Forward Thinking: The Evolution Of Being One Step Ahead

Baseball has always been pioneered by forward-thinkers. These visionary minds have paired their knowledge of the game with foresight to developed ways of staying one step ahead of their competition. However, now with every aspect of the game dissected by experts, media and fans it has become harder to be original.

In 1919 Branch Rickey took the reins in St. Louis and began transforming the struggling, financially-plagued Cardinals. He established the first farm system as an inexpensive means of developing players internally. Minor leagues had been exclusively independent until this time with players being bought and sold at will. Rickey exploited the system by signing young, unknown talent for cheap and by 1926 St. Louis had won their first World Series.

Rickey continued to revolutionize the game in the well-known integration movement. The Brooklyn Dodgers broke down barriers when they signed Jackie Robinson in 1946. Rickey saw this as an untapped pool of talent that could help build revenue and bring championships to Brooklyn. Although championships eluded them, the Dodgers won six pennants in nine years after Robinson arrived in Brooklyn. Much like his Cardinals of years past, Rickey built Brooklyn into the era’s top National League team.

1975 began the era of free agency with wealthy teams gaining a steady advantage over the field. Between 1976 and 2000, the Yankees won nine pennants and six World Series Titles. The Mets signed Bobby Bonilla in 1992. This contract still stands as the highest percentage jump in yearly salary for the game’s highest paid player (Strawberry (LA) $3,800,000 to Bonilla (NY) $6,100,000). Since 1975, the highest paid player in baseball has gone from receiving $240,000/year to $30,000,000/year, representing that championships could be purchased now rather than manufactured.

In the most recent decade, Bill James and Billy Beane were credited with the invention of sabremetrics and beginning the era of advanced statistics. In 2002, the Yankees payroll totaled $133,429,757 while Oakland sat at $41,942,665. Beane and Paul DePodesta knew that they couldn’t compete if they continued to play the same game as large market team. With Johnny Damon, Jason Giambi and Miguel Tejada all chasing lucrative deals, Beane turned his attention away from traditional scouting and toward numbers such the ability to maximize run productivity with On-Base Percentage. Oakland and New York each won 103 games that season despite the huge salary gap.

As the money continued to get bigger so did the cost of failure. With salary demands continuing to sky rocket and many teams adopting the moneyball style of management, teams are trying to configure new ways to get ahead.

This season the Yankees failed to make the playoffs with a record payroll while Tampa Bay, Oakland and Pittsburgh all qualified for the postseason despite a combined payroll less than that of New York’s $228,995,945.

Theo Epstein appears to be making a play as the next baseball mind trying to get one step ahead. With new rules implemented, the Cubs began to chase additional international free agent money through trade.

Epstein and the Cubs might be onto something with this big picture view. The most significant costs associated with signing talented international free agents are the time and resources required for scouting/player development. With media and baseball insiders following every move nowadays, it’s unlikely that this strategy can remain under-the-radar the way that Rickey’s farm system stayed discrete for so many years. With that said, Chicago managed to land three of the top 10 international signings in 2013.

In a sports culture that demands success, Epstein’s new approach will require patience. With Chicago having lost 90+ games each of the last three seasons, it makes sense for Epstein to spend on a revolutionary strategy rather than spend more time rebuilding a depleted team in a domestic market that no longer holds any secrets.

The Cubs entered the season with their top four prospects (according to Baseball America) all imported internationally and they are now joined by the talented “2013 recruiting class”.

Despite their growing numbers in the MLB, international talent is by far the most abundant and highest value source of acquiring talent. While the Mets used the 11th overall pick to select and sign 17-year-old Dominic Smith to a $2.6 million signing bonus, Chicago signed the number one international prospect, outfielder Eloy Jimenez, to a $2.8 million signing bonus.

If you choose to view the international signing period as the MLB Draft 2.0 then the Cubs essentially grabbed four top-10 picks in 2013 with Kris Bryant, Eloy Jimenez, Gleyber Torres, Jen-Ho Tseng.

It will be interesting to see where the Cubs are in five years compared to the Mets.