Olney: How do teams value leadership on the free-agent market? Not as much as you'd think

From ESPN - January 14, 2018

Jason Heyward knows first-hand that teams are much more likely to pay for defense than they would have been 15 or 20 years ago, having pulled an eight-year, $184 million deal from the Cubs mainly because of how he covers outfield. Teams will pay for on-base percentage, for swing-and-miss stuff in pitchers, for spin rate.

When the Astros invested a two-year deal in Charlie Morton last winter after his sluggish performance in 2016, one of his first questions to them was: Why? He gave the answer himself with the closing performance in Game 7 of the World Series, when he overpowered the Dodgers.

But there is an increasingly long list of once-valued statistics and perceived skills that front offices dont pay for anymore.

They wont target free agents because of pitcher wins. They put far less stock in RBI than players do. This winter, theyre not really paying for home runs, because its easy to find guys who hit the long ball, after a season in which 117 players had 20 or more homers.

And evaluators say that teams now mostly scoff at the idea of paying for leadership. Its overblown, one executive said the other day. Completely overblown. A player might have a reputation for being a leader, but if he gets hurt or doesnt play well, that disappears. I think front offices have gotten smarter and understand that now.

Said another executive: I couldnt agree more. Leadership is organic within each group of players. Youre not paying for that.

Part of the reason is that leadership cant be quantified, and teams reflexively need to support decisions and investments with metrics. But there also seems to be a growing consensus among the newest generations of front offices that leadership is mostly about context. One general manager cited the example of a longtime veteran -- who will not be named here, out of fairness -- tethered to the so-called leadership trait by the media, because while playing for a contender one season, he was outspoken and respected within his clubhouse and he hit well. But when the same loud player landed with another team the next year, the other players privately couldnt stand him, and ignored just about everything he said.

Teams will do extensive background work on players to learn what they can about their personality and about how they relate to others. But I dont think youre necessarily looking for a leader when you do that, said one executive. Youre trying to figure out who might be an a--h--- and become a clubhouse problem for you.

As the Cubs courted Jon Lester in the winter of 2014-2015, they also pursued David Ross to serve as the personal catcher for the lefty -- and to help serve as a mentor for other players -- for a two-year, $5 million deal. Ross excelled in the role, impacting Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras and many others.

But as one evaluator said, timing means everything in a situation like that. If the Cubs added a David Ross-type player now, 15 months after winning the World Series, that type of voice might be heard differently. Contreras is established as an everyday catcher; Rizzo is 28, Bryant has two full years in the big leagues. Rosss impact as a leader was tempered or shaped entirely by the players around him.

The Indians loved Mike Napolis clubhouse influence during the 2016 season and credited him for changing their baserunning awareness and aggressiveness, and he hit 34 homers. But when he wanted a two-year deal and the Indians only wanted to give him one in a market flush with first basemen, Cleveland moved on and gave Edwin Encarnacion a three-year, $60 million contract -- and had the American Leagues best record.

Last winter, the Astros added Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann to their clubhouse partly because they wanted their experience to help guide a team. They wanted McCanns input and preparation with the pitchers, and they wanted Beltran to help hitters prepare and observe tendencies. By all accounts, Beltran and McCann could not have been more generous in the Astros journey to the championship. The wisdom they shared will be carried forward by Carlos Correa, George Springer and others.

But Beltran struggled in what would turn out to be his final season, batting .231 and losing the role of everyday DH during the postseason. As great as his leadership was in 2017, if Beltran had continued his career, the Astros probably would not have been clamoring to retain him, and certainly not at the $16 million salary for which he played last year.

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