Win Now > (Maybe) Win Later

You could have told me they were giving up the next Ruth, the next Mays, the next Koufax. That as fans, we’d live to regret the trade for the rest of our lives. Did not care, at all.

The day I found out the Montreal Expos had traded for Mark Langston, just one thought rattled through my head: “F Yeah, they’re finally trying to win something!” That one of the players headed back to Seattle in the deal really did turn out to be the next Koufax (only much taller, and yes, I’ll say it, much better) never made me change my mind.

Find the best players who can help you win right now. Don’t torch the future, but don’t jump in into the rabbit hole and spend your life chasing prospects either. That’s a losing game.

At the time the defunct team I still obsess over made that trade, no one other than a little outfit out of North Carolina called Baseball America was following prospects. I can’t say for certain whether it was Baseball America, or perhaps a beat writer talking to an anonymous scout who passed along the information, but what we heard at the time was that the best player in the deal wasn’t Randy Johnson. It was a hard-throwing right-hander named Gene Harris. Click that link. Go see what Gene Harris did in his career.

Kevin Goldstein wrote a terrific piece about our collective tendency to rush to judgment when it comes to prospects. He was making a point about being overly critical of prospects too soon, when in fact some of them could turn into superstars. Absolutely. But the same holds true in the other direction. More so, I would argue.

From those modest early days of scarce draft coverage, Baseball America has now been joined by Kevin, Frankie Piliere and Marc Hulet here at FanGraphs, John Sickels, Keith Law, Jonathan Mayo, and many other excellent analysts. They track the draft, yes. But they also do incredible due diligence as prospects climb the ranks. They go to games. They talk to scouts. They crunch the numbers. They evaluate and reevaluate. They’re serious researchers who do amazing work.

But here’s the thing: As fantastic as all those fine gentlemen (and ladies, I see you, Lisa Winston) are at their jobs, they don’t know exactly how a prospect is going to turn out. Scouts don’t know. GMs don’t know.

Given all the information now available to us, have we as baseball observers now reached a point where we too cavalierly eye a prospect’s ranking, come up with a peak WAR value, and project his career performance?

I spent two years writing about the team that probably places more emphasis on drafting, developing and keeping their prospects than any other. They understand than in an uneven playing field, you do what you can to survive and thrive. Since bidding for elite six-year major league free agents is a losing game for many teams, you go the other way.

But. Could the Rays have improved their chances of a World Series title if they’d traded for Cliff Lee or someone of that ilk last season? Sure. Would it have come at a very high cost in young talent, thereby carving into the lifeblood of the organization? Probably. Would it have been worth it anyway? Very possibly.

I bring this up because we’re in the final stages of FanGraphs’ own Franchise Draft. If you missed it, Dave Cameron and I joined 28 other ESPN contributors last week in drafting the one player with whom we’d want to start a franchise, going in order 1 through 30. (We liked the idea so much that, with ESPN’s permission, we decided to do it in-house. Results coming soon.)

I picked #26 in the ESPN draft. The best player in baseball (at least at this very moment) was on the board. That struck me as weird. Here’s what I wrote about nabbing Jose Bautista, who went well after several unproven talents, including two players who’d never played a major league game.

We’re nearing the point where we have to start asking if Bautista may now officially be Bondsian. Bautista is, at this moment, the best hitter in all of baseball, a 50- (60-?) home run threat who also constantly gets on base, because he almost never swings at a bad pitch, and crushes most good ones. If you think Bautista can keep hitting like Bonds or Ruth in their prime and you’re trying to win now, you ride him. If you’re a skeptic who thinks Bautista can’t keep it up, or worries that 30 is too old for a franchise player, you draft him, then flip him to a team that will send you a king’s ransom in younger talent. Win-win.

This is really an extension of the piece I wrote this past off-season, on The Most Valuable Player In Baseball (see Part 1 and Part 2). Pujols realistically should hold an edge over Bautista given his longer track record. But the basic idea is the same: Maybe we should focus a little more on the here and now, even if it means trusting in a player past his 30th birthday.

Let me be clear: I am not saying, “I’m right, they’re wrong.” The accumulated baseball knowledge among those other 29 drafters is nearly infinite. It’s just that in my own twisted, Mark Langston‘d mind, I believe three things to be true:

1) Young players develop unpredictably (here’s another interesting article along those lines).

2) Current, elite value is immensely important, for a variety of reasons. Not the least of which is that flags fly forever.

3) We could all be dead tomorrow.

My pick in the FanGraphs draft isn’t up yet — I snagged #29 this time, because apparently random chance is rigged against me. I won’t get Bautista this time. I also won’t pick a player who hasn’t played in the majors yet.

The challenge, of course, lies somewhere in between, in how much you value current production over future potential. There really is no one right or wrong answer. But I do think it’s a discussion we should have, and continue to have, as long as we keep following the game.




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Jonah Keri is the author of The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First -- now a National Bestseller! Follow Jonah on Twitter @JonahKeri, and check out his awesome podcast.


43 Responses to “Win Now > (Maybe) Win Later”

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  1. Danny says:

    This is generally the way I operate in keeper fantasy leagues as well. Worry about this year (and maybe the next couple a little as well) but don’t spend a bunch of time worrying about 5 years down the road. If Harold Camping ever ends up being correct, the future doesn’t matter anyway ;)

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    • Blue says:

      Exactly. We have an odd little system in our NL league where we can keep three 8th round or later picks as keepers next year. First two picks in the 8th were Strasburg and Wainwright.

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  2. bartleby says:

    The best day to roto-trade a prospect often is the day he’s recalled. The collected hype is your ally.

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  3. Winston says:

    I disagree with this belief because of the huge advantage that a younger player provides financially. With a prospect you have them for 5 years guaranteed and often they will take a home town discount. When you go out and get an older player it is so much more expensive that I think win later> win now. You say “they don’t know exactly how a prospect is going to turn out. Scouts don’t know. GMs don’t know.” But this is where I disagree. Sure there are plenty of cases where you don’t know what you’ve got or how they will pan out but the reward of a player who does pan out, to me outweighs the idea of trading them for win now.

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    • Blue says:

      Brandon Wood agrees with you!

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    • Jonah Keri says:

      Yeah, good point, and I should have mentioned that. The idea with the Franchise Draft is to take whoever you want with no dollar or contract values to consider. Yes, of course MLB’s service time setup dramatically skews the equation.

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  4. Basil Ganglia says:

    Another factor is that the deeper a minor league system is in prospects, the less value each prospect has to that organization. Ultimately if a system is so stacked that it can’t protect all of the players who are worthy of going on the 40-man roster, almost any trade that frees up a roster spot is worthwhile.

    So I would think that for a team such as Tampa, trading to pick up an impact player to win now should make more sense.

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    • Antonio bananas says:

      Having a deep farm is never a bad idea. I think that sometimes good prospects get hidden in a great system. How many “good” prospect do the Royals have that we don’t know about because of how thick the talent is there?

      not only that but like you said, you can trade prospects for stars. If you can swindle the othe team, you can get them to eat some of the salary and take prospects that only you know won’t pan out. I remember someone (one of the former GMs/coaches on one of those talk shows) said that every spring training Bobby Coz and Schurholtz used to always talk up their prospects. “o yea that kids the next andruw jones” “o yea that’s the next maddux”.

      However, for that to work you have to have a reputation of a great system like Atlanta did. I still think that even baseball america and keith law will overrate prospects in systems that are proven better, which isn’t a bad thing on their part.

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  5. Nathan says:

    Agree completely. For example, in the ESPN draft, the fate of Ryan Zimmerman was surprising to me.

    As a Tigers fan, I am often reminded of the Smoltz/Alexander trade.

    The Tigers were still good in ’87. They still had a really good core of talent from ’84. And they made it to the ultimate crapshoot — the playoffs — which is all you can ask for in the world of baseball and small sample sizes.

    And while they aren’t the best stats by any stretch of the imagination, they turned a player that hadn’t logged a single inning for them in ’87 for a player that went 9-0 with an ERA under 2 after the trade. That was crucial for a team that started slow.

    It would’ve been great to have Smoltz for all those years, but that assumes A) he would’ve stayed with the Tigers as long as he stayed with the Braves B) the putrid Tigers teams of the ’90s would’ve built around Smoltz instead of being generally awful in every other way C) Smoltz would’ve developed the same way with the Tigers he did with the Braves D) then just the overall seeming randomness of everything else involved that I’m not thinking of.

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    • Jason says:

      apologies for the tangent, but I think we’ve taken the “playoffs are a crapshoot” meme a little to far. A “crapshoot” is complete luck – devoid of skill, preparation, strategy, or execution. The baseball playoffs require all of those things. There is more variation in a seven game series than an 162 game season, but the “best” team will still generally win, and even when an inferior team wins they are still influencing the outcome with their strategy and execution – they are not dice throwers.

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      • Will says:

        How many times in the WC era has the “best” team entering the playoffs won the WS? Has this happened even half the time?

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      • DO YALL WANT A HAM says:

        The “best” team wins each playoff series most of the time. But probabilistically, winning 3 series in a row is very tough.

        Let’s say the best team in the playoffs has a 75% chance of winning a series, and all other teams are equal. Then their chance at winning the World Series is only 42%.

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      • Llewdor says:

        It also depends how we define “best”. Regular season and post-season baseball are significantl different environments. You see a selection f pitchers that are not a representive cross-section of all major league pitchers. You player fewer games per week, thus placing different workloads on different kinds of players (bullpen depth effectively ceases to matter in the post-season).

        While it’s likely that the team that is better at post-season baseball will win any given post-season series (though that is by no means guaranteed), it may well be that the team that is the best at regular season baseball will not be more likely to win any given post-season series.

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      • Jonah Keri says:

        Well, to a point. To use the very specific example, Cliff Lee would have helped the Rays…and he ended up nearly single-handedly beating them when the Rangers got them instead.

        Yes that’s a rare, extreme case, and cherry-picking is easy. But good players make a team better. I wouldn’t see the best team generally wins per se, but you should improve your odds of winning if you improve your roster.

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      • Jason B says:

        “Let’s say the best team in the playoffs has a 75% chance of winning a series” – I know you were just making an example to prove a point, but its definitely more of a crapshoot than that. Few teams (particularly playoff teams, when you ditch the bottom 75% of teams or so) would be more of a 60/40 favorite over any other playoff team, so even the favorite or theoretical “best” team then would only be about a 22% favorite to win three consecutive 60/40 series, or win two out of every nine WS.

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      • Antonio bananas says:

        Saying the “best team” makes it to the world series in itself is stupid. ALL playoff teams are relatively close. A 98 win team has a .605 win %, a 90 win team has a .556 win %. Assuming the max of 26 games, the 98 win team will average 15.73 wins, the 90 win team 14.456 wins.

        Think about an MLB season. Sometimes a team will have bad luck and just play a string of teams that are “hot”. The braves in 2010 had a 9 game losing streak because they played some hot teams while troy glaus was slumping. say the schedule had them play the stros and pirates while glaus was slumping and the hot teams when glaus was hot, they win the East. variables like that, injuries, the unbalanced interleague schedule, maybe bad luck in always facing other teams top 3 starters, etc make the difference between playoff teams really REALLY slim.

        I don’t think the playoffs are a crapshoot at all. A crapshoot would say that you could plug in a 60 win team and they might win. In the playoffs everyteam is good and they’re all relatively equal. The best teams in the game make the playoffs, so to me, the best team always wins.

        I do have a problem with wild card teams as they didn’t have that accomplishment of a division title. however, the new full wild card will help stop that by making their road to the title harder.

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      • Antonio bananas says:

        Crap I messed up. Assuming the max of 19 games the 98 win team wins 11.495 and the 90 win team wins 10.564 games. the 19 games is the max you’ll have in the playoffs 5-7-7

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      • Nate says:

        The average number has to be less than 11 games won because that’s the hard cap on wins in the playoffs.

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      • Antonio bananas says:

        Nate I just multiplied their win% times the max number of games you would possibly play. My point was that over any 19 game stretch, there isn’t much difference between a 98 and 90 win team. Don’t think of it in playoffs like they have to win, just think of it as in any given 19 game stretch.

        I realize that if a team can’t win more than 11 in a single playoff. My point is that over 19 games, a 98 win team will average about 11 1/2 wins and a 90 win team will average about 10 1/2 wins. Basically when people say “the more deserving team didn’t win” they’re full of shit because the difference between a 98 win team and a 90 win team isn’t much.

        Also like I said there are so many variables over the course of a 162 game season, injuries, scheduling, etc means that the 98 win team could easily be a 90 win team and the 90 win team could easily be a 98 win team.

        If all the teams in the playoffs are relatively the same, then whoever wins is deserving.

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      • Antonio bananas says:

        Think about what I’m saying in another way. Over the course of a 6 month season, a 98 win team only wins 1.3333 more games per month than a 90 win team, about 1/5 of a win more per week.

        Of course there are extremes, a 116 win team not winning it all, a 84 win team winning it all. However, as I said, there are so many variables in baseball that you really should use a variance when saying “hey that team doesn’t deserve the WS ring, they just barely got into the playoffs then won the crapshoot”. Because most of the time the difference in team quality isn’t actually that great.

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      • Nathan says:

        Fair play, Jason. Just a semantics thing, I guess, I’ve got not problem with what you’re saying.

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  6. Garrett says:

    Derek jeter from 09 says hi. HanRam etc etc etc. Player prediction is difficult and uncertain. Not just prospects.

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    • Will says:

      Wasn’t pretty much everyone thinking that Jeter’s days were numbered? Maybe the scale of the drop was extreme, but people have been waiting for Jeter to collapse for some time.

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    • Garrett says:

      Who? Please cite “pretty much everyone” since I think you’re a biased idiot.

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  7. MikeS says:

    You weren’t wrong. Maybe Seattle got the best of that deal but how many World Series did they win with Johnson? Tomorrow is promised to no man. If you have a shot, go for it. Next year you could be sitting 8 games back of the wildcard at the trade deadline.

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    • Breadbaker says:

      The Mariners won two more division titles and six more playoff games with Johnson than the Expos won with Langston. Plus, the Mariners got three good players for Johnson, who were on their 2000 and 2001 playoff teams. The Expos don’t exist. I think it’s not hyperbole to say the Mariners won the trade.

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  8. tyrusray367 says:

    I have two words for you:

    Bartolo Colon.

    Was that worth it?

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    • Dave says:

      As a fellow montrealer, like mr Keri, Yes it was worthed it. I still remember waking up that morning to see a big picture of Bartolo Colon in the front page of the paper. After all the fire-sale that we, as fans, had to lived thru. Seeing our team at least try to go to the playoff by making a big name acquisition was one the good moments of being an Expo’s fan. And knowing that they will move three or four years later…Well I didn’t care about the Nationals farm system.

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  9. Gene Harris (not really) says:

    Hey, I was better than replacement level for my career! (With my 0.1 WAR, but who’s counting?)

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  10. Eddie says:

    Win Now > (Maybe) Win Later, but both are preferable to teams that trade prospects for established players when they absolutely will not win now, and are subsequently less likely to win later.

    /God I hate the Cubs sometimes.

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  11. Shattenjager says:

    “One of the players headed back to Seattle in the deal really did turn out to be the next Koufax (only much taller, and yes, I’ll say it, much better).”

    Your blasphemy will not be forgotten, Mr. Keri.

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  12. dougiejays says:

    Heh, I remember Minaya’s first big splash…oh, how naive I was in 2002. As a baseball fan, it’s exciting whenever your team makes “the move”…but as a long-term critic, you can’t be happy with just any move. Lee for Colon? Not a good baseball trade. Pretty much any third-place team could trade a Ramos for a Capps and it wouldn’t matter.

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  13. Garrett says:

    Soriano signing was by far the best 9 figure deal of that offseason.

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  14. Zonis says:

    In Accounting, there is the Time Value of Money.

    Is there a Time Value of Wins?

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    • Antonio Bananas says:

      I don’t think wins are like money. I think they’re more like hotel rooms. If you don’t sell a room for that specific night then you’ll never get it back. If you don’t win in 2011 you’ll never get that money back. You could say that selling vets for future, cheaper stars, etc, but that’s not guaranteed.

      I hate the way they teach you to think in accounting, I’d prefer the economic way. still a time value, but you also factor in what else you could be doing.

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  15. mike wants wins says:

    The certainty of today has to be worth more than the uncertainty of tomorrow. In business we do a bad job of calculating and assessing probability and risk in most financial estimates. It’s probably worse for many baseball teams.

    Look at the Twins last decade. Had they dealt some of their prospects for an actual DH or OF or 3B, they might have had some serious playoff success. But they didn’t. Ben Revere was considered a reach, then considered a great prospect. What if they had dealt him from low A when everyone thought he was legit (or many did) for a real current player? What if they had dealt for a good to great player back when mauer and morneau were both healthy? A baseball team is made up of 30 parts (at least that many with injuries). It is hard to predict the future of that many players. I’ve always been of that a team shoule try to win now, and not just always play for a future that never comes (to quote Hunter and Santana).*

    *within reason, no one is suggesting trading from a position of scarcity (like catcher) to get an over rated “proven closer”, for example…..

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  16. Mike Green says:

    The club’s financial resources, as well as the league salary rules (arb/free agency), play an important role in how each club addresses the now/future issue. Each club lies at a somewhat different place on the continuum, but it is important equally for the Rays to recognize that sometimes they have to go for it and for the Yankees to recognize that they will not win unless they develop and keep their own best homegrown talent.

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  17. GVeers says:

    It’s sort of a false choice you’re presenting, like “bonds are better than stocks.” Both prospects and established players have value to an organization; all that matters is their expected (net) value and the situation of the franchise. Even with imperfect information, there are situations where a package of prospects is probably more valuable than established guys.

    That said, I think I might understand what’s motivating this. The number of super-young players that went early in the franchise draft is pretty questionable. I would take Ryan Zimmerman over even a phenom like Bryce Harper any day of the week. In this, I think we are in total agreement.

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    • Antonio Bananas says:

      I think it has a lot to do with age in general. I’ll take a player who has had 2-3 consecutive really good years between the ages of 25-28 before anyone else. Vets and prospects alike are probably nearly equally unpredictable. How many times do guys have great years, then get signed to a mega deal and then underperform?

      From a purely financial perspective let’s look at this 2 ways.
      1, your ML team is cheap but crappy and you’ve traded everyone away for prospects, you don’t make much money, but your operating cost is super low too.
      2, your ML team is expensive with vets and you have no farm, you may or may not make much money depending on if your vets perform as expected, but your operating cost is super high.

      Just look at the Cubs. They picked up Soriano, Lee, Zambrano, Aramis, all these guys when they were good and signed them long term. I’m sure this put butts in the seats immediately. Now attendance is down and their operating cost is really high.

      On the flip side I guarantee the Pirates have been making a profit every year for the past 10 years. It’s not a huge profit, but it’s not a loss either. Not only that but it required a lot less “work”.

      Of course, the best option is to have a strong farm system, a few good vets, and a bunch of “primers” (players in their prime).

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      • Antonio Bananas says:

        Gonna clarify something I said at the beginning. By 2-3 solid years I mean like, when he’s 23, 24, 25, he’s showing he’s good and consistent and you have him signed for ages 25-28.

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