Unsung Dollars


The headlines belong to Adam Dunn, Carl Crawford, Cliff Lee, and the other multimillion dollar deals.  In a few months we’ll start hearing far more about Albert Pujol’s contract than we can stomach.  Analysts talk endlessly about Jeter’s value to the Yankees, whether or not A-Rod is over paid, and whether or not the Cubs were insane to give ten million dollars to Pena.  (They weren’t by the way.  That’s a pretty good contract.)

Big free agent money drives the headlines and defines the postseason.  Strange, then, that the free agent dollars are some of the least important dollars a team will spend.  Free agents are the finishing pieces for a team that close to competing for a title.  The huge contracts can help push a team over the top, but it is hard to find a team that has had long term success based primarily on large free agent acquisitions.  Winning organizations develop from within.  And that is why the most important dollars spent in baseball are the completely un-talked-about dollars spent on scouting and player development.

It is much harder to point to specific examples of those scouting and player development dollars working.  Anyone can flip on the TV and watch Adam Dunn, but finding visible evidence of the most important dollars at work is much tougher.  Unless you’re a Cub fan.

By now we all know that everyone who said Colvin was taken way too high was wrong, that Castro was a fantastic find, that the Cubs Far East operation is paying off, and that Hayden Simpson was drafted in the first round because of what the Cubs scout’s saw.  There is another guy, though, who might be a better example of Cubs scouting and development money at work.

Austin Bibens-Dirkx was signed by the Cubs from the independent  Golden Baseball League in 2009.  He had spent a few years in the Seattle system, and the Mariners had finally turned him loose after a few trips to the DL.  Whereas the Mariners were working him out of the pen, the Cubs put Bibens-Dirkx to starting, first in Peoria.  In 2010 they jumped him two levels and dropped him in AA Tennessee, where he proceeded to be named pitcher of the week twice and made the All-Star team.  He finished the year in Iowa.

So how does a guy just two years removed from being exiled to the independent leagues rocket through the minors and become a candidate to walk onto Wrigley Field?  How does Seattle miss so badly on this guy that they give up on him one year before his breakout season?  Why did Cubs move him to the starting rotation when he had been a reliever for the Mariners organization?  How, in short, did the Cubs find this guy?  Scouting and player development.

The big dollar free agents are the icing on the cake, the final piece to the puzzle.  The guys who come up through the system, these are the guys that make a franchise successful year in and year out.  A good system lets you trade for players before they hit the market, often letting you sign them for less.  A good system keeps you from having to pay too much for mediocre players as you frantically try to fill holes.  A good system always gives you an option when improving the club, letting you sign only the best players and not just the ones you need most.  And a really good system will turn out its fair share of core players you can build the franchise around year after year.

Its good to know that the Cubs are ramping up spending in this area.  The Cubs total budget for next season will stay roughly the same.  The dollars saved on the major league roster are being redirected to scouting and the minors.  Stories like Starlin Castro or Austin Bibens-Dirkx should only be more common in the coming years, and the effects of that will be happily felt in Wrigley.