Bad teams and the free-agent market

Pretend it's a Cubs jersey. - Jonathan Daniel

What business does a 101-loss team have with a 29-year-old pitcher on a four-year deal? More than you might think ...

Almost every year, a last-place team signs a free agent for a lot of money. The perfect example in my lifetime was probably Gil Meche signing with the Royals. The Royals weren't a Gil Meche away from being good, and that wasn't even the kind of Royals team that had oodles of prospects, either. The correct response was to point and laugh.

Now the Cubs have signed Edwin Jackson to a four year, $52 million deal. The Cubs have a great chance to make progress on their second-to-last-place finish from last year. Now they can have a clear shot at last because the Astros are in the American League now. Progress! And it's time to point and laugh at the Cubs because they're throwing money down a hole for a pitcher who isn't going to be around for the next good Cubs team.

Except that's off. Way off. That kind of thinking is kind of a relic from the olden days, back when the Internet was more about making fun of Rey Ordonez than anything else. Back then, statheads and Internet-savvy folks were right about everything. You just had to ask. But a couple of things changed.

1. The 2003 Tigers became the 2006 Tigers

I already wrote about this here, so I won't go too deep into it. But the 2003 Tigers were the worst collection of baseball players assembled in a half-century. They were wretched, just wretched. Think about how bad the Cubs were to lose 101 games in 2012. Now consider they would have finished 18 games over the 2003 Tigers. The Cubs were almost as close to .500 as they were to the 2003 Tigers. That's how bad the 2003 Tigers were.

After the 2003 season, the Tigers signed Pudge Rodriguez to a big five-year deal. The baseball world shut down with laughter. A 31-year-old catcher getting tens of millions to be on the worst team since the '62 Mets? Good luck with that.

The 2006 Tigers won 95 games and the American League pennant. Pudge hit .300, won a Gold Glove, and started 136 games for them.

The question isn't "How can this free agent help the team now?" The question is really a two-parter: Does this free agent make the team better, and does he prevent the team from making an even better move, like locking up a young superstar?

The Cubs aren't going to lose one of their own players because of Edwin Jackson. They already have Starlin Castro locked up, and the only other pending free agent they might want to keep is Matt Garza, who is a pretty good comp for Jackson.

The 2003 Tigers didn't have a young superstar in the wings, either. They didn't have a looming arbitration award that made them nervous. They had Alex Sanchez and Warren Morris. If they didn't spend the money on Pudge (and other players around him), where was the money going to go? To the Mike Ilitch retirement fund, and he didn't want it. If Pudge stunk and the Tigers stunk, well, everyone expected the Tigers to stink. If Pudge was great and the Tigers stunk, well, everyone expected that, too, except the team was that much more watchable.

And when the Tigers started winning, hooo, man, were they glad they made that move to sign Pudge Rodriguez.

There was a rebuttal to the "What else were they going to spend it on" back in 2003. There isn't now, and that leads us to …

2. There's a cap on amateur spending now

So even if the Cubs wanted to take that $52 million they were giving to Edwin Jackson and plow it in to the Dominican Republic, they couldn't. There are serious penalties for going over the international cap -- just five percent over the cap is subject to a 75-percent tax, and anything over that prevents the team from making an international signing over $500,000 the following year.

It used to be that a team could draft a two-way star in the 14th round and pay him a lot of money to blow off college and ride buses for the next few years. Now, it will really go back into the team coffers if it isn't spent.

So the checklist for a team like the Cubs is simple.

Is Edwin Jackson better than the previous fifth starter on the Cubs?

/looks at Travis Wood, furrows brow

Check. Does Jackson prevent the Cubs from locking up their in-house talent?

/looks at future payroll obligations, reflexively laughs at Soriano contract

Check. And after those two are checked off, the real question is if a) Jackson is going to block a prospect (not likely) and b) if there was a free agent who was preferable to Jackson, either this year or next.

That last one is a legitimate point to debate. It's not like Jackson to the Cubs was something that made such perfect sense that I can't stand it. But it's a bad team getting less bad, and the downside isn't worth getting worked up about. That's how it should be with every bad team and free agents. Remember the 2003 Tigers, and forget about the draft. Bad teams can play in the hot-stove league, too.

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