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

Mike Napoli is among the veteran players wondering when -- or if -- he'll get a deal this winter. Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire

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 don’t pay for anymore.

They won’t target free agents because of pitcher wins. They put far less stock in RBI than players do. This winter, they’re not really paying for home runs, because it’s 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. “It’s 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 doesn’t play well, that disappears. I think front offices have gotten smarter and understand that now.”

Said another executive: “I couldn’t agree more. Leadership is organic within each group of players. You’re not paying for that.”

Part of the reason is that leadership can’t 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 couldn’t 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 don’t think you’re necessarily looking for a leader when you do that,” said one executive. “You’re 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. Ross’s impact as a leader was tempered or shaped entirely by the players around him.

The Indians loved Mike Napoli’s 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 League’s 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 McCann’s 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.

News from around the majors

Major League Baseball and the Players Association met Thursday to discuss details of the forthcoming pace-of-play rule changes -- and it’s a good sign that the two sides are talking. MLB has not set a hard deadline for an agreement on pace of play rules, but the simple fact is that at some point within the next month, the situation needs to be settled -- not only with the Players Association, but also with the umpires’ union -- and the new guidelines need to be written, presented to team officials and to the players, prepared for use in exhibition games.

MLB has the ultimate negotiating hammer in these conversations: Through a four decades-old clause written into the collective bargaining agreement, it can unilaterally impose whatever rules it wants. And if there is no progress in talks, that is what will happen, with the implementation of a 20-second clock and a limit on mound meetings, at the very least.

But MLB’s leverage also means that the union leadership has absolutely nothing to lose in aggressively trading ideas, in spitballing concepts, in attempting some horse-trading. Because the leverage that the union does have in this situation is in the public relations of the implementation. MLB doesn’t want spring training filled with daily stories of players complaining about the pitch clock and MLB suits affecting their ability to play the game, and if the players’ union reached an agreement, the path through the change would be smoother with less griping. And MLB would probably be willing to offer some concessions for that universal peace. The union could ask for a 26th man for rosters, which would mean 30 more jobs for their union, and 5,580 additional days of service time.

Maybe MLB would agree to this or some other proposal; maybe not. But nobody will know for sure without talking, and the meetings last week were the first substantive discussions on the issue since last August. Having the conversations costs the union nothing; having the conversations could lead to something.

• The San Francisco Giants' farm system has been in a state of disrepair in recent years and it has often left them at a competitive disadvantage in trade talks, with an inability to counter offers made by rivals. So the logic behind their new prospect religion is reasonable: They have made it clear that they would prefer to pass on any free agent who is attached to draft pick compensation because they’d like to retain their selections in the 2018 draft -- most notably their second-round pick, No. 42 overall, which would be included in the cost if they signed center fielder Lorenzo Cain or third baseman Mike Moustakas, free agents who seemingly would have fit needs at the outset of this offseason.

But let’s play devil’s advocate about this. At their core, the Giants are an older team with star-caliber veterans who are in the last years of their theoretical window to win. Buster Posey turns 31 in March, and he’s signed through 2021. Brandon Crawford turns 31 this month; he’s signed through 2021. Brandon Belt will be 30 in April, and he’s signed through 2021. Newly acquired third baseman Evan Longoria is 32. Madison Bumgarner is 28, under contract for the next couple of seasons, having thrown 1,600 innings. Johnny Cueto is two years into a six-year deal and turns 32 next month; Jeff Samardzija will celebrate his 33rd birthday this month. Mark Melancon will be 33 in March.

The Giants have a desperate need right now for an outfielder, particularly a center fielder, and Cain would be a perfect fit right now.

The Giants are among baseball’s wealthiest franchises because of the brilliant decisions by the club’s ownership a quarter-century ago to privately fund their own ballpark -- debt that is now fully paid off -- and acquire and develop the real estate around AT&T. The front office drafted and developed players like Posey, Crawford and Bumgarner, and won three World Series in five years. It’s hard to fathom the sale price of the Giants if they were put up for auction today.

Sure, they have luxury tax concerns -- they’ll be one of the few teams over the $197 million threshold in 2018 -- and yes, they’d like to restore the farm system.

But for a franchise with so many assets, does it make sense to allow the value of the second-round pick -- the 42nd selection in the draft -- stand in the way of immediate and needed improvements like Cain?

• It’s true that the Miami Marlins are prepared to listen to offers for Christian Yelich and others, but their asking price is said by other teams to be extremely high -- the very best prospects in other organizations. For the Chicago White Sox, that might mean the likes of outfielder Eloy Jimenez or Michael Kopech would have to be in any deal or, for the Braves, outfielder Ronald Acuna.

And today will be better than yesterday.