April 11, 2002
The Daily Prospectus
The Daily Prospectus: The Future
There's a new meta-argument I've been seeing a lot in my e-mail lately: if all franchises were run by Billy Beane, or those of his ilk, wouldn't market inequities resurface and make success solely about revenue? The case is made with a resigned air, almost to suggest that maybe it's best if we give up pushing the idea that smart, low-revenue franchises can hold their cards close and still compete with mega-funded teams like the Dodgers. If you look at what the future of enlightened baseball might hold, though, you'll see it's a pretty cool place.
Today, there are organizations that are run incompetently from top to bottom, and others that do okay while openly scoffing at using performance analysis as an evaluation tool. Even if MLB decided tomorrow to clean up its own act--forcing franchise sales, allowing some franchise relocation, helping teams with terrible leases finance or renegotiate, and so on--and we further assume that all teams would be stocked with EnlightenedGM™ clones and front-office staff, it would take five years to turn these organizations into productive, well-oiled machines on the rise. In reality, it's going to take much, much longer, and until those franchises get smarter, they're going to operate at a severe disadvantage in all facets of competition.
A couple of assumptions first: Bud Selig and the owners don't destroy MLB, and the draft and related rules don't change significantly.
So it's 2020, and every major-league team is well-run. First, the widespread recognition of success cycles means that in every division, the teams at the bottom are rebuilding, giving playing time to their youngsters and sorting through prospects to see who's going to be a part of their next pennant-winning team. Teams in the middle are either on their way up or on their way down from contention.
Of course, it's not going to be that predictable; teams (like the White Sox in 2000) can find themselves contending ahead of schedule, while teams filled with stopgaps (like the Cubs of 2001) may perform unexpectedly well. Teams in contention may be wracked by injuries and decline. Rebuilding teams may not see improvement as quickly as planned.
All of these things present interesting and challenging dilemmas for front-office staff: when do you go for it, and when do you cut down? If you're a couple years away from rebuilding but your division is weak, do you bulk up on expensive free agents for a run while the opportunity is there, or do you build a stronger, homegrown team that may face similarly-built teams within the division?
A better understanding of player value and how to construct effective rosters will make every team more potent, and better player development will raise the level of major-league talent across the board. Players on waivers will be of much higher quality, and down-roster gaps more easily filled.
Teams with greater raw resources will indeed have an advantage, primarily in acquiring players through free agency. Of course, free agents are almost always in the decline phase of their careers. If the Yankees need to sign an outfielder, for instance, they can certainly sign the best-available free agent. The better understanding of player value will make this a more expensive proposition than ever, because every team will understand that the greatest players are not only much more productive, but also much more rare. When teams aren't paying Roberto Hernandez $6.5 million, that will be $6.5 million more they can apply to trying to sign Alex Rodriguez or Mike Mussina. Increased competition means better talent evaluation is more important, but it also raises the cost of free-agent mistakes, and makes it harder for the Yankees, for instance, to buy their way out of errors.
That will mitigate the advantage of revenue-rich teams, but we should concede that in this world, teams with revenue advantages will be able to spend longer at the good end of the success cycle and be able to rebuild quicker. I don't think that's necessarily bad: teams can and should be encouraged to develop revenue. If lower-revenue teams are able to go through the same process--building, competing, and then repeating--there's satisfaction in that. Knowing your team is bad but getting better, that your front office has a plan and that the players you're seeing today are the future of the team certainly engenders more goodwill than being a Brewers fan now, knowing your team sucks, your front office sucks, and they're going to suck until further notice (and thanks for paying for Miller Park, ha, ha, ha).
That's only the start of it, though: smart front offices are going to continue to look for advantages. As the A's today look to maximize every edge, to find value where others remain ignorant (such as the availability of free talent), there will be 30 teams doing the same thing. Expect crazy innovations we've only touched on here--four-man rotations with scheduled relief availability, bullpen arrangements that totally discard current thought on closers and set-up men, two-way players used to free roster spots (now pitching mop-up...college ace John Olerud!). The Rockies, in particular, are going to be driven to find ways to drive regularly scheduled pitcher deliveries on and off their 25-man, maybe new defensive schemes, groundball/flyball splits used for matchups instead of righty/lefty. A league filled with smart teams willing to use their down cycles to take risks will dramatically change the game.
We see this today. The teams that are innovating and willing to try applying theory to the field aren't the revenue-rich teams, which now and will always tend towards conservatism, but the groups on the margins. For a while, it'll likely be a rocky road taken only by the brave, because real innovation is going to be viciously attacked by the press, which is far more conservative than anyone in the game, but the successes will be copied quickly as they're proven, because smart front offices are going to listen to good ideas, and not pay attention to well-written arguments about the superiority of, say, the rally-sustaining bunt single to the home run.
That's where the fun's going to come: 30 smart GMs, looking for new advantages, sources of talent, and player-development strategies, while they watch each other, adopting best practices and snaring each other's roster sacrifices off the waiver wire. The quality of the game will improve, it's going to be great to watch, and everyone will be able to compete, if not on the same cycle lengths. I'm looking forward to it.