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The Media is Catching On

Stephen Cannella of Sports Illustrated on the Indians:

Sizemore (he's making $318,000 this year) and Lee ($345,000) come cheap, too. Those numbers are as important to Shapiro as batting averages and ERAs. The Colon trade -- he is making $10 million this season -- was Shapiro's way of announcing the Indian's new business model: Expensive free agents were out, hunting for prospects and bargains was in. It's a little easier to sell that small-market approach when trades work out as well as that one did. "The Colon trade was the start of everything," Shapiro said earlier this month. "It started the change."

Cleveland fans still haven't completely embraced that plan. Even during the Indians' second half surge, sellouts at the Jake have been rare. A playoff spot might change that. It might not. Either way, Shapiro gets credit for making one of the most significant deals of the decade.

It's important to realize that the Colon deal was a perfect storm, so to say. You had a franchise that was probably going to be contracted after the season and in a playoff chase, and a franchise so desparate for young talent that it was willing to deal one of the better pitchers in baseball to do so. And because Colon was signed through 2003, the Expos were willing to give up more talent than normal.

It's also important to realize the shift in models that began with the Colon trade. Until then, the Indians were giving free agent deals to baseball's "middle class" because they couldn't outbid larger spenders for the premium talent. This lead to giving Chuck Finley, Wil Cordero, and Matt Lawton big dollars because they were the best the Indians could get. After 2002, the Indians realized that if you couldn't get the big free agents, you're better off if you trawl the bargain bin or give a young player an opportunity.

In a Baseball Prospectus chat, Transaction Analysis author Christina Kahrl captures the current trend perfectly:

There's more than one way to skin a cat. In general, though, I think the trend towards paying top dollar for star players, and sifting through the free talent muck to find a few rough nuggets, is generally the right idea. Yes, it means that the middle class of free agents gets screwed, but that's life.

Even though many times signing a "bargain" doesn't work out (see Jose Jiminez and Juan Gonzalez), you can toss the player aside without worrying about the cost. In this case, the risk is minimal and reward is very good. If you sign a free agent to a multi-year deal and the player doesn't work out, not only do you lose the production, you also lose the opportunity to replace him.

Embracing this sort of method is difficult to do (after all, signing free agents looks good in the papers), but it allows you to minimize risk and maximize flexibility.