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.

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.

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11 years ago

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 😉

11 years ago
Reply to  Danny

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.