SportsProf

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Monday, November 27, 2006

The Roberto Kelly Syndrome

Many, many years ago, in a township far, far away, our Rotisserie baseball league had its annual draft. It's the type of league where there's a $260 salary cap, where you can retain players, and, where, if you retain a player for more than two years, his salary, as it were, increases by $5 for each subsequent season. This league's been around for 18 years, and it's distinguished by, among other things, that during the auction everyone sits in the same spot in the room that he always has going back almost two decades (the rooms and houses have changed, but the seating chart has not). That sounds less than impressive except when you realize that no one has ever said anything about seating or assigned seats. We have tweaked the rules over the years (particularly to limit the number of players a team can retain), but by and large they have remained the same.

As you might be able to predict, there can be shortages of good players at certain positions each year, and there can be sluggish participants. Combine the two, and there will be three teams who realize that they are without a front-line closer and all but one have been snapped up, and the one who's available is the equivalent of Jose Mesa during his Pirates period. Three teams, one closer, and, voila, you end up paying more for Mesa than you would for Trevor Hoffman or Billy Wagner. That can happen with closers each year, but the saving grace of the closer position is that it suffers from significant turnover, so the sport really is to acquire at cheaper prices "closers in waiting." Unfortunately, there are plenty of Braden Loopers, Jose Valverdes and Jose Capellans for whom we're all still waiting to mature, but there is fun in the hunt.

Oh, about ten years ago or so, there was a pronounced shortage of front-line outfielders who could hit and do something else, whether it be steal bases or hit for power. There was only one guy left -- Roberto Kelly, then of the Cincinnati Reds. Kelly was no superstar, but he did have some good years, and he was the last man standing. There were numerous teams who needed "that extra outfielder," and the bidding got way out of hand, so much so that if Kelly were a stock on the NASDAQ that venerable exchange would have suspended trading to investigate whether there were any irregularities in the dissemination of material, non-public information.

Roberto Kelly went for $53.

The highest price ever in our league.

Ever.

More than Bonds and McGwire during the steroids years.

More than Maddux, Glavine and both Schilling and Johnson during their stint on the Diamondbacks.

This is Roberto Kelly we're talking about.

The team that acquired Kelly did not finish in the first division.

Naturally, they jettisoned him and his large salary after the season. No one would have traded for him at a $53 price tag.

So, the buyers of the large contracts of Messrs. Soriano, Matthews, Jr. and whoever else should beware. Yes, you have a big need, and yes, you "did anything" to fill it. Whether or not these gambles -- and with the commitments you made, they are gambles -- pay off, only time will tell. But the key difference between our Rotisserie league and Major League Baseball is that we can cut a player with a large contract with impunity. If Soriano turns into Bobby Bonilla or Mo Vaughn and if Matthews, Jr. reverts into the .249 pumpkin he was before he turned into Cinderalla with his magical season last year, the teams are stuck with them and their lofty contracts.

And front office people and managers will get fired.

There are GMs out there who are getting pilloried for not "taking that extra step" to get that "one special player"who can help their team prevail. Those are the same GMs who are taking a stand for fiscal prudence and who realize that typically it's better to build from within than to acquire hefty, long-term, no-trade contracts. Is Gary Matthews, Jr., the extra step for the Angels? Or will the Phillies, wall flowers so far save a thrifty signing of Wes Helms, be more prudent by working the phones, trying to make deals, and perhaps spending lesser dollars for some quality arms in the bullpen that could help give them one of the best staffs in the NL?

Is it prudent to be patient? Or do only the daring get rewarded?

Time will tell, but my general mantra is that when you see a feeding frenzy, get the heck out of there quickly. Yes, there are some advantages to being a competitive person, but you don't always have to win, especially when your competitors are chucking whatever wisdom they had out the window during the bidding.

Those in the investment world will tell you there's a difference between sound investments and speculation. With the former, you're going on a tried and true plan to have a portfolio that accommodates your appetite for risk and helps you achieve your goals. With the latter, you can end up looking like Dave Kingman swinging for the fences -- you'll hit some real shots, but you'll strike out an awful lot too. The former offers solid returns; with the latter, you might fare better by taking your money, going to Las Vegas, and putting it all on red.

Did the Cubs put it all on red? The Angels?

Or are the other teams losing simply because they're unwilling to do anything, at least thus far?

The hot stove is as hot as it's ever been.

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