Is It Better To Buy or Develop?

While watching the Kansas City Royals vs. Los Angeles Dodgers on MLB.com the other day, the question entered my mind as to which road was better taken when building up a good baseball team.

I suppose the question really came to mind after listening to a conversation with Royals GM Dayton Moore.  The Royals starting line-up was made up mostly of “can’t miss” prospects, most of whom will begin the year in AA with (name of team).  The hope expressed by Moore was that by 2012, the year the Royals host the all-star game, most, if not all of these players, would be finding success at the major league level with the parent club.

We all know that the baseball landscape is littered with high draft picks who never found any sustained major league success or for that matter, any major league time at all.  The vast majority of high round draft picks never reach the majors let alone the lofty heights forecast for them by major league scouts and GMs.

Small market teams who have seen limited or no success in recent years, many with high draft picks, have little or no margin for error and must decide between the best available athlete or a player who could fill a pressing need a few years down the road at the big league level.  They stand to lose another year of system development if they make the wrong choice and more money which they can ill afford.

Big market teams with big payrolls can make mistakes as their resources and already at the big league level talent can, in most cases, compensate for what sometimes turns out to be an ill advised and wasted pick.

Signing free agents, while it has it’s own inherent element of risk, allows a team to add an established and more veteran player to their line-up.  A weakness can be addressed immediately or an area of strength can be protected against poor performance or injury.  The richer and more successful teams with few holes to fill can use this market to quickly jump back into competition or solidify their already dominant position.  Their farm system is a luxury which can be used to acquire veteran players to stabilize or improve a team as the season moves forward.

Their poorer or less successful brethren must decide between the two options or some reasonable balance.  They must decide if their long suffering fans will be able to endure more seasons of mediocrity while awaiting the promise of better days to come.  How long will these fans wait and what will be the consequences of yet another rebuilding five years or more process?

This is where the double edged Catch 22 syndrome can waylay the best laid plans of mice and GMs should the determination of those involved waver.  We have often witnessed the following scenario-as a farm system finally bears fruit and produces some genuine major league stars, those players when they become eligible for arbitration and eventually free agency, begin to demand monies commiserate with their abilities and track record.  Or they tire of toiling for unproductive teams and seek greener pastures with more successful organizations.

Pay them what they demand or trade them for prospects and begin the process once again?  The dangers here are panicking and overpaying or allowing those players to leave and alienating your long suffering fan base. If payment is your preferred option, a player who suddenly declines for reasons of age, injury  or  thanks for the pay check I’ll sit around and watch now will absorb much of your budget and will be
untradeable no matter how little is demanded in exchange for his services.  Starting over again can further alienate an already critical fan base and can lead to apathy.  Fans will turn to other diversions or simply stay at home.

The best choice seems to be ownership which cares enough to develop and nurture a productive farm system which can then be used to acquire veteran players as needed. A commitment to hiring baseball savvy GMs and organizational people and a love of the game are the key elements to such a plan.  A willingness to spend the necessary money to keep those star prospects which have been developed over a few years and the ability to differentiate between good player and bad.

I know-much easier said than done.

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