If you’re not an aficionado of Rotisserie League Baseball - yes, capitalized and trademarked, to distinguish it from the generic and bastardized forms of fantasy sports not invented by founding father Dan Okrent - you might be wondering why the Nationals are being so frugal when they’ve obviously got money to spend and needs to fill.
The $13 million they shelled out for one year of Dan Haren is way less than the $100 million-plus that Zack Greinke will command, and it’s not like the Lerners’ pockets are filled with holes. Those extra fans that finally found their ways to Nationals Park during the second half of last season had to help fatten the bottom line, right?
Well, Rotisserie geeks, objects of scorn that we sometimes are, know a thing or two about baseball economics. And if you don’t think real life mirrors Rotisserie, think again.
Consider your typical Rotisserie auction (much preferred over a straight draft, because it sets realistic monetary values for players). If your leagues are anything like mine, your owners (would-be general managers) fall into one of three categories - those that like to spend their money at the start of the draft and load up with high-priced stars, those who manage their money wisely throughout the draft and those who cherry-pick at the end, reveling in the bargains their leftover dollars afford them.
Now, here’s the real-life application: At this point in the offseason, the spendthrifts are exactly what agents want. They throw their money around freely, get the players with the biggest names who cost the biggest bucks, and their fans express joy and glee at the close of the Winter Meetings, like the nice folks down Miami way, or out in Anaheim, did at this time last year. Boy, that worked out well for them, didn’t it?
Those who carefully assess the talent and attach reasonable dollar figures to free agents - or match up talent in trade scenarios - are more on the ball. They’re thinking long-term instead of immediate gratification. They’re more methodical in their thinking and application, therefore it takes a lot longer for their offseason plans to develop. In a lot of cases, the market comes to them, instead of vice versa. And when June or July rolls around, and their team is in a pennant race or within striking distance, they’ve got the resources to make the kind of deals that sometimes decide a race.
Then there are the Scrooges who hold on to their money as if they can take it away with them from the draft table. These tight-fisted types delude themselves into believing that an end-of-the-auction bargain is equal to one of the first guys brought up and bought because they base their line of thinking solely on production. Rarely does Mr. Irrelevant produce the same number of home runs or strikeouts as the reigning Most Valuable Player or Cy Young Award winner. But it helps the penny-wise Rotisserians justify their actions (and makes them great trade partners later in the season, when they realize their strategy didn’t pan out quite the way they wanted).
So how these Rotisserie revelations apply to GM Mike Rizzo and the Nationals? Rizzo would be the worst type of Rotisserie adversary, because you never quite know what he’s thinking. One moment, he’ll do what’s expected (his long-awaited trade for Denard Span). The next, he’ll go off the board with some totally unexpected move (the Jayson Werth signing two offseasons ago). Just when you think you’ve got him figured out, he emphatically demonstrates that you don’t. Misdirection, misinformation, outside-the-box thinking, going with his gut - they’re all in Rizzo’s playbook, along with some strategies he’s yet to make public.
Right now, fans are clamoring for the speedy re-signing of Adam LaRoche, because they can’t fathom the 2013 Nationals without his steady glove at first base, his power left-handed bat and his calming clubhouse influence. They want to know what’s in store for Michael Morse, because they’ve grown accustomed to the happy-go-lucky thumper, even if there may not be a position for him. They want to know who’s going to get tough left-handed hitters out with regularity out of the bullpen, because they’re curious why the Nats didn’t re-sign unheralded Sean Burnett and they’re not quite sold on Zach Duke as a lefty specialist and they’re suspect of Rizzo and manager Davey Johnson’s proclamations that Nats right-handed relievers can get lefty hitters out, too.
The fans are uncomfortable. They’re not readying pitchforks and torches yet, but they’re craving player movement that’s not happening at the pace they’d like.
Rizzo plays his cards close to his vest, as last winter’s dalliance with Prince Fielder taught us. He’s not about to let his strategy go public - sometimes even to his most trusted advisers - because he doesn’t want to tip his hand to his competition. He wants all the advantages - secrecy and surprise - because it improves his bargaining power and creates leverage he can exert when it most benefits him.
The Nats will make a decision on LaRoche, or LaRoche will make a decision on the Nats, probably by Christmas. He’ll either take the two-year deal they’re offering or he won’t. Right now, he’s not being flooded with offers of three or more years, or he would have already signed one of them. It’s a matter of two sides agreeing on what’s fair for both. It’s called a negotiation for a reason, and just because it’s prolonged doesn’t mean it’s necessarily contentious.
Likewise, the Nationals will figure out what to do with Morse and their ‘pen portsiders. They’re in a win-win scenario with Morse - either they keep him and put his feet to the fire to deliver offensively in his walk year of a two-year extension, or deal him to fill another need, like bullpen help or replenishing the farm system with a couple of decent prospects. They might keep him around for a while even if they re-sign LaRoche, since holding on to Morse until some team has a need for a power hitter enhances their leverage.
Same with the bullpen lefty. While the free agent market isn’t particularly appealing, the Nationals can afford to wait and see if another team has to cut a southpaw reliever that’s been on their radar because of a roster crunch, or makes a deal and is suddenly flush in that commodity. Think about some of Rizzo’s deals in the past - Duke didn’t sign a minor league deal until May of last year, and Michael Gonzalez was another May free agent acquisition who made one appearance at Triple-A Syracuse before assuming an important role in the Nats’ drive to the National League East title.
One of the most overused cliches in baseball is that the roster a team breaks camp with is rarely the same than the one that finishes the season. Like most cliches, it’s a cliche because there’s a lot of truth to it. This is the offseason application: Just because a team hasn’t been active on the trade and free agent fronts - or as active as an emerging fan base wants them to be - doesn’t mean they won’t be active at some point. And when you’re dealing with Rizzo, he’s the one that establishes the timetable.