Eskimos sign Chris Rwabukamba: can Canadian cornerbacks be a CFL Moneyball technique?

Michael Lewis' famed Moneyball is, at its core, a book about exploiting market inefficiencies, an approach that has since spread throughout sports. Similar concepts apply to the CFL, and up here, one of the prime market inefficiencies may come from the league's roster rules. Teams must dress at least 20 non-import (essentially, Canadian) players and must start at least seven of them, so there's a constant search to find top Canadian talent, but that search has often largely been concentrated for traditionally-Canadian positions such as receiver, offensive lineman, defensive tackle or safety. Because Canadian players at those positions are in such demand, it can be tough to find and keep top talent there, so there are some advantages for unconventional clubs willing to think outside the positional box. We've seen this recently with the rise of Canadian running backs like Jon Cornish and Andrew Harris, and the Edmonton Eskimos' decision Sunday to sign Hamilton defensive back Chris Rwabukamba as a free agent may suggest that Canadian cornerbacks might be the next market inefficiency, a position where teams can find quality non-import talent at a low cost.

Executives everywhere are always trying to acquire undervalued players, and since the 2003 publication of Moneyball, the idea's become much more widespread that you can acquire production in unconventional ways. In the case of the 2002 Oakland A's team explored in Lewis' book, general manager Billy Beane didn't replace departed star Jason Giambi with any one great all-around player, but rather with several unusual guys like Scott Hatteberg who were capable at one particular thing. That gave them plenty of production, but it also brought substantial financial savings. While that's important in baseball for a small-market team like the A's, it's even more important in a league like the CFL that has a strict (and quite low) salary cap. Spending money efficiently isn't just about whether your team makes a profit; it also determines how effective a roster you can field.

In the CFL, top Canadian offensive linemen and receivers can command substantial dollars on the free-agent market, as every team's always looking to grab more non-imports at those positions: Andy Fantuz and Brendon LaBatte provide excellent cases in point. They're great players, but acquiring them on the open market comes with a hefty price tag. For players like Rwabukamba, though, the market isn't as wide-open: most teams already have decided on using imports at those positions, so a quality player may only have one or two suitors. That tends to reduce the price. The specific details of Rwabukamba's contract haven't come out yet, but it would seem highly likely that Eskimos' general manager Ed Hervey has acquired a Canadian starter for far less than teams paid for Fantuz and LaBatte last season. That seems like an impressive move.

Of course, that's not a pure equivalence. Fantuz and LaBatte were both league all-stars with their previous teams, while Rwabukamba only took over as a starter partway through last season. He impressed down the stretch, though, starting at cornerback in the Ticats' final nine games (as per these depth charts) and turning in a pretty solid performance. Moreover, he's only 26, so there should be plenty of good years ahead for him. What's potentially the most interesting about the Rwabukamba signing is the ratio flexibility it could provide the Eskimos; if they can get a capable Canadian starting at cornerback, that frees up a spot elsewhere for an import to start. If the Rwabukamba signing works out in Edmonton, it's one that may soon be duplicated around the league. There are some talented Canadian defensive backs out there every year, but most are either used as special-teamers only or converted to safeties rather than given a shot to play cornerback or halfback.

It's worth pointing out just how rare starting a Canadian at corner is. If you examine each team's depth chart in their final 2012 game (regular-season or playoffs, depending on the team), seven of the eight teams went with two import cornerbacks as their starters. The only exception was Hamilton with Rwabukamba, but they still started import Marcell Young across from him. (The Tiger-Cats have tried non-imports at corner before, and fellow non-import Ryan Hinds held the spot for the early part of the year, but he was listed behind Rwabukamba and Young by the end of the season.) Thus, Rwabukamba is the only Canadian who was starting at his position by the end of the season. In a purely market-driven system, that low supply would seem to drive up demand, but the curious thing in the CFL is that most teams only make a play for a non-import at a position if they're confident they can secure a capable backup as well, so that means that there tends to be less competition for Canadians at unconventional positions. They still count the same towards the number of non-import starters, though, so if a Canadian corner can man the position capably, that's a market inefficiency just looking to be exploited.

A key note is that market inefficiencies don't tend to last, though. One of the legacies of Moneyball was the attention it brought to on-base percentage, previously considered much less significant than batting average by most MLB teams. Almost every team hassince learned from that, though, and it's no longer as easy to find cheap low average, high-OBP players. Similarly, if Rwabukamba can continue to prove that non-imports can play corner, that may convince many more teams to take a shot on Canadian players at that position, and that may lead to bidding wars. (Of course, if the supply of top Canadian corners rises as well, the price may not skyrocket, but the examples of receivers and offensive linemen suggest that at least the top Canadians at the position will start bringing in big deals if more teams start considering Canadian corners.) The Eskimos seem to have gotten out in front of the trend here, though, and that could potentially be huge for them. If Rwabukamba doesn't work out as a starting corner, fine; it's a gamble that didn't pay off, and they can return to using import corners and non-imports elsewhere like most of the rest of the league. If Rwabukamba proves a capable starter for them, though, they may have exploited a crucial inefficiency and locked up a starting non-import without paying a massive price.

What to Read Next