I usually get around to reading Malcolm Gladwell’s books. I enjoyed the first three anyway: The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers. I read excerpts from What the Dog Saw. He’s a good researcher/writer who has the skill to render complex ideas in entertaining, easily digestible ways.
Still, I’m ready for Gladwell to try something new. He’s been working the same mine for a while now.
Nonetheless, the title of his latest book caught my eye:
Essentially, it is a study in the “advantages” that unexpectedly come from being at a (real or perceived) “disadvantage.” And without reading the book, the notion immediately made intuitive sense to me, from a New York Mets point of view.
By not having a huge budget (the great disadvantage!), it has forced Sandy Alderson to embrace certain strategies in order to merely hope to compete. Importantly, it’s enabled him to avoid common pitfalls that befall teams with bigger budgets.
Without thinking too deeply, what are some of the advantages to having a small payroll?
- Avoid crippling contracts;
- Compelled to emphasize scouting and development;
- Forced to work harder trolling the margins (read: better chance to look like a genius);
- Obligated to run a lean organization, trim fat;
- Made to value draft picks;
- Careful about service time (“Super 2″);
- Etc., etc. & etcetera.
I’m saying that in some respects, it’s easier to be Sandy Alderson than it is to be Brian Cashman.
It could be argued that attempting to field a competitive team early in his tenure would have been a mistake, because he’d have to allocate limited resources in the wrong direction, playing to short-term instead of long-term goals. And let’s face it, being merely “competitive” is not a worthy goal, particularly if it diminishes your ability to take a long-term approach. He’s enjoyed an atmosphere of low, low expectations. An environment that has given Alderson that most precious commodity: time.
Yes, I wish Alderson rebuilt more aggressively, cratered deeper, moved faster, sacrificed even more short-term for the long term. There are things to complain about, certainly. But having time and low expectations allowed Sandy to trade R.A. Dickey and Carlos Beltran. With R.A. in the rotation, the Mets would have been better last season, more fun, more entertaining; but long-term, this trade has the potential for a huge payoff for the organization as a whole. Sandy didn’t create that situation; he responded to it.
The circumstances were (and are) what they were (and are, and probably will be). But because of those circumstances, the Mets have placed an emphasis on strengthening the farm system. I’m not saying they’ve fully achieved it, but that it is clearly a sound baseball practice. The best teams consistently produce strong, young talent. That’s not achieved on a three-year timetable; it takes at least five years to begin to see any kind of meaningful payoff, a clock that began to tick at the moment when the Mets drafted a high school kid from North Bumfrak named Brandon Nimmo.
If you are Goliath, on the other hand, you don’t spend hours in the gym working on agility drills or mastering new weaponry. You grab your club and mash skulls. It’s how you roll and it’s worked so far. But because Davey was a little guy — not big enough, not strong enough — he was forced to develop other capabilities.
A team that can go buy a free agent (and lose picks in the process) might, over time, neglect the small, sound practices that help sustain a successful organization. When you buy a free agent, you are purchasing, you hope, a solution to a problem. When you can’t buy that free agent, you have to attempt to solve that problem another way — an approach that might, in the long run, prove to offer a less risky, more reliable method.
The low payroll forces you into some sound policies, just as, say, tough times can compel a business to install practices that make them operate smarter, leaner, better. Contraction, consolidation can be a positive. You start worrying more about the foundation and less about the window boxes. That’s a good thing, especially if you can address the finishing touches at a later date.
It comes down to one thing. When you don’t have money to spend, you make fewer spending mistakes. You never buy the wrong thing — read: “Genius!” — because you don’t ever go shopping! And importantly, you know that you can’t buy the answer to your needs, and the fans know it, too. So you won’t roll the dice and pay $153 million for Jacoby Ellsbury. Which is great, I guess, maybe. Nobody is killing Neal Huntington, the Pirates GM, for not “overpaying” for Shin Shoo Choo. Huntington doesn’t let that stuff clutter his mind. It’s not a consideration.
It’s not because he’s too smart; it’s because he’s too poor.
We know the old adage, Necessity is the mother of invention. In the case of Sandy Alderson, at least in the eyes of some true believers, it is also the mother of virtue. That’s what I’m trying to get at here, his sainthood.
Sandy Alderson, because of his current approach to team-building, is considered by some to be the virtuous man who sneers at checkbook baseball. He avoids all those messy mistakes, as if he stands on higher moral ground. But in fact, his approach is simply a function of the Mets disadvantages. He’s working the next-best alternative.
It think part of the anti-Omar sentiment expressed out there in the phony narrative that describes his tenure as a total failure, comes from the fact that he had a big budget. He spent freely, handed out big contracts, took risks. His advantage ultimately became, in some ways, a disadvantage. Omar got sloppy, bloated, didn’t stress the nickels and dimes, and in the process hung a few albatrosses around the club’s neck. A fat guy who couldn’t tear himself away from the buffet table. Some fans resent that type of big-money approach. It seems too easy, like any dope could do it. Buying Ellsbury is not as satisfying as bringing up Lenny Dykstra (if you can). We’ve watched Steinbrenner’s Yankees operate for years; we have been conditioned to believe there’s no virtue in being the guy with the most money in his bank account.
His acolytes want Sandy Alderson’s way to be “the best way.” It’s a religion for some of them, and he’s the High Priest, practicing at the Church of the Smartest.
But it’s not true. At least, I don’t think so.
I actually believe that when it comes to business models, Omar had it figured right. The Mets were going to spend, they were going to bring in hugely entertaining players, they were going to win, and the fans were going to flock to the stadium.
It almost worked. And given more time, and more smarts, and the same financial resources, it would have worked. In 2006, the Mets came thisclose to a World Championship. A swing here, an injury there. For perspective on that achievement, it’s happened once in the last 40 years. Imagine if that team succeeded. More fans (revenue), more money (payroll), more happiness, higher expectations. Four million through the gates every year. For a time, at least. Maybe instead of sitting on their hands, the 2007 squad gets the bullpen help it needed and the Mets make the playoffs again. Good times. Delgado, Wright, Reyes, Beltran, Alou, Lo Duca, Green, Castillo. (Don’t laugh, Castillo was good in 2007, a .371 OBP.) It was a good team, with a lot of smart supporting pieces (Easley, Castro, Chavez).
Yes, there are advantages to being at a disadvantage. You learn to work smarter, leaner, more efficiently. You avoid sloppy mistakes, huge risks. But for the New York Mets to return to sustained greatness, I think they need to begin to take advantage of their advantages, reaping the profound benefits of the money-making potential of the Big Apple.