Are Veteran Free Agents the New Moneyball Players?

Moneyball's real message, even nearly ten years on, is still widely misunderstood. High-OBP players or college draft-picks were not so much the disease, but the symptoms, as it were. The A's might have loved to win with all around athletes who could do everything well, including hit for a high batting average, but they couldn't afford those players. As OBP became properly valued, the A's started to get priced out there as well, which is why by the middle of the '00s they were one of the first teams to go all-in on defense.

The other major developments of the last decade included a precipitous decline in the middle tier of the free agent market and a related increase in how teams valued young players and prospects. To be sure, there have been exceptions here and there, but the truly hideous free agent contracts of the 1990s and early 2000s are rarer and rarer now. So are the exciting and potentially disastrous veteran rental for top prospect deals.

Which brings us, as everything does, back to Jeff Francoeur (and actually Melky Cabrera too).

The Royals signed Francoeur to a one-year $2.5 million dollar contract. Cabrera was even cheaper, signing for $1.25 million. No one really liked these contracts.

Leaving the Francoeurness of Francoeur aside (he's borderline impossible to write about anymore) the price for these two players was certainly fine. Aside from not thinking either player was going to be very good, my biggest problem was that neither was part of the team's future. Of course, since this spring, the Royals have extended Francoeur and neglected to trade Cabrera, apparently happy to bring him back for his last arb-eligible non-FA season in 2012.

Many of us would rather see the Royals go with Lorenzo Cain, but why? Is Cain a good bet to be much better? Is it the mere small chance that Cain blossoms? Does Cain's $400,000 salary make a difference? Actually, on the money part, probably.

Anyway, you can see how this is a hideously written post. What I'm trying to get at, with some local examples, is the broader discussion of what kinds of players are valued properly on the market. I've been wondering for a few years if prospects were getting over-valued. That the greater certainty of veteran players -- something that was once mock-worthy on the internet -- doesn't have some value. We spend forever talking about minor league guys that usually don't work out. Earlier this week, I read a piece taking the Giants to task for the Beltran-Wheeler trade, in part, because Wheeler had good numbers in Single Effing A. I get that Wheeler is a bright young thing, but seriously... he's a pitching prospect.

Of course, the financial aspect is relevant here. The Royals can't afford to go Francoeur at 10 different positions, especially not when Dayton is going to rip up the contract and kill the bargain at first opportunity should it arise. In any case... what do you guys think?

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