I have been trying to argue that player and team development in MLB is more complicated than most people make it seem. If that is the case, how should one develop a team? A lot depends on your resources and goals, which are linked to where you are in a multi-year process of team development (building a sustainable contending team, that is a team that is in the hunt year after year). If you are, say, the New York Yankees, these questions are not as significant as if you are the Tampa Bay Rays or the Cleveland baseball team. To be clear, the Yankees do and have developed some impressive baseball players (Judge, Torres, Andujar). Other have been brought in through savvy trades (Voit) and still others almost by fluke (Urshela). What Yankee resources allow them to do is to buy key pieces of the puzzle and prevent the normal cycle of ups and downs through which teams go by infusing, when needed, more talent into the team via free agency (Cole, Stanton, Britton). To be clear, these are not complementary pieces of the Yankee puzzle but fundamental elements of their team. Spending money is no guarantee of winning. In 2019, the Red Sox spent a lot of money on their starting rotation and didn't make the playoffs. Today, we are seeing the Padres spending a lot of money. They are increasingly turning to free agency as their primary method of player and team development. Should the Jays be involved in something like this?
The question is rhetorical but I ask the question because we often get a bit of a knock on effect among sports commentators. We saw this a couple of years ago with regard to Manny Machado and Bryce Harper: other teams are spending. Why not the Jays? The Phillies might better fit the kind of organizational position in which the Jays find themselves. They spent a tonne of money on Bryce Harper and it has not produced the results for which they were obviously hoping. The signing might not be the cause of the persistent financial woe rumours we hear about the Phillies (you can find information here and here, including a denial of said rumours) but you can see the issue: if a high priced free agent did not create a winning team, what is the next step? For San Diego (in the same situation as Phillie), it is to double down and spend more and more money. And, that is the commitment you need to make or you start to look bad as a front office. You start to look, in fact, like you don't know what you are doing. You make commitments and then the costs of those commitments weigh down your organization and impede further steps toward your goal.
One of the other problems that the Jays have had over the years -- particularly but not exclusively with pitchers -- is sending players up and down to AAA or changing their positions. I could be wrong about this and I know modern baseball teams make a great deal more in-season changes than in the past. The changing ways in which bullpens are used means that there seems to be a never ending need for "fresh arms." But, I am not at all convinced that this is good for player development. The fact that it supposedly "worked" in one instance (say, Encarnacion ... and I would debate that) does not mean that it will work in others. The Jays have, over the years, hired managers who had a difficult time working with younger players (Gibbons appears to have been well liked but he was not a player development kind of guy, nor was Cito Gatson, their longest running manager). I want to be fair, managers like Gaston and Gibbons were not asked to develop players. They were asked to manage teams put together for them. Gaston succeeded in the early 1990s. Gibbons did not. Both had two kicks at the can. Gibbons overall record was .501; Gaston's .516. I am not slagging these managers, but neither of them liked to work with young players who needed development and this has been a Jays tendency over the years. They preferred players who know what they were doing already. Montoyo is the first player development manager the Jays have had since, oh, maybe Bobby Cox.
The result is that young players languished and were not given a chance to develop their abilities. I don't know if Gio Urshella or Adam Lind or Eric Thames would have ever developed, for the Jays, into really good players (I really don't) but I would have liked to find out. Likewise, I don't know if any of the spate of pitching prospect that the Jays have are any good but I'd like to know. The standard answer that we hear when teams don't focus on player development runs something like this "our goal is to put the best team on the field that we can." But, what happens if that best team still sucks? What if that best team lost? What was the cost to that team of not engaging in player development (as opposed to finding veterans who can be the "best" team that the organization can put on the field)?
The key point I am trying to make is that player development needs to be assessed against what economists call "opportunity cost." Opportunity cost is a concept that attempts to measure the actual cost of choices we make in terms of their alternatives. For instance, the opportunity cost of buying, say, a pizza for supper is that I have spent the money I had on pizza and now cannot spend that same money on a hamburger. The opportunity cost of playing a veteran in order to "win now" (or, "put the best team on the field we can") is that you cannot play younger player and help them develop at the same time. Only one player is playing second base at a time if it is an aging vet who is not part of your future, it is not the prospect you have who is still playing in the minors and who needs major league experience. Costs, in other words, can and need to be, measured in things other than money.
This is important because a smart team will be looking for ways of lowering opportunity costs. Flip the question around and look at it in reverse: what is the opportunity cost of playing the prospect verse the veteran? The cost is actually fairly low, if you were the Jays, because playing the veteran was not meeting your goals to begin with if your goal is to actually win (as opposed to having a slightly better term on the field than you otherwise would have). I look at it like this: if your team is not going to win this year, then not winning is already a foregone conclusion. If you are going to lose, say 88 games (just as an example), what differences does it make if you lose 91? You are still no where near winning. Imagine a better scenario. Say you won 81 games. Hey .500 close to Gibby's career mark as manager. How many .500 teams make the playoffs? The cost in terms of victories, then, is small but it is large in terms of player development. In effect, by playing veterans instead of prospects one can stall out player development: think of how fast, for instance, the Jays gave up on John Olerud (how much distrust of his D for instance they had), how many times they trotted Brian Tallet to the mound or sent Kevin Miller into a game or how many role changes they have for Kelvim Escobar. Whether or not prospects pan out might even be beside the point: you discover whether or not they can play.
The other advantage of playing prospects is stability. Players -- particularly younger players -- get a chance to develop their skills. We live in a day and age of "flexibility" where players who can play more than one position are highly prized. I would prize them if I were a manager. Flexibility is a supposed sign of the Tampa Bay model and it is. But, to a point. Look at TB's stats for last year (mine come from Baseball-Reference). There was flexibility in the sense of players playing a lot of different positions, but Willie Adames played only shortstop. Ji-Man Choi played only 1B. Kevin Kiermaier played only CF. The difference is that the Rays flexibility is not flexibility for the sake of flexibility.
If I were the Jays (and I am not, I know that), I'd ask some basic questions:
- Is Caven Biggio my 2B of the future. If he is, let's play him at second.
- Is Biggio a top of the order kind of player. If he is, let's keep him there (perhaps batting second)
- Is Bichette my SS of the future? If so, let's play him there.
- And ... on down the line.