Okay, Fine: Baalke’s Bargains Just Might Work

Aug 7, 2011 at 8:02 PM44

Wait a minute. Let's just back up.

Last week, we discussed the two rational approaches that were available to the Niners in this free-agency period. One was what I'll now call the "outsider's approach," so named because a GM who'd been hired from elsewhere almost certainly would've taken it. He'd have looked at this roster and simply said, "Anyone I can get rid of is gone." I think the way I put it was, he'd have "taken one look at this 6-and-10 team and gutted the roster, importing a new, more talented core."

This, I strongly implied, was the approach I liked best.

Trent Baalke, however, professed his belief in the "insider's approach." With a natural tendency to overrate a roster he'd helped assemble, he vowed to hold on to "the players that have been under [our] tutelage." Jed York affirmed our commitment to "re-sign our own guys," and he went so far as to say, "We think Jim [Harbaugh] can [win] with this roster."

And so evolved the Niners' plan. Instead of cutting bait and installing new talent all over the field, we'd "re-sign our own guys" and then merely dabble, upgrading at just a position or two.

THIS approach, as I said, "wasn't bad." Despite the questions about our roster, any large-scale changes could wait, at least 'til we saw what Harbaugh could do with it.

This was the Niners' vision for 2011. This was what Baalke said he would do. And he indisputably didn't do it.

Despite having plenty of money to spend, he let nearly all of our "Big Six" go, re-signing only a promoted back-up. He took shot after shot at significant upgrades, and came away empty time after time.

In other words, he set out a plan, and he failed to execute it.

In recent days, I've been accused of "jumping the gun," of failing to "wait for the facts to unfold." But my central point was simply this: he didn't do what he said he would do. On THAT point, at least, no gun could be jumped, no facts could unfold.

He set out a plan, and he failed to execute it.

Now I did assume--reasonably, I think--that Baalke's failure would mean we were done. Would mean that our roster would drop to near zero. Would mean we'd rebuild, "no matter which of the remaining free-agent scraps we pick up."

And HERE'S where things got interesting.

Baalke didn't think it was too late to try the outsider's approach, to go for "a new, more talented core." Impossible, right? By the free-agency period's second wave, the true headliners of course were gone. And, indeed, Baalke's first signing didn't look like much, and maybe his second and third didn't either. They seemed like mere patchwork, lipstick on the proverbial pig. But after his fourth, his fifth, and the rest, they all added up to become something more.

Attempting to quantify it, I consulted a respectable list of the top 100 free agents. Take it with a grain of salt, of course, but Baalke signed #24 (the #3 UFA wideout), #28 (the #5 UFA corner), #43 (the #4 UFA safety), #72 (the #1 UFA kicker), and #89 (the #3 UFA center, and no, David Baas was not on the list). He even added #91, the #3 UFA quarterback: yeah, you guessed it--Alex Smith. (Okay, so maybe we shouldn't celebrate THAT one.) It wasn't exactly the Eagles' haul, and it didn't cure our every need. (Indeed, to be fair, these gains were offset by the losses of #20, #46, and maybe #42.) But for an average team due for a healthy injection of new, talented blood, Baalke didn't do badly at all.

In their inevitable I-told-you-so's, my personal lynch-mob insisted that Baalke had acted "exactly according to what appears to be a well-formulated plan." Sounds great, but there's a bit of revisionist history there. It's easy to say, as he actually did, that his plan all along was "patience," that he chose to wait 'til the second wave. Easy, that is, if you merely ignore his pursuit of, say, Nnamdi Asomugha. C'mon, gang. You can't go for the biggest fish in the free-agent sea and then say, when that fish gets away, your plan was patience all along.

So no. This late flurry had a distinctive flavor of Plan B. Nevertheless, at least on paper--more on that below--Baalke did his basic job. He gave this roster a shot in the arm.

I know that many of you are waiting for me to make some admissions. Okay, here goes. I admit that I didn't expect the "remaining free-agent scraps" to include such talent, and I admit that I didn't expect that Baalke would seize it. And I further admit--with tremendous relief--I was just a bit hasty in saying this season was dead on arrival. (I might even say, at least with THAT, I might've jumped the gun.)

But those of you who are declaring Baalke some kind of genius, you YOURSELVES are jumping the gun. All these guys were "scraps" for a reason; none of 'em were the league's most wanted. (Braylon Edwards might be "most wanted," though not in THAT way.) When your "well-formulated plan" is to wait until the desirables are gone, and then to pay bargain rates for guys who, though talented, are wanted by few if anyone else, executing the plan shouldn't be a big deal. And it certainly doesn't guarantee long-term success; indeed, it's just as likely the thing could implode.

I'm still not sure I trust Trent Baalke. But I can't deny it: I'm excited to see what Harbaugh will do. I'm excited for this season again.

Which leads me to one final admission.

Less than a week after I'd mourned the loss of "all the excitement of Harbaugh's arrival," Baalke did just enough to restore it. Enough to restore it, as strong as before.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


  • Tempt
    That's the thing about life. Stay prepared so you don't have to get prepared. Seemed he was prepared to piece together a team the coaching staff could work with regardless of circumstance.
    Aug 25, 2011 at 11:51 AM
  • RichmondPete
    Why do you find it necessary to try and make yourself look brilliant no matter what you are criticizing? Baalke said the niners would be patient. This implies that they won't overspend for any free agent even their own that they would like to keep. He then went out and found upgrades and paid them all less than what our departing starters would have made had we resigned them. This was obviously the plan all along. Trent Baalke doesn't owe us fans a blueprint of his FA strategy, nor should anyone want him to make that public information.
    Aug 24, 2011 at 11:06 AM
  • BW
    I'll reserve judgment until they've played some real games.
    Aug 20, 2011 at 7:20 PM
  • domingo360
    "In retrospect, it's pretty clear the 49ers were never serious about adding Nnamdi Asomugha, Chad Ochocinco or other big names in free agency. They've given great weight to dynamics within the locker room when deciding which players to pay handsomely." - Sando
    Aug 12, 2011 at 8:36 AM
    Response: Has anyone ever heard of Asomugha being a clubhouse cancer?
  • Niner4ever
    What a crock!!! Baalke did say before free agency that the team wouldn't be big players. just because they went after some big fish doesn't mean that was the plan all along and then go to plan B if that doesn't work. most of us intelligent fans realize that the play for Nnamdi happened because they didn't expect him to be attainable and figured why not try. it didn't work out which is ok because that was never plan A. free agency seemed to go exactly how Baalke said it would go. now the question is, will it work? that remains to be seen. nice try but your reasoning is shoddy at best.
    Aug 11, 2011 at 7:44 AM
  • overthemiddle
    KC: That's what I have been trying to say - we just don't know till we get some games behind us. I figure at the off week we MIGHT be able to start to love or hate. The fact of the matter is we just don't know what we have. I personally have wiped the slate clean, the past is the past and the front office the coaches and the players will get a fresh start from me (even Alex). Last year we went 4 - 0 in pre-season and then only won 6 games. Just a reminder.
    Aug 10, 2011 at 5:09 PM
  • WildBill
    I do not believe it is revisionist on my part. I think you are still in denial. All is there for those who see everything. Baalke said they weren't going to be big players in FA. However, when he found that NA might want to stay in the bay, like any competent GM, he gave it a shot, however, he wasn't going to go overboard and overpay. The same can be said with our own players. He had a value they were worth but did not want to overpay. It is a business after all. Then after the dust had settled he decided to make his move. Yes, he may have gotten lucky with some, especially DW and BE with Harbaugh's help. But all GMs need a little luck of some sort. Look at what the eagles did to the cowboys and jets. Like you said in your revisionist article, it is better to get a bunch of good players, than just one great player, who if he goes down all is lost. Whether they will be good, we shouldn't jump the gun either as they will need to gel together. Cause even with all the talent the heat got, they took a while to gel.
    Aug 10, 2011 at 3:14 PM
  • KC
    I just have one question for everyone bashing Jeff. If the Niners win 7 games and lose the division were Trent's moves the right ones? Was Jeff still wrong? The point is, what makes Trent successful at his job? Is it the playoffs? Is it a one-game improvement? The fact of the matter is this...on this roster there are more questions than answers, which is very rarely a GOOD thing, and that's Baalke's job. The only SURE things on this team are Vernon, Justin Smith, Frank, Staley, and PW. I know, I know, we can never be sure...ok fine, guys we KNOW would start on most teams then...the list might include Whitner, Goodwin, Braylon, Crabs, and maybe Rogers. Spencer didn't play very well last year either and neither did Dashon. It's a mistake to say that Nate was THE issue and that we have solved the problems on D. Manny Lawson was the same guy Aldon Smith was in college, that's not to say Aldon won't be more effective but we just don't know. The front office hasn't really earned the benefit of the doubt in the last 5 years and that is the point and why Jeff is more than free to assume otherwise. Blind faith in Baalke or any decision the FRONT OFFICE makes is foolhardy.
    Aug 10, 2011 at 1:05 PM
    Response: Thanks for the support, KC. What makes this really tough for me is that I desperately WANT to trust Baalke; I just can't seem to do it. I mean, he's exceeded my expectations TWICE: he signed Harbaugh, and he salvaged at least the excitement for this season (pending its results) with this free-agent spree. Yet I can't escape the feeling that Harbaugh was just taking a leap of faith and that this spree was just a collection of guys nobody else wanted. Fairly or not, Baalke still has the stain of failures past, and I'm still waiting for the breakthrough moment when he washes it off.
  • Corey Wong
    The only constant going in and out of seasons is Alex Smith. You can surround him with a better cast, and every year we believed we did, but every single year, it changes nothing. As long as Alex Smith is behind the wheel, be prepared for the same old. And with Trent Baalke (brown-noser) and cheapo York Jr (kid with no NFL experience) holding the reins, we ain't going nowhere folks. If we can be .500 this season, I will attribute all that to Jim Harbaugh. Expectantly, I will watch from the sideline with amusement.
    Aug 9, 2011 at 8:30 PM
  • José Lages
    Strange thing you only answer positive backup comments or to defend yourself, explaining your thoughts. That guy is right. This is BIG EGO attitude. Sorry, dude.
    Aug 9, 2011 at 12:24 PM
    Response: It's true I don't answer every comment, Jose--though I appreciate them all, even when they're questioning my intellect--but besides answering positive comments and defending myself against negative ones, what else do you suppose I should do?
  • William Justin Stewart
    I'm happy to see that someone so impatient can show some humility. Football is a process, not a science experiment. People have egos and their families at interest, as well as money and other things of that nature. Trent is merely trying to take everything in accord, including non-football-minded owners, and create a team that should take the weakest division in the league. Cheers to your loyalty to my life-long team, and i hope to meet you when i make my trek from the east coast to candlestick this year.
    Aug 9, 2011 at 11:25 AM
    Response: Sounds good, William.
  • NYerturnerninerfan
    You know you really sound like a complete jackwagon saying that by merely pursuing Nnamdi Baalke did exactly what he said he wasn't going to do. If Baalke did not at least make an offer to Nnamdi, as a fan I would have been pissed. If you have a need for a position and there is a COMPLETE STUD available you at least ask the stud to the prom, you don't just let him go with someone else. As far as your ranking of some of the FA you did seem to leave out a few, I feel like we got a major upgrade at center and with the D-line looking good and the 49ers LBs looking above average the 49ers do not need superstar studs in the secondary, they just need people who can cover and they def. got that. I mean look at it this way, they play in the NFC west, not exactly a QB-heavy division. There is a QB in the works and a guy who never looked great in Philly but we all heard how amazing he was. You cannot truly start judging Baalke for at least a full season, let's see what he is going to do next offseason and in the draft before we string him up.
    Aug 9, 2011 at 10:16 AM
    Response: Again, just to be clear, I'm not criticizing Baalke for pursuing Asomugha or any of the OTHER big names he pursued; all I'm saying is that the pursuit of first-wave free agents is what gave the second-wave flurry its "Plan B" flavor. But that said, my point here is that Plan B was far more successful than I predicted it would be.
  • STL Niner Fan
    Sigh....I'm sorry but these were two of the worst articles/commentaries I have ever read....ever. Please stop already. You're embarrassing yourself and I'm embarrassed for you.
    Aug 9, 2011 at 9:03 AM
  • VA49er
    Talk about revisionist history. The bottom line is you said that Baalke had outright failed in free agency. He addressed all the needs, he didn't make any big splashes. Which the team said all along would be the approach. There is an argument that he upgraded safety, corner, and center, and no doubt he upgraded the receiver spot. You yourself pointed out that he didn't have much dropoff in positions which walked outright and in the case of Lawson and Spikes we are clearly looking within to fill those needs. We also looked within along the line with the exception of the glaring need at center. What is the point of this piece other than to say that you told us so even when you told us nothing. Put down the haterade for a minute.
    Aug 9, 2011 at 8:19 AM
  • TarHeelNiner
    Somewhat disingenuous to criticize the failure to follow the "plan" when you don't know what the plan was. Unless the team communicated the "plan" to you privately, this opinion is based upon their failure to execute an assumed plan. It seems to me that the plan was to upgrade several key positions, keeping the core intact, but not to overspend to do so. Seems completely consistent with that plan to attempt to sign big names when it appears they may be available because they want to stay in the area or some other reason. Baalke, in fact, made a play that we all wanted him to make for Nnamdi but didn't overpay. I, for one, am pleased with what I perceive as the plan and the team's execution. Remember that this is not a team that is one shutdown corner away from the Lombardi trophy. The plan has to account for the future. I am also pleased that the details of the plan are not publicly available to pundits or the public. I have not been this encouraged in at least 17 years.
    Aug 9, 2011 at 5:23 AM
  • mdoran4
    i like that they made a push for a star like Nnamdi because you know he's worth the money that it takes to get him on your team. but remaining patient with guys that aren't worth overpaying for, works with me. seems logical. Time for Harbaugh and his staff to work their magic!
    Aug 8, 2011 at 6:52 PM
  • Scott
    Nice try Kaplan. I'm still trying to figure out who has the bigger egos, receivers or reporters who get caught writing lousy articles? Just like Cohn when he screws up, he tries to spin it to make out like he didn't make an idiot of himself.
    Aug 8, 2011 at 6:08 PM
  • overthemiddle
    FourMo - interesting point about the FAs making other teams spend more than they would have.
    Aug 8, 2011 at 5:57 PM
  • Mike
    Jeff... Go away, already... Nice attempt to redeem yourself. How are we jumping the gun? Nobody expected a super-bowl contender overnight. We may not have made the huge splash, but we have signed 3 former first-round picks who are hungry to 1-year deals. And i love the Whitner signing! In two days we went from a possible 4-win team to right back in the division hunt. Nnamdi wasn't going to fix the defense all by himself. I really can't believe they still let you write your garbage on this website. I have zero respect for your work.
    Aug 8, 2011 at 2:25 PM
  • Brian
    Jeff, Kind of weak that you hold Baalke solely responsible for us not getting Asomugha. When you're arguably the best corner in the league, all 32 teams want you and inevitably someone will lose out. This time it happened to be us. And Houston. And the Jets. The only mishap I see on his part was not moving on Johnathan Joseph sooner especially when it became obvious that Nnamdi was in no rush to make a decision, but he (somewhat) made up for that with Carlos Rogers. Add in the rest of our free agent haul (including the return of Goldson) and even his staunchest critic has to admit, Baalke did a hell of a job in free agency. We addressed our needs with good players, and didn't overpay for anyone in the process. Now, whether these moves pan out and finally get us back to the playoffs remain to be seen, but for the time being I will give credit where it's due. Baalke and the front office did a great job.
    Aug 8, 2011 at 2:17 PM
  • Johnny
    Am I missing something here? Now all of a sudden we all think Baalke is doing ok? Getting guys who never played to their potential like Braylon Edwards has turned this offseason into a success? Not even close. Nothing about this offseason was good except the signing of Harbaugh and we really won't be able to see what he can do as a coach until he has a real roster to work with. This quote says it all: "All these guys were "scraps" for a reason; none of ‘em were the league's most wanted." How is "waiting for the 2nd wave" (aka less talented) a good plan? I'm ashamed of your backpedaling Mr. Kaplan. Football isn't a sport where a bunch of misfits can win...You need some elite players at important positions and we have exactly ONE...#52. We will be lucky to sniff 6-10 this season.
    Aug 8, 2011 at 12:55 PM
    aaaaaaaannnndd now that we got one of the "Big 6" back...the youngest and most talented by the way? And that Trent got most of the guys on 1-year deals to stay flexible for next year and beyond? Think he had a plan? With the amount of FA's available and the limited amount of time to swing deals before game one of the preseason, it looks like Baalke's wait and see approach was the way it should have been played for a team that WAS NEVER going to be just one player away from a ring like the Eagles. Your half-hearted admission that you jumped the gun is laughable, you GOT PUNKED! You took your shot, closed your eyes, swung for the fences and LOST. You saw all the headlines with trades and FA pickups in WEEK 1 and got an itchy trigger finger. It's OK, happens to us all, glad to see that you jumped off and back on the train while it was still in the station. GO 9ERS!!!!
    Aug 8, 2011 at 12:11 PM
  • FourMoBowls
    Another angle with Baalke's public pursuit of the big-name free agents is to drive up the price for the players, with no intention of ever being serious of signing them. Remember, teams do not let players they want make it to free agency. In response to Al's concern about the defensive front three, this year the focus is not about stopping the running game. It's about attacking and disrupting the passing game. So we will see the highly ranked run defense slip a bit this year.
    Aug 8, 2011 at 11:40 AM
  • Dan
    We upgraded our quarterback by getting a man with an offensive plan. The quarterback is upgraded folks, just by getting rid of Mr. I don't think we even need a quarterback except someone has to hand the ball to Frank. The quarterback position is officially upgraded because Baalke got the most quarterback-savvy coach available as soon as last season's fiasco was officially over. You can bash Baalke all you want people but don't forget - he got us Harbaugh. He's literally a rookie at GM so I can maybe understand people being apprehensive, but bashing the guy is unbecoming after he got us all not only exactly what we wanted, but what we needed in a coach. Jeff, you did jump the gun a little there and I'm surprised to see the half-hearted retraction-like follow up. I didn't think it was a part of your personality but I respect the attempt. I don't think you need to backpedal when you screw up as a columnist or blogger because you are not meant to be an authority, just an opinion. You put yourself out there so people can love or hate your opinion. I only hope you stick to your honest opinion, and let others have their honest opposite and brutal opinion when responding to your commentary.
    Aug 8, 2011 at 11:26 AM
  • rob
    Nice try at cleaning it up... just admit it... you were way wrong and it made you look like a dummy!
    Aug 8, 2011 at 10:58 AM
  • Ryan
    Well-written, Jeff. Like you, I also wait on the season to see the full told. I expect us to be competitive and the coaching (note we were NOT being coached before) to push us to respectability. We've been on the brink for a while now.
    Aug 8, 2011 at 10:09 AM
  • Gmoney
    This is great great news. I actually like what the Niners did this offseason even though it took them a while to find their stride. The best part? Baalke stayed true to his long-term plan of not going nuts in free agency and signing our own guys to good contracts. Baas went for big money and we signed a replacement of equal value for less. Franklin left but I think that was planned due to their belief in Soap as a potentially dominant anchor on defense and the emergence of McDonald. With the addition of Rogers and Whitner, and the signing of Goldson, we now have a far better secondary than we did last year. Factor in Aldon coming off the edge and Edwards giving us a legit #1 on offense and all of a sudden this team looks to have better talent than last year AND superior coaching. I look forward to watching them grow together. The lockout is going to make things hard on us, as is the tough schedule, so our final W/L may not show the improvement, but I have a feeling we are going to be watching far crisper, better, and more well thought out football this season. Here's to hoping.
    Aug 8, 2011 at 10:00 AM
  • domingo360
    I don't know how anyone can say that Baalke changed his plan when the only thing that they specified about said plan was that it required patience. The author, in this case, is making excuses for his gross misreading of the intentions of the front office when he declared Baalke a failure in his previous article. Quit trying to be a shock merchant and you won't have to apologize so often.
    Aug 8, 2011 at 9:28 AM
    Response: I'll NEVER apologize for expressing my honest opinion, whether it's right or wrong.
  • Al Wharton
    Don't know what to say, the only area of the team that concerns me is the DL, if Sop don't hold we are in trouble cuz Willis will be blocked all day long. Now the Rook, everyone says he looks good even great so hopefully that will compensate for the loss but i still worry about not addressing the DT in Draft or FAgency. I did the same thing, i jumped the gun like you and many others cuz we were excited about the season. we got players that are trying to prove to themselves and the league that they can play. God help us if we are 0-5, I don't think we have the talent to compete with our division rivals, cuz every team upgraded the qb except us!
    Aug 8, 2011 at 9:08 AM
  • Michael
    Well played, Mr. Kaplan, well played. I would have to say, even for a regular Kaplan-basher like me, you deserve a considerable amount of respect for writing this article.
    Aug 8, 2011 at 8:59 AM
    Response: Thanks, Michael.

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