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Peter Bell's hardball trades can make Fremantle a flag contender

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29th August, 2019
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Today my list analysis and offseason preview series continues with the Fremantle Dockers – a team without a coach, and already facing a high-profile trade request, but one with some serious untapped potential.

Before we get started, a reminder that this is one in a series of what will be many articles with some in-depth analysis into clubs’ list management. Some of it may be confusing if you’re reading this as a one-off.

The mechanisms I’m using to analyse clubs were detailed more clearly in my article on the Gold Coast Suns, and I recommend reading that if you’re confused by anything you find here.

Also, while I’ve got you, did you know that here on The Roar we have two awesome pages related to the offseason: one of them has all the latest AFL Trade Rumours for more than 50 AFL players, and the other is a rolling AFL Phantom Draft which is updated every week. Very cool.

Five-year strategy

The Dockers have recently been one of the league’s more active clubs when it comes to trading. Over the past five years they’ve put roughly a third of their DVI into trades, which is sixth among the league in that period of time.

Of course, this is skewed by a 2014 season where they did no trading at all – instead taking their picks to the draft and acquiring a pretty hand trio of Lachie Weller (now at Gold Coast), Connor Blakely and Ed Langdon with their first three selections.

Over the last four offseasons however they’ve become increasingly active on the trade market, culminating in a big spend last year to land Jesse Hogan and Rory Lobb.

This cost the Dockers 61 per cent of their DVI last year – the biggest investment of any side in trading in terms of total points, and third-biggest in terms of proportion of spend (behind Hawthorn and Essendon).

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‘Bring them home’ has been the catchcry of the last four years. They’ve brought in 11 players from other clubs, all of them originally hailing from Western Australia. Brad Hill, Joel Hamling and Nathan Wilson have been the best of them to date.

Fremantle Dockers Draft-Trade Analysis 2014-18
Source Spend
Year Organic Trade Draft Trade
2014 2033 0 100.0% 0.0%
2015 2254 0 67.0% 33.0%
2016 3173 785 63.4% 36.6%
2017 3831 2612 78.6% 21.4%
2018 2874 2119 39.0% 61.0%
Total 14165 5516 66.4% 33.6%

Drafting

Freo have made a fairly standard investment in the draft over the past five years – a little below average, but not by much, and probably fairly close to on-par for a club that made finals twice (including a minor premiership) in this time period.

The standout here is the 2017 draft where, thanks to gaining pick 2 from Gold Coast for Lachie Weller, the Dockers were able to invest more than 5000 DVI – taking ten players in a year of significant list turnover, with top-five picks Andrew Brayshaw and Adam Cerra the most notable of them.

Broadly speaking Fremantle’s drafting has been pretty much on par with the expected return across the league over this period of time, with – as is typically the case, of course – it probably being a little too soon to judge on the last two years.

Luke Ryan at pick 66 in the 2016 draft has been comfortably their best value-for-money selection over the past five years while Blakely and Langdon from 2014 have both performed above their draft position so far.

Connor Blakely Fremantle Dockers AFL 2017

(Photo by Daniel Carson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

Neither of Fremantle’s first two picks at last year’s draft, Sam Sturt and Luke Valente, debuted for the club this year. They’ll be looking for them to make an impact in 2020.

Fremantle Dockers Draft Analysis 2014-18
Year Drafted Spent Games Votes
2014 7 2033 232 58
2015 8 1510 115 4
2016 8 2508 178 46
2017 10 5063 158 15
2018 8 1949 42 0

Trading

The numbers here show a clear increase in trading activity from Fremantle over time – making no trades at all over the 2014 offseason, to dipping their toes in the water the next year, becoming more gradually active before making a splash as probably the busiest club of the 2018 trade period.

What is particularly interesting about the Dockers’ decision to go in this direction is that it has come at a time where they’ve been towards the lower end of the ladder, rather than pushing for premiership contention. Typically, you’d expect a team on the decline to invest more heavily in the draft, rather than pivot towards trades.

So far, that trading strategy hasn’t managed to lift them out of the bottom section of the ladder. That doesn’t necesarilly mean they’ve been doing poorly, however – for the most part, their trading has performed at about the level of production you would expect.

Harley Bennell in 2015 has obviously turned out to be something of a bust, but Brad Hill in particular from the 2016 trade period has been a remarkably good performer, and Nathan Wilson from 2017 has provided really solid service for the club.

Their 2018 trade period however so far bucks the trend. The Dockers spent more than the equivalent of pick 1 on getting Jesse Hogan, Rory Lobb and to a lesser degree Reece Conca and Travis Colyer to the club, but they haven’t provided the quality impact their significant investment would suggest they should.

Jesse Hogan

(Photo by Daniel Carson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

The expected return on investment for a spend of that size would be 83 AFL games and 43 AFLCA votes, but the Dockers have gotten a return of 59 games and 10 votes from that quartet in 2019.

One year in is too soon to make a judgment on these moves, but it would be fair to say that they haven’t entirely gone to plan so far.

Fremantle Dockers Trade Analysis 2014-18
Year Gained Lost Spent Games Votes
2014 0 0 0 0 0
2015 1 0 744 2 0
2016 4 2 1450 193 107
2017 2 3 1380 77 33
2018 4 2 3044 59 10
Total 11 7 6618 331 150

List profile

Regularly bringing in players in the prime age group through trades over the past four years has probably prevented Fremantle from dropping to a point of total bottom-out – instead, they’ve managed to build up a solid group of talent in that area while still making a reasonable investment in the draft.

This year their prime age players returned above the expected number of AFLCA votes – helped along by the awesome deeds of Nat Fyfe, no doubt – while their youth were a little under the league average, but not by so much as to be a point of concern.

Nat Fyfe

(Photo by Daniel Carson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

There’s not much in the way of veteran talent on the list. They have only four players 28 or older and two of these, Aaron Sandilands and Hayden Ballantyne, have already walked off into the sunset, the latter riding on the shoulders of the former.

David Mundy played every game for the Dockers this year while Sandilands, Ballantyne and Hill barely managed to get on the park.

At first glance Fremantle’s list doesn’t look to be in too bad of a position – however, Fyfe and Michael Walters will both enter the veteran category next year, while Brad Hill and Ed Langdon are both expected to leave the club, robbing the 23-27 group of much of its best talent.

Fremantle Dockers list profile
Age Players Games % of total Votes % of total
18-22 24 194 41.99% 35 12.11%
23-27 18 235 50.87% 221 76.47%
28+ 4 33 7.14% 33 11.42%
Total 46 462 100.00% 289 100.00%

Under or over?

Fremantle would be in consideration for being one of the more unpredictable teams in the league this year. They were the more experienced side than their opponents eight times, but actually had a better winning percentage when they went in as underdogs than when they should’ve been favourites.

The Dockers fielded a team that was on average the 14th least experienced, and the 12th oldest. They managed to win around 45 per cent of the time when younger or less experienced than their opponents, which is above the league average of about 38.

There’s no denying injuries had an impact on Fremantle’s competitiveness at times this season. They finished 12th in the league for EUR, able to use 64.5 per cent of their list experience on a week-to-week basis – below the competition average, but not by a wide margin.

That said, Dockers fans – and their former coach – might well argue that the specific nature of the injuries the team copped, robbing them of most of their key tall players, had a greater cumulative effect on the club’s performances than the raw numbers would suggest.

Verdict: About even. Fremantle finished roughly on the ladder where their age and experience suggest they probably should’ve. Fans would’ve been frustrated by their inability to knock over teams they were expected to beat despite regularly showing up opponents they weren’t favoured against.

Ross Lyon

(Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Contract watch

Out of contract
Scott Jones, Ed Langdon, Lloyd Meek, Ryan Nyhuis, Darcy Tucker, Tobe Watson.

Pre-agents
David Mundy.

Langdon is one from this list that we already know is likely to leave the club this offseason, with all reports being that he will go to Melbourne.

Somewhat surprising to see on the list is Darcy Tucker, who has quietly had an improved season in 2019, his fourth year in the AFL, spending more time in the midfield and averaging career-best numbers.

Although Tucker is from Victoria originally there hasn’t been any indication he might look to return home. Instead, you’d expect both parties will agree to a deal sooner rather than later.

Free agency

The Dockers successfully re-signed Stephen Hill to a two-year deal earlier this week despite interest from Gold Coast, leaving Dillon O’Reilly and Ryan Nyhuis as the only free agents left on their list, neither being of any real consequence.

Fremantle’s wishlist of potential free agents probably became extinct on Tuesday night when it was announced that Stephen Coniglio had committed to a seven-year contract to remain with the GWS Giants.

The Dockers had put forward a bit of interest in the WA native earlier in the year though never seemed to be seriously in the race, with it always appearing more likely Coniglio would join a Victorian club if he did decide to leave GWS.

None of the other notable free agents still on the table at this point hail from the west – which of course hardly makes Fremantle ineligible to recruit them, but does probably make it more work to chase them, and there aren’t really any that are screaming out for the Dockers to give them a spirited pursuit.

Trade period

The trade period, rather than free agency, is where we should expect to see Fremantle be far more active. Let’s start with the players leaving the club.

Brad Hill is the big name who has made headlines this week by requesting a trade back to Victoria. While this is something that’s been coming down the pipeline for a while now, it’s fair to say it came as a bit of a curveball when the news first broke simply because Hill only three years ago returned ‘home’ by asking for a trade to the Dockers.

Brad Hill

(Photo by Daniel Carson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

Hill won Fremantle’s best-and-fairest in 2017, his first year at the club, and was in brilliant touch this year. If the All Australian team picked actual wingers to play on the wing, he probably would’ve been one of them.

The Dockers would have been overjoyed to get him for a song when they did – trading a pick gained in compensation for the free agency departure of Chris Mayne to land him – and then see him flourish at his new home, and play career-best football. They would’ve figured that, being a local boy, he was a safe bet to finish his career in purple.

So, understandably, they’re a bit peeved by this turn of events. Hill is still contracted for another two years to come at Fremantle, and football boss Peter Bell responded to Hill’s trade request by saying “as a club when we consider the matter we will act in the best interests of our stakeholders”; which is footy lingo for “we’re going to play hardball with this one.”

And Peter Bell hardball is not your grandma’s hardball. He was famously hard to deal with in last year’s trade period – holding out till Brisbane paid a big price for Lachie Neale, and issuing a mid-trade-period statement saying Fremantle wouldn’t purse Jesse Hogan (only to then pursue Jesse Hogan). The kind of bloke to ruin family Christmas every year over a game of Monopoly.

All the talk is that Hill is most likely to wind up at St Kilda, who have the salary cap space to accommodate a big recruit and the trade currency to get a deal done.

The Saints have pick 5 and I would imagine Bell will insist that selection is part of the deal. It’s also been suggested that WA-born midfielder Blake Acres might make his way to Fremantle as part of the trade – he’s worth rolling the dice on, but by no means a significant piece, so I wouldn’t be giving too much back the other way to get him through the door.

The other player likely on the way out of Fremantle is Ed Langdon. It seems a fait accompli that he will look for a trade to the Melbourne Demons, which if anything makes it kind of surprising that the Dockers have publicly confirmed Hill’s trade request but haven’t uttered a peep about Langdon.

Unlike Hill, Langdon is out of contract, meaning the Dockers will have to get a deal done if indeed he does seek to move to a new home. If his preferred destination is Melbourne, as seems all but certain, I’d expect it’ll be fairly easy to agree on a straight swap for pick 20.

This would give Fremantle a seriously sexy arsenal of draft picks inside the top 30 this year: 5, 6, 20, and 24. But don’t expect them to take those to the draft – Bell is a man on a mission, and I expect he will be hell-bent on looking to replace mature talent going out with mature talent coming in.

The top priority by a wide margin in this case will be Tim Kelly, and after his search for a trade to West Coast last year narrowly fell through, it might just be the perfect storm for Fremantle to step in this offseason and snatch one of the biggest fish in the pond out from under the nose of their crosstown rivals.

Tim Kelly

(Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)

By all reports Kelly will again seek a trade home at the end of this season and, now being out of contract, Geelong have their hands tied – they’ll have to make a deal with someone. Kelly reportedly would still prefer West Coast, but is now open to joining the Dockers if the Eagles and Cats can’t strike up a deal.

West Coast will likely have nothing better than a pick somewhere in the mid-teens to offer from this year’s draft which is not likely to engender much enthusiasm from the Cats, but Stephen Wells’ mouth will water looking at the draft hand Fremantle are likely to possess.

Expect the Cats to give Kelly a strong push in the Fremantle direction. What it will come down to is time – how long before Kelly gives up on becoming an Eagle and agrees to a Docker deal? And can West Coast create something to get a trade over the line before that clock runs out?

This is one that I expect to be probably the biggest story to follow in the trade period. West Coast will probably look to make an offer along the lines of their 2019 and ’20 first-round picks for Kelly and perhaps a second-rounder coming back the other way, which is about the going rate for a player of his quality.

Whether the Cats are willing to accept that, knowing both picks will likely be in the teens, or whether they push Fremantle to make them a deal which trumps it, is hard to predict. Whichever way it goes, expect it to be dramatic.

Fremantle’s trade aspirations won’t end there. They will have other players in mind that could either be a nice complement to recruiting Kelly, or be their backup plan in the event that West Coast land him.

Mason Wood is one we already know they’re interested in. Personally, I’m not convinced he’s a great fit for them – with a forward line already trying to manage the combination of Hogan, Lobb, McCarthy and Matt Taberner, he doesn’t really seem to fill a genuine list need.

I would instead be looking to keep going down the path of bringing them home, and hopefully having more success with that strategy than England did in last year’s FIFA World Cup. Even putting aside Kelly for a moment, there are some quality WA-born players on the market this year.

Shai Bolton and Callum Ah Chee are two who immediately jump out to me as good targets for Fremantle, and ones who wouldn’t cost much either. They’re both out of contract, and they’re both players with the right kind of traits to make good replacements for the impending departures of Hill and Langdon from the list.

Another WA boy who has been thrown up in trade talk lately is Nick Robertson. While it’s reportedly GWS where he’s drawing interest from, Fremantle could do worse than to get in touch with his management. He’s got good defensive ethic and a real competitive mean streak – could be handy in a tagging role.

Jack Martin is another WA original out of contract and likely on the move this year as well, but by all reports is likely to move to Victoria – probably Carlton – rather than come home. And that’s not necessarily a poor result for Freo, he could be more costly than he’s worth.

The last player who jumps out at me as someone who Fremantle should seriously consider pursuing would be Sam Powell-Pepper at Port Adelaide. Another WA boy, there seems to be just a very low hum of rumour around the industry that he would be gettable for the right price.

Sam Powell-Pepper

(Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Assuming the Dockers bring in pick 20 for Ed Langdon, I don’t think it would take a whole lot more than that to get Powell-Pepper home, and that could be a major coup when you consider just how impressive he was in his first year in the competition.

Certainly, his 2019 season left a little to be desired, and it seems Port feel there’s a need to rebalance their midfield – for mine, it feels like the perfect window of opportunity to cheaply acquire a player whose performances to date stack up against the best 21-year-olds in the competition.

Draft

Picks inside 30: 6, 24.

The upside to Brad Hill leaving Fremantle is that the Dockers could easily have enough currency to bring Tim Kelly and others to the club while still retaining some really early picks in the draft. If they don’t land Kelly, they may go to the draft with two top-ten selections.

Personally, I look at Fremantle’s list and I don’t really see too many major holes – they’ve got talent in most areas of the ground, although they’re going to lose at least a little bit of it through trades this offseason. Still, they’ve got license to pick the players they like the best rather than target specific positions.

Exactly what kind of player they prefer will probably depend a bit on what types they do or don’t bring in through the trade period, but speedy halfback Lachie Ash and tall midfielder-forward Brodie Kemp are two I’d expect them to seriously consider with a top-ten pick.

If they want to go a local boy then Larke Medallist Deven Robertson would be in the mix. He’s a prolific inside midfielder who captained WA to the under-18 title, but isn’t a great kick, and personally, I’d be surprised to see him go in the top ten.

Luke Jackson as a ruckman is one they might consider depending on how they feel about Sean Darcy’s longterm prospects – I’d imagine they’re pretty happy with Darcy, so Jackson is unlikely. Dylan Stephens and Sam Flanders are other names that would be in the mix at that early pick.

Here’s where things get really exciting though – the Dockers have an NGA pick, Liam Henry, who is likely to be a first-round selection this year.

If Fremantle wind up retaining a pick around the 5-7 mark, they’re set for a major win, as this is the perfect sweet spot to take a selection before a bid is likely to come for Henry. Then, they can match the Henry bid with later picks, and effectively get two players in the first round for the price of one.

Henry’s an exciting small forward with some real spark. Matching a bid for him will likely mean Fremantle don’t have a second-round pick in this year’s draft, but if they did, local boys Trent Rivers and Elijah Taylor would be in the mix.

Liam Henry

(Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

What I said last year

“I want to see improvement on the field in 2019. Can Ross deliver that? While the last two years have shaken our faith in him at times, it’s still worth giving him an opportunity.

“If you look at the average age and experience of the team he was able to field this year then there’s an argument to be made that he actually punched above his weight in the coach’s box.

“The search for a key forward must continue and there’s a number of avenues the Dockers can go down to pursue this.

“Ideally they should look to draft one this year but also be heavily pursuing either Jesse Hogan or Rory Lobb…

“They didn’t have the season I thought they could in 2018, but the list still seems to be in healthy shape. I don’t see any reason they couldn’t have that breakout season in 2019 instead.”

Outlook

Fremantle had a genuine crack at the flag under Ross Lyon in the period 2012-15, coming within tasting distance but not quite getting there, and have been in decline missing the finals four years in a row in the time since.

The normal course of action for most clubs, under those circumstances, would be to go into to rebuild mode, hit the draft, and look to build a young core for the next premiership assault.

Fremantle have gone in a different direction. Over the last four years they’ve carried out a calculated plan to recruit back home the best WA natives on the market each year, and doing that has allowed them to rebuild a solidly good prime-age group on their list while still making a reasonable if not spectacular investment in the draft.

Unfortunately, hopes that this would see them bounce back into premiership contention have been hindered by losing Lachie Neale to the Brisbane Lions last year, and likely seeing Brad Hill and Ed Langdon follow him out the door this offseason.

While their performance in season 2019 was probably about par in this context, the club expected better of themselves and clearly felt the need for a circuit breaker, ultimately opting to part ways with Ross Lyon a year before the end of his contract.

That puts them again at a crossroads. If they wanted to hit the showers and go to the draft, they’ll likely have a brilliant hand with which to do so, potentially holding two picks in the top ten and two more in the top thirty.

Expect them, however, to do anything but. At the press conference where Lyon’s sacking was announced, Fremantle made it clear they felt four years out of finals was too long, and anything other than a swift rise up the ladder in 2020 would be unacceptable.

Players like Nat Fyfe don’t come around often enough for a club to let them spend their careers outside the top eight, but that’s exactly what has happened at Fremantle for the last four years, and the primary goal of their list strategy will be, understandably, to capitalise on his presence.

Nat Fyfe

(Photo by Daniel Carson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

If the Dockers are going to achieve this despite more mature talent going out the door this year, then there is only one realistic strategy to pursue – bring mature talent back in. And they are in a very good position to do exactly that.

Of 13 WA-born players to return home in the last four offseasons, Fremantle have landed all but two of them – Lewis Jetta and Brendon Ah Chee. Everyone else has picked purple over blue and gold, though to be fair Rory Lobb appears to be the only name West Coast have tried to seriously contest with them.

They are one of the few clubs in the league to whom I would give carte blanche to make trading a regular part of their list strategy, simply because by virtue of being one of only two clubs in WA, there is always going to be players of reasonable quality on the market they’ll be in the mix for.

This offseason they have the fight of their lives on their hands as both they and West Coast will be in hot pursuit of Tim Kelly. While he’d probably prefer the Eagles all things being even, Fremantle are 25 years hungry and have the better currency to get a deal done. This is an opportunity they simply cannot let slip by.

Land Kelly, and a lot of other things could fall into place. With the draft currency they will have on hand, there is every chance he could be joined at the club by Sam Powell-Pepper, Shai Bolton and/or Callum Ah Chee, maybe Nick Robertson or Blake Acres, Liam Henry, and someone like Lachie Ash or Brodie Kemp with a top-ten pick at the draft.

Whack those names into a list that sports top-tier tall talent at both ends and Nat Fyfe in the middle – along with the emerging talents of Connor Blakely, Andrew Brayshaw and Adam Cerra – and the new senior coach will be licking their lips when they walk through the door.

That’s a best-case scenario, but it’s a pretty realistic one. There’s clearly some uncertainty and instability at the club right now, but this offseason has the potential to be the one where they establish their next premiership push.

Thanks to Stats Insider, the AFL Coaches Association, and Draftguru for providing data and tools to make the analysis in this article possible.