Last month, the Padres made headlines with their Rule 5 draft maneuvers. They landed three players who will have to stick on their 25-man roster in order to be kept and none of the three have played above the lowest level of full-season ball
Miguel Diaz is an ambitious choice, a starting prospect who will probably spend the season in long relief in San Diego, but players like him have been chosen before. The Cubs tried this with Lendy Castillo several years ago and the Brewers did it with Wei-Chung Wang. Luis Torrens only spent half the season in the South Atlantic League last year, but there have been other catchers whom teams plucked out of deep obscurity and stashed on the bench (like Adrian Nieto of the White Sox and Oscar Hernandez of the Diamondbacks). Allen Cordoba, however, is a shortstop prospect from the Cardinals system and a player whose highest level of stateside professional competition to date was the Appalachian League.
The rebuilding Friars are virtually forfeiting a roster spot, in addition to the two into which they’ll put extraordinarily untested players, in an effort to bulk up their farm system and exploit what they hope is a market inefficiency. Of course, it probably won’t work. The reason why the Cordoba gambit is so close to unprecedented is that, in general, stunts like these have not paid off. Grabbing players who are obviously not ready for the big leagues and forcing them to hang onto the edges of a roster, missing out on reps they could be getting in the minors and on the often superior growth-centered coaching attention they could get in that setting, is usually bad for development.
Yet, it’s not all that hard to see why the Padres think it’s the right time to try this. You just need the right historical lens through which to view the decisions. Over the last several months, I’ve read a handful of books that, taken together, have deepened and reshaped my understanding of baseball history. One in particular, A People’s History of Baseball by Mitchell Nathanson, made me aware of a dynamic I’m ashamed not to have understood better prior to now. It’s a theory of the way baseball’s business structure affected the game on the field throughout the middle chunk of the 20th century.
Back then the game revolved around the Yankees, Giants, and Dodgers. Beginning in the 1920s, those teams had not only the obvious advantage of playing in America’s largest and most baseball-mad city, but also a disproportionate percentage of the game’s great players (who, back then, were more nationally beloved and drove fan interest in the game more than the best players in today’s MLB do). The New York teams nearly always led their leagues in home attendance, but just as importantly, the rest of the league relied on them as attendance drivers even in their own home parks.
In today’s game, teams operate on a model that centers on the season ticket base, ensuring relatively little game-to-game fluctuation in attendance. In the old days, teams routinely saw crowds of just a few thousand people for drab day games against the Browns or the Braves, but could fill their 45,000 seats and have people lining the back walls when Joe DiMaggio’s Yankees or Jackie Robinson’s Dodgers came to town.
At that time, teams were owned not by corporations or Wall Street tycoons, but by nouveau riche businessmen who valued membership in the fraternity of baseball owners more than the greater profits available to them in any number of alternative business ventures. Around the time of World War II, and until the eve of expansion, most teams had total annual revenues on par with those of a typical department store. These were medium-sized businesses running small profits, and occasionally losing money outright.
Poor and small-market teams thus became pretty unwilling to take big risks. Even then, with the reserve clause in full effect and salaries as tightly controlled by teams as the players themselves, it was more expensive to field a good team than to field a mediocre one. Demand for tickets was, if anything, more elastic then than it is now, with the primary determinant being competitiveness.
Thus, owners had to choose between trying to field the best possible team (but, if they failed, being stuck with a sure net loss for the year) and simply coasting along, spending as little as possible and allowing the New York and Boston clubs to dominate and staying in the black (albeit, to a significant extent, on the backs of those competitors). Most chose the latter.
That’s why the bonus rules the owners implemented around the middle of the century were viable. Under those rules (there were a couple of iterations of them, but the general idea was the same), any player who signed as an amateur for more than a given figure would be forced to spend time on the big-league roster before beginning any seasoning in the minor leagues. It was meant to deter big spending on amateur players, and it mostly succeeded because signing players out of high schools, colleges, or backwater independent leagues and not being able to farm them out spelled disaster for most teams.
Some of the greatest players of the era between the Korean and Vietnam Wars, including Roberto Clemente, Sandy Koufax, and Brooks Robinson, were bonus babies. Clemente couldn’t carve out a space on the Dodgers’ loaded roster, which is how he became available in the Rule 5 draft, where the Pirates plucked him. Koufax was ineffective and rarely used for the first few years of his career, not because he was some kind of Randy Johnson-esque late-blooming lefty but because he should still have been honing his craft in the minors. Robinson wasn’t a good player until his fourth full season in Baltimore; lord knows how his career might have unfolded if he weren’t spending all of that developmental time on a team so familiar with the AL cellar.
For the most part, the bonus rule was exactly as deleterious to player development as you might expect it to be, so the only reason it flew was that the teams who availed themselves of it didn’t mind losing. Carrying bonus babies was inefficient, from an on-field perspective, but it was cheap, too. Sometimes it took creativity to make the gambit work, but if doing so kept a perennial loser viable ownership usually considered it worth going the extra mile.
The Pirates had a pair of twin brothers in the 1950s named Johnny and Eddie O’Brien. They signed as bonus babies themselves, before spending a year fighting in Korea. When they came back, in the mid-1950s, they joined some miserable Pirates teams and filled roles rarely reprised by any player since: utility infielder/pitcher. In 1956 and 1957, they combined for 215 plate appearances and 73 innings pitched. The rules compelled the Pirates to carry Clemente during both of those seasons and even the year before, during which time the eventual Hall of Fame-caliber outfielder batted .275/.302/.390. Holes needed to be filled and there weren’t many roster spots to spend in the filling. The O’Briens thus found a unique niche.
Christian Bethancourt doesn’t have a twin brother, but he’s the Padres’ answer to the O’Briens. He’s preparing to spend the upcoming season in a hybrid role that will include work as a backup catcher, as a relief pitcher, and perhaps even as an occasional outfielder. That’s one way the team might try to slog through the season without using Torrens, Diaz, or Cordoba more than sparingly. Another way: they’re embracing the broader concept of those ancient Pirates teams and so many like them.
The 2016 Padres barely spent more than $50 million on payroll. The 2017 team will probably spend more, but only by a hair. They non-tendered Tyson Ross. They traded Derek Norris, shedding his salary (probably just north of $3 million) and making room for both Austin Hedges and Torrens on the roster. It's clear that the plan is to spend so little that a profit is inevitable.
Back in the 1950s, of course, doing this conferred no real advantage. It was just a way to keep making money. In today’s game, with the MLBPA monitoring cases of obvious cash hoarding and with TV ratings a vital part of a team’s long-term revenue prospects (not to mention the fact that the game is now big business, and that owners expect to not merely clear the break-even line, but make real money), the old way of doing things is no long-term solution. Rather, it could be a short-term strategy designed to keep ownership fat and happy, while also giving the Padres a leg up on other contending teams.
The Padres are going to lose an enormous number of games in 2017. They’re the odds-on favorite to pick first in the 2018 draft. If they end up doing that while also adding a couple of solid prospects through their willingness to play a man short, and if they can come out the other side of this season without the owners breathing down their necks to field a more profitable, competitive team right away, general manager A.J. Preller and company will be able to edge out in front of teams otherwise on a similar timetable to theirs like the Twins, Rays, A’s, Reds, and Brewers.
There’s nothing appealing about this. It’s another stark reminder that, as the union has weakened and the owners (ever since the death of George Steinbrenner) have increasingly chosen rule sets that encourage parity and profitability over those that encourage real competition, new opportunities to profit from tanking crop up every day. The Padres will make more from television rights (between their local contract and their share of the league’s national contracts) than they will pay to players in 2017, so they don’t need to sell a single ticket.
Nor do they particularly profit from trying to do so, since they no longer even need the huge reservoirs of cash they used to nab several high-profile international free agents last year. With the harder caps on spending in that arena, and an excellent chance of having the most money to spend on players in next summer’s draft, they can serve their fans hardly at all, still turn a profit, and put themselves in the best possible position to battle the Dodgers and Giants for NL West supremacy five or six years from now. That this is a brilliant way of doing business from the team’s perspective is sad and it’s wrong. Still, it is a brilliant way of doing business.
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