Be grateful that I am not a GM. Like every internet tough guy who quarterbacks from his couch, I know just enough about baseball to annoy people who actually know about baseball. (It's ok - you and me? We suffer from this issue together.)
Still, I have always maintained that there are a few ground rules that every team should follow when looking to acquire free agents. These rules are:
1. No relief pitcher over the age of 31, and never for more than 3 years. Relief pitchers are incredibly unreliable. It's not their fault. Trust me - go out side and throw a baseball as hard as you can about 20 times. Then do it again tomorrow. Then skip a day and do it again the day after that. Your shoulder is going to be a throbbing ball of pain. Relievers are intended to go out there as needed, sometimes for 3, 4, or 5 days in a row, and that kind of activity takes its toll on the human body. While there are some exceptions, most relievers lose their reliability around age 33 or 34.
2. No bench player over the age of 35, and never for more than 2 years. Although this steroid infused era has shifted this paradigm a bit, middle age for baseball players is 30. By the time a player gets into his mid-30's, the younger guys on the team are well within their right to refer to that old timer by an inoffensive nickname, like "Old Timer," or "Senior Achybones," or "Grandpa Death." Still, a healthy player of even modest talent should be able to maintain into his late 30's the ability to hit the ball 1 out of 4 times while fielding successfully. That's at least good enough for bench work, unless you are the Astros, at which point that's good enough for batting cleanup. Still, while the Cubs could absolutely pursue one of these "proven" bench players, I'd rather see them give the assignment to a late 20's non-prospect from within their own system, who will do pretty much the same job for maybe a million less a year.
3. No starting lineup players over the age of 30, and never for more than 4 years. If Alfonso Soriano should have taught us anything, it's that it's really, really stupid to sign a "middle age" free agent, no matter what his star status may be, to a massive payday for 8 years. And if you think we have it bad, imagine how the Yankees feel now that they have the A-Rod anchor around their necks, dragging them down into hundred-million-dollar mediocrity. In any case - it's rare, but there occasionally are good free agents available who are under the age of 30. While they will demand - and receive - a lot of money, they are certainly a smaller risk than the 32 year old slugger whose waste size is beginning to exceed his yearly homerun total. One extra clause to this rule - said player needs to be better than serviceable defensively. Defense will begin to slide once a guy is north of 30, so if he was barely adequate to begin with, he's going to become an albatross by the time Year 4 rolls around.
4. No starting pitcher, of any age or health history, for more than 4 years. I don't recall who said it, but some years ago I read an interesting article which pointed out a pretty astonishing fact: no starting pitcher who has ever signed a 100-million-dollar contract has stayed healthy for the duration of his deal. Now, you could fact check me on that one if you want - and at this point, you might find that there was an exception somewhere along the line. But in general, it seems to be true that even the sturdiest looking pitcher goes through at least a single season in which his arm threatens to detach from his shoulder. However, I would otherwise have no issues with the Cubs pursuing a 27 year-old starter, a 35 year-old starter, or even a 40 year-old ace, because it seems that, if a starter can maintain success once he begins losing velocity, then he'll probably continue to win until the wheels completely fall off.
Consider, then, these ground rules. Perhaps you disagree with them, or have others which you'd like to contribute. Please feel free to do so. We'll roll out a look at specific free agents who might help the '13 Cubs in our next article, on Tuesday.
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