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December 17, 2012
There is No Unicorn
It's been a frustrating offseason thus far. There haven't been any moves that have been so outrageously silly that I’ve felt the need to skewer the offending team. For the most part, the moves that I've seen this winter have been of the "I get it" variety.
(Okay, there was signing Jonathan Broxton to a three-year/$21 million deal.)
What fascinates me is that when teams make the big (or little) move, it's rare to find any fans of the team who are happy and content about the move. What's even more interesting is that for the trades that have gone down, it seems that both sides are sad about their team's relative position afterward. Had the four-way deal that was supposed to happen at the Winter Meetings happened, most baseball fans would be an inconsolable mess at this point.
Take the recent swap between the Rays and Royals. Four Royal Babies were traded to the Rays for James Shields and Wade Davis. Shields is not an ace and hasn't performed well away from the Trop. Davis might not be a starter. The prospects are all promise and... well, America has a 50 percent divorce rate, so it's not like promises can be trusted. It was the wrong time for the Royals to make a present-for-future trade because their window isn't really open yet. It was the wrong time for the Rays to make a future-for-present trade because their window isn't really closed yet. In other words, everyone involved in the deal should be fired.
To look at the Royals’ side from a little more neutral perspective, there's at least a defensible logic. The Royals get Shields, who eats innings, and the Royals were a team that had particular problems getting six innings from their starters on a regular basis last season. This means that they more often had to stretch out bullpen arms and make call-ups of their young pitchers just to have someone on staff who could give them "length" in the bullpen. On a team trying to grow young talent, it's hard to set up a developmental plan when you're scrambling to fill today's needs. Shields doesn't solve all of their problems, and yes, the Royals may rue the day that they traded Wil Myers and friends. But maybe the Royals simply made a calculation that they can either have Myers or they can have Shields and the ancillary benefits that he brings and decided that Shields was more valuable. It's not perfect, but it's the better of the two options. Maybe their thinking is off. Maybe something blows up in their face. Maybe they get insanely lucky and win the AL Central. There's risk, there's reward. I get it.
There are four words that you should repeat to yourself over and over again when your team (or any team) makes a move this off-season. There is no unicorn. Makes a nice hashtag: #ThereIsNoUnicorn. For some reason, people seem to believe that they are entitled to be fans of a team that makes trades and signings which are completely devoid of risk. Seeing as trades are not made retroactively, this is difficult, because the future is always risky. You're chasing something that doesn't exist, despite what North Korean state media says.
There is risk in everything. The trick is taking sensible risks, and even those sometimes fail. There are, after all, 29 teams that will not win the World Series next year. The one that does will have taken some risks that will have paid off. Murphy's Law states that this will not be the team for which you cheer. It also states that at least 10 teams will copy the same strategy. Post hoc ergo propter hoc what?
It's amusing to read 13-year-old posters on message boards who beg their team to trade three marginal prospects for Mike Trout (I mean... the Angels need starters... and we have a 27-year-old guy in single-A who's a starter and I've heard his name before so he must be good... Plus the Angels just signed Josh Hamilton, why do they need Trout?). The Angels would totally do that. And fans of the team who just caught Trout would point out that he has nowhere to go but down after his monster 2012 season, and that the 27-year old might just be the next... ummm... who was the last 27-year-old pitcher who went from single-A to the Hall of Fame?
There is no way to make a baseball fan happy. There is no unicorn, and even if there were, the fan would try pulling on its horn just to see whether it was real. Since we can't make you happy, and since we at Baseball Prospectus pride ourselves on customer service, I present to you a list of ways to be unhappy about what your team has done this offseason. Consult it when that next big move happens.
If your team has signed a free agent, remember that the free agent is probably "old" in baseball terms. He's likely on the wrong side of 30 and "past his prime" or "in decline." Ignore the fact that "past his prime" and "useless" are not the same thing. The fact that he will not repeat his glory years means that the world is about to end. On Friday.
If your team has signed a free agent to a long-term deal, simply repeat over and over that even if he fills a pressing current need, the deal will be hard to swallow when the player is 38. Ignore the fact that escalating salaries and increasing revenues will make his 2017 salary look a little better by then and that he gives your team a good chance this year. Just pretend that everything will be the same in 2017 as it is now. And cry because if it does hamstring the team's budget (it might), you have been robbed of your right to cheer for a team that constantly has maximum payroll flexibility three years from now, by virtue of the fact that there's no one on the roster worth keeping that long. That's what the Third Amendment is about.
If your team has signed a free agent with an injury history, he will be hurt on Opening Day trying to catch a popup. Because that's what happened to Mo Vaughn.
If your team just missed on signing that free agent, your owner is incredibly cheap and your GM has no idea what he's doing. He is unable to see that the free agent would have taken less money to come to your city because his brother's wife's cousin's dog is from a town 150 miles away. And your team has prospects. And your fair city has museums and restaurants. No other city has these things.
If your team just lost a free agent who is very good at baseball, this is the worst day in your franchise's history. He is a traitor because... why... doesn't... he... love... me? (Note: I owe this one to my wife. We were living in Cleveland when Lebron left. In five words, she nailed the entirety of the three days that followed.) I'd recommend some emu music. Not emo. Listen to the sounds that emus make.
If your team just lost a free agent who was not very good at baseball, despair over the fact that the change of scenery/new role might do him some good. If you just signed this guy, despair over the fact that a leopard can't change his spots and even in a new role or with a different perspective on coaching, this guy will continue to stink.
If your team just signed a decent reliever, you can always point out that your team needs a proven closer™, and so despite the fact that they also need three or four decent bullpen arms in general, since this one is not a proven closer™, your team is doomed. What's worse is that the third baseman you just signed can't close either.
If your team just lost someone in the Rule 5 Draft, he will become the next Roberto Clemente. Note: Rule 5 picks all have a major flaw in their game. That's why they were left unprotected. Some of them do fix up the flaw, and it works out great. But no one ever rolls out the list of Rule 5 picks that didn't work out. It's a much longer list. Just ignore it.
If your team just traded a prospect, you just gave up Jeff Bagwell for Doyle Alexander. It's entirely irrelevant that it was John Smoltz for Alexander and Bagwell for Larry Andersen. This is not the time to be rational.
If your team just acquired a prospect, he could get hurt. Or stall. Or not be the 20 WARP player that all industry sources expect him to be... or at least my Cousin Frank said that. He could join Oxfam. He could get hurt. (Um, all baseball players can get hurt.)
If your team has done nothing, you could totally do a better job. You'd do something. And there would be 29 GMs lined up at your door to help you do something.