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Monday, April 23, 2012

Meandering Thoughts On David Wright and Franchise Players

Recently, Hardball Talk ran a story mentioning that the Mets want to sign David Wright long term, making him a franchise player more or less. That got me thinking about several different things, in an order.

The first is the most obvious: should the Mets try and lock Wright up long-term? He’s a free agent after this season, and he’ll be 30 next season. It seems fair to say he’ll have a few productive seasons left, especially after his hot start (it’s early in the season, so obvious small sample size issues, but he has a 345 OPS+). However, his past few seasons have been worrisome. After posting 8.9 fWAR in 2007 (when he probably should have been MVP) and 7.1 fWAR in 2008, he has since posted values of 3.6, 4.0, and 1.9. Granted, that last one was only in 102 games, but that still is not a promising trend. He’s already up to .7 fWAR in 2012, so he may return to All-Star level, but this doesn’t seem like the type of player the Mets should hold on to if they can move him for pieces that might help the team win their next World Series.

At the same time, though, maybe other teams see this trend and won’t offer any useful pieces. Also, it’s not like Wright is a closer, where he would have limited value for a non-contending team. Or, maybe Wright actually is willing to stay in New York for less money. In any case, the definitely definitive answer is that locking Wright up could be good depending on the specifics. Such hard hitting analysis, I know, but there really seem to be a lot of moving parts in place here.

One thing that may be important to the question, though, is do teams need a franchise player?

This is something that I had been considering for a long time. As we get more and more into the age of advanced analysis in front offices, will teams start to realize the problems with locking up players into their late 30s and 40s, and stop doing it? I mean, obviously, there are certain teams that have continued to lock up teams into their later years (like the Reds with Joey Votto); but, as more and more teams buy into strategies like the Rays of selling high on younger players rather than holding on for sentimental value, will fewer players spend their careers with one team?

I would think yes, as long as you consider “franchise players” to be the same thing as “one-team players” (obviously, “franchise players” is sort of a loose term, so I’ll probably use it interchangeably with “one-team players” for the sake of this article). As more teams try to maximize their dollars, I think teams will stop wildly overpaying for older players. I see two scenarios that may correct for this though. 1) Players will more or less accept they’re worth less money, and those that want to stay with their teams will act accordingly (which, admittedly, is a scenario now; it’ll just be more common). 2) Teams will have to hit a very precise timing with their players, where they lock them up into their very early decline years, leading to them hitting free agency at a point in time where they are still useful, but no longer incite bidding wars that lead to long term mega-contracts (say, around the ages of 33-35).

On top of that, though, do teams necessarily need franchise players? I always see fans claiming that teams “had” to lock a player up long term, but why? I can see that if it’s clear the player will be good for the life of the contract, but when the player is signed in the late 30s or 40s? Nobody is good forever. You don’t need the player for those years, when there are readily available better players. And I think there are actually times when the team’s best player is more useful as trade bait than as a centerpiece. No one player can make a team good. However, I can also see why people are against it; trading the best player on the team is seen as giving in. People want to believe their team, no matter how bad, can be the next 2010 Padres, where they hold on to their star and make a surprise run for first after being predicted to be last in the division. But for every team like that, how many teams are predicted to be bad and in need of a rebuild, and are actually bad and in need in a rebuild? That’s the type of fear that led to the Orioles and Astros current situations; they refused to acknowledge that they weren’t serious postseason contenders, spent too much on free agents, neglected their farm systems, and so on.

Your best player isn’t necessarily getting any better, either; as Branch Rickey expressed, it’s better to trade a player too soon rather than too late. Take Adam Jones; he’s 26, under team control through 2013, and off to a hot start. I can see why Orioles fans are excited about it. But there are several teams in need of a center fielder, and Jones should be in demand; he’s about to reach his prime, those years will almost certainly be of more use to a team expecting to contend sooner rather than later. The Orioles don’t fit that description (regardless of what some people think about their hot start). Even if the player they get is only as good as Jones is now, it’s still technically an improvement if he’s useful when the team is actually good. Having a decent player play for an awful team benefits no one. As nice as it is to have a constant face with the franchise, a winning team is even better in my opinion.

I’m just really curious, though. That’s why I asked the question. Does having a face of the franchise help ticket sales? Or merchandise sales? There is something to be said for those, even if they are less useful than winning. Or is it an entirely psychological issue? As a fan, I have to admit, there is some part of me that would like to see David Wright finish his career as a Met (and I’m not even a fan of that team specifically). And there is always that what if; what if the Mets do manage to surprise everyone this year and compete thanks to a rejuvenated David Wright? Wouldn't it be great, for the Mets, at least, to see him win with them? Even if him leaving is (or should be) good for both himself and the team, it’s difficult to imagine him leaving.

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