Free talent remains hidden key to success

    One of my basic theories is that the biggest difference between the talent available to a good organization and that available to a poor organization isn't in the ability to produce players from the farm system, but in the ability to take advantage of the "free talent," the players who can be picked up without trading somebody you're depending on at another spot. No organization is modern baseball is large enough or strong enough to produce on demand a player at a given position.

    --Bill James, 1987 Baseball Abstract

James wrote that 25 years ago, but I suspect there is still some truth to this statement. I also suspect this element of the sport is more difficult to exploit than a quarter-century ago. Front offices are smarter and more informed for a variety of reasons: Larger scouting budgets, advanced statistical analysis, technological advances in video and injury treatment and so on. With all the attention given to prospects during the recent trade deadline period, however, it's a reminder that this aspect of player acquisition remains an underrated aspect of team building.

What is "free talent"? It's a bit of a floating definition, but it's basically talent you can pick up cheaply. Albert Pujols as a free agent is not free talent because it costs a lot to sign him. But some examples of free talent would include Rule 5 picks, signing players on waivers or who are released, players from other leagues (Mexico, independent, inexpensive players from Japan), minor league free agents, players an organization has given up on whether because of injury or performance.

Free talent isn't always absolutely free. For example, when the Giants claimed Cody Ross on waivers in 2010, they had to pick up the remainder of his salary (about $1 million). But for a small chunk of change, the Giants got Ross without giving anything up. Trading a replacement-level relief pitcher to acquire a player is something I would term free-talent acquisition. Two years ago, the Twins didn't have room for Wilson Ramos with Joe Mauer around; the Nationals flipped Matt Capps for Ramos. That's free talent; a pitcher like Capps is easily replaceable.

How important is free talent in building a winner? Here's a quick scan of all the World Series participants since 2007. Finding free talent was more important than acquiring prospects from other organizations.

2011 Cardinals

Prospects acquired via trade: David Freese (for Jim Edmonds in offseason). Freese was hardly a top prospect; Baseball America rated him as San Diego's No. 28 prospect that winter.

2010-2011 Rangers

  • Nelson Cruz -- Originally acquired from the Brewers, the Rangers actually designated Cruz for assignment at one point, meaning any team could have claimed him.

  • David Murphy -- Acquired in Eric Gagne trade. A former first-round pick by the Red Sox, was essentially a throw-in as a disposable fifth-outfielder type, with Engel Beltre the top prospect in the deal.

  • Colby Lewis -- Signed out of Japan.

  • Alexi Ogando -- Rule 5 pick in 2005 from A's.

  • Mike Napoli -- Acquired for Frank Francisco. Maybe a stretch as a free talent acquisition since the Rangers did have to pick up his $5.8 million salary, but a nice exchange for essentially a fungible reliever in Francisco.

Prospects acquired via trade: Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz, Matt Harrison (in the Mark Teixeira trade).

2010 Giants

Prospects acquired via trade: None.

2009 Yankees

Prospects acquired via trade: None.

2008-2009 Phillies

Prospects acquired via trade: None.

2008 Rays

Prospects acquired via trade -- Scott Kazmir (for Victor Zambrano), Ben Zobrist (for Aubrey Huff). Kazmir, of course, was a top prospect, the Mets' first-round pick in 2002. Zobrist had been Houston's No. 16 prospect before the season. These were both classic July prospect trades that panned out.

2007 Red Sox

Prospects acquired via trade -- Jason Varitek from Mariners (for Heathlcliff Slocumb way back in 1997).

2007 Rockies

Prospects acquired via trade -- Brian Fuentes from Mariners (Jeff Cirillo trade).

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What about 2012? Here's a quick look at the division leaders:


Free talent -- Nick Swisher, Andruw Jones, Raul Ibanez, Eric Chavez, Cody Eppley, Clay Rapada, Cory Wade.

Prospects via trade: None.

The Yankees don't trade for other teams' prospects. But their bullpen depth has been built on free talent -- Eppley had been waived by the Rangers, Rapada by the Orioles and Wade released by Tampa Bay. Jones, Ibanez and Chavez were cheap veteran free agents.

White Sox

Free talent -- Alejandro De Aza, Alex Rios (sort of; claimed off waivers, but with a large salary attached), Jose Quintana, Philip Humber.

Prospects via trade: John Danks.

De Aza (waivers), Quintana (minor league free agent) and Humber (waivers) are classic free talents.


Free talent -- Alexi Ogando, Nelson Cruz, David Murphy, Colby Lewis.

Prospects via trade: Matt Harrison, Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz.

We went over the Rangers earlier. The Andrus-Harrison-Feliz trade, of course, his often been cited as the Holy Grail of midseason prospect deals.


Free talent -- Mike Morse, Wilson Ramos.

Prospects via trade: Tyler Clippard (for another relief prospect at the time in Jonathan Albaladejo).

Nationals have supplemented a primarily homegrown roster with Gio Gonzalez (acquired for prospects) plus free agents Jayson Werth and Edwin Jackson.


Free talent -- Brandon Phillips (the Indians gave up on him), Jose Arredondo, Alfredo Simon.

Prospects via trade: None.

Reds are almost entirely homegrown, with prospects also used to acquire Mat Latos. Baseball America's top seven Reds prospects entering 2008 season: Jay Bruce, Homer Bailey, Joey Votto, Johnny Cueto, Drew Stubbs, Devin Mesoraco, Todd Frazier. It's pretty rare to see that many prospects all pan out.


Free talent -- Ryan Vogelsong, Ryan Theriot, Gregor Blanco, Santiago Casilla, Clay Hensley, Javier Lopez.

Prospects via trade: None.

Vogelsong, of course, has become one of the best free talent pickups in recent years.

Other than the Rangers, none of our division leaders have relied upon trade for prospects. But maybe these six teams are misleading? What about some up-and-coming, cash-poor A's and Pirates?


Free talent -- Brandon McCarthy, Travis Blackley, Bartolo Colon, Brandon Moss, Brandon Inge.

Prospects via trade: Jarrod Parker, Ryan Cook, Chris Carter, Tom Milone, Derek Norris, Jerry Blevins.

The Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez trades are already paying dividends with the likes of Parker, Cook, Milone and Norris, but Billy Beane also did a superb job of adding free talent. Colon signed for $2 million and Blackley was claimed off waivers from the Giants in May. In addition, Josh Reddick, while no longer a prospect, was acquired for reliever Andrew Bailey.


Free talent -- Garrett Jones, A.J. Burnett, James McDonald, Jason Grilli, Chris Resop, Michael McKenry.

Prospects via trade: Josh Harrison, Jose Tabata, Jeff Karstens.

I would label Burnett and McDonald as free talents. The Yankees were just looking to dump Burnett; unwanted talent can be free talent (the Pirates will pay $13 million for Burnett over two seasons). The Dodgers gave up on McDonald for 18 innings of Octavio Dotel. Aside from homegrown Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez, the Pirates have also relied on low-cost veteran free agents like Rod Barajas, Clint Barmes, Erik Bedard and Kevin Correia.

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If there's something to take away from this quick survey it's a reminder how these under-the-radar pickups can end up being valuable additions. When the Twins decided to non-tender David Ortiz back in 2002 and the Red Sox signed him for $1.25 million, who would have predicted Ortiz's development? Or that a Octavio Dotel-for-James McDonald trade would start paying huge dividends for the Pirates two years later? Or that Ryan Vogelsong, out of the majors for five years, would go 21-12 with a 2.50 ERA since the start of 2011?

Sure, most free-talent acquisitions end up being irrelevant names in the agate type. But most prospects don't pan out either. Just something to keep in mind if you think your team just acquired a future building block.