or Billy Wagner?

Sure, the Mets absorb the loss more easily because of a bigger payroll, but the history is no less kind to the Mets than it is to the Reds. It's still a lousy move on both counts.

Kovacevic gets it right with "Sure, the Mets absorb the loss more easily because of a bigger payroll...", but actually the conversation begins and ends there. Huntington is dead on.

First, and this is a minor point, the Mets didn't sign Putz, they traded for him. As for Wagner, the Mets paid him $10.5 million in 2009--but after they paid their team-controlled players, they also had room to spend $9 million on Francisco Rodriguez, $12 million on Oliver Perez, $12 million on Carlos Delgado, $20 million on Johan Santana, and $20 million on Carlos Beltran. They also paid $6.25 million to Luis Castillo and $6 million to Putz. None of those players were developed by the Mets. 

The Reds spent $12 million on Cordero in 2009. After that, they paid $11 million to Aaron Harang, as part of a four-year deal that bought out two option years. They paid $9.5 million to Bronson Arroyo

That's it. Every other player was either under team control (Brandon Phillips was signed to a long-term deal, but 2009 would have been one of his arbitration years) or cost them less than $5 million. (Thanks to Cot's Contracts for the data for both teams.)

That's almost $100 million in what we might call expensive-player spending for the Mets, and about $30 million for the Reds. It is absolutely clear that a team like the Mets can afford to drop $12 million for 80 innings if it wants to, while a team like the Reds just can't. And if the Reds sign a player to a contract they end up regretting, it hurts them much more than it hurts the Mets. This is really elementary stuff--a doctor can probably afford that jacuzzi, whereas someone like me just can't. Closers are like jacuzzis. I think that's all Huntington was saying.

History won't be kind to recent versions of the Mets. That's true. But to suggest that has much to do with their decisions to spend heavily on closers is strange and confusing. History won't be kind to them because they were expensive, poorly-constructed teams who suffered two straight September collapses before coming completely unglued in 2009. But their decisions to invest big bucks on closers are only small parts of that, probably very small parts. While the Wagner signing in particular wasn't the world's best idea, it was far from the worst--after all, he pitched brilliantly for the Mets for the better part of three years.

The Mets had a jacuzzi in Wagner, and for several years it worked just fine. And if Minaya had bothered to build a bathtub by having some other relievers handy, the loss of the jacuzzi in 2008 wouldn't have caused the Mets to stink so badly. The problem with the house the Mets built was that it didn't have a roof, or even very many functioning appliances. With their payroll, they could have built the roof and the bathtub and the jacuzzi, but they didn't.

The 2009 Mets devoted broad swathes of playing time to non-hitters like Daniel Murphy and Omir Santos and Alex Cora and Brian Schneider and Ryan Church and Cory Sullivan and Wilson Valdez. They had so many injuries, and planned for them so poorly, that were times when their lineup resembled a Triple-A team's. Their rotation was also a complete mess behind Santana, with Perez, Livan Hernandez, Tim Redding and Mike Pelfrey all imploding along the way. However history may treat the Mets, if they'd run the rest of their team well, they could have spent exactly as they did on closers and probably had three straight playoff appearances from 2007 to 2009. Not so for the Reds, who simply can't afford to spend 40% of their expensive-player spending on an 80 inning guy. They need to spend that money on stuff like heating and water, not on a jacuzzi.

By the way, you may be wondering what this has to do with Matt Capps, since Huntington addressed the Capps matter elsewhere in his chat and the beginning of Kovacevic's post was about Capps. The answer is, nothing. While a small-payroll team shouldn't pay a closer $12 million, it can certainly afford to pay $3-4 million in arbitration.