The most overused cliche of the baseball offseason, outside of that one Rogers Hornsby quote, is the beginning of former commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti’s essay “Green Fields of the Mind” about the end of the 1977 Red Sox season. You know the quote already even if you don’t know exactly where it came from: “It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart…” But the part of Giamatti’s essay that has spoken to me has never been the famous beginning, it’s the bittersweet end, reminding us that there can be infinitely more baseball days to come:
Of course, there are those who learn after the first few times. They grow out of sports. And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.
The 2018 Baseball Prospectus Annual arrived at my local bookstore yesterday. I’d been watching the website inventory like a hawk for a week. I don’t remember precisely how many BP annuals in a row I’ve read, but it’s over twenty. One of my last positive memories about someone long since gone from this world is discussing Bernie Williams’ comment in the 1998 Annual, which crapped on Bernie’s defense (this was a couple years away from becoming accepted) and bashed Sammy Sosa as overpaid (yes, we’ve been doing this that long as a community). Talking about baseball was and is one of the best ways I connect to my friends, my family, my loved ones, the important people in my life.
The Annual always comes out right around when pitchers and catchers report. It is scheduled it to be within a few days, but it sometimes pops up a week or two early. For years, it’s had all the new players with their major trades and record free agent contracts in their new places, with projections in their new ballparks and commentary on the moves. It includes some of the best writing about baseball in any given year, writing that inspires, writing that makes us laugh, writing that makes us cry. For my entire adult life and even beyond, the BP Annual showing up has been a marker of the hot stove, with all its dreams of new aces and sluggers, turning to the baseball spring, with all its dreams of pennants and rings. Despite my involvement now as an author, its arrival is still a watershed moment of the new baseball season. Except this year. This year, J.D. Martinez and Yu Darvish and Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer are all stuck in time, listed with past teams they’ll likely never again play with, their full stories not written in the preseason bible.
We’re not talking about dreams and pennants and rings today. Our second, third, fourth, sixth, seventh, and eighth best free agents on the BP Top 50 have yet to sign. The first—Shohei Ohtani—was forced to sign months ago as part of a ridiculous legal fiction that he was an “international amateur” being posted by his NPB team, and the fifth—Lorenzo Cain—signed two weeks ago for a below-expectations contract. Half of the our top 20 free agents, and nearly half of our top 50 free agents, are still available just a few days before pitchers and catchers report. Average-to-great players of essentially every position and player type are available.
Let’s look at the NL East, for a not-at-all random sample division. The Miami Marlins have done one of the all-time absurd aggressive teardowns, a sell-off that has people legitimately comparing them to the Cleveland Spiders, an out-and-out syndicate team. Not only will the Marlins intentionally be among the worst teams in baseball, but they’re going to be so bad as to cause every other team in the division to pick up an extra few wins in the unbalanced schedule, boosting wild card possibilities across the East. In the early runs of PECOTA, we currently project the Nationals as the class of the division…but only as an 89-win team, seven games ahead of the Mets. Seven games is far from insurmountable, between variance and future acquisitions, and the Nationals are bumping into the back of a contention cycle that has never advanced them past the LDS. Yet they claim to be content with A.J. Cole as their fifth starter.
The Braves project as the fourth-best team in the division, at 76 wins with a great young talent base. Despite alleged plans to build for 2017 as their first year of the new contention cycle, and with very obvious holes to fill, they’ve made little in the way of consequential moves over the last two offseasons. The projected third-place Phillies have made a few adds, beefing up the batting order with Carlos Santana (though at the cost of displacing young superstar Rhys Hoskins) and filling out a fine bullpen. But their true short-to-medium term needs lie in a thin rotation, and they’ve shown little interest in making easy huge upgrades there.
Those two teams are realistically continuing their cheap “rebuilding” projects of recent years, except neither is likely to be bad enough to reap great 2019 IFA and draft rewards out of 2018. The most active team in the division has been the austerity-driven, payroll-cutting Mets, who have driven their projection up to 82 wins by leveraging the dead market into a bunch of medium-sized upgrades, and are a pitcher or two from backing into a great offseason despite themselves.
The NL Central is another fun one. The Cubs are in a similar spot to the Nationals, and their biggest move since signing Tyler Chatwood involved one of their owners becoming RNC finance chair. While they’ve sat on the sidelines, the Brewers are suddenly within punching distance with key adds despite PECOTA’s skepticism of their 2017 gains, and the Cardinals got gifted a top player in the Miami fiasco. If the Brewers can just add one or two of the top remaining pitchers, they’d be very close to the Cubs [ed. Note: not according to PECOTA], who were supposed to be virtually unbeatable through the end of the decade because of their great young talent. Meanwhile, the Pirates, who didn’t start the offseason far off from contention, have joined the Reds in the ranks of the rebuilders making no real considerable effort to win.
We’ve been downplaying this for some reason, talking about how weak the market is, but it is not at all an overstatement to say that any team in baseball could still assemble what would on paper probably be the best rotation in baseball, in the second week of February, just by signing the top five freely available starting pitchers. It’s not like the positional or relief talent isn’t close, either. We have spent so much time talking about the virtue of process and rebuilding through the farm that we’ve ignored that one of the best teams in baseball as we enter spring training is the one sitting unsigned on the free agent wire. At the same time the great free agent squeeze is happening, every team in baseball is receiving a $50 million balloon payment, franchise values have skyrocketed to insane levels, and before the market collapsed this offseason, players already were receiving the smallest percentage of league revenue in recent memory. Meanwhile, with something around a dozen teams engaged in various levels of rebuild or tank, there’s almost more competition for 2019’s first overall pick than 2018’s pennants. How did it ever come to this?
That’s a larger question for a different time, and probably a different author. What concerns me now is that feels terrible to be a baseball fan, in February, less than four months out from one of the great postseasons of all-time. I host a weekly baseball podcast and we have next-to-nothing to talk about, an unclear picture to preview. There is no joy in Mudville today.
We’re all fracturing a little more than normal. One group of fans has been sold for decades on the virtue of good process, of “winning” trades by $/WAR even if they make your team worse, of being bad to stockpile draft picks, of leaving players in the minors at the cost of your MLB team to get as much of their prime as cheaply as possible, and then restarting the cycle when your talent pipeline runs dry. Another group has been sold that baseball teams are public trusts that should always make a conscious effort to win. (Baseball Prospectus has, at times, advocated both positions.) Until recent years, “rebuilding” teams had usually been small in number and sometimes still made moves towards competition, but we’ve entered an era where nearly half the league is fairly aggressively trying to bottom out.
At the same time, the luxury tax and the attempt by many teams to reset their future penalty percentages in 2018 has caused many of the contenders—including the Dodgers and Yankees—that had, sometimes, been more on the “public trust” side to substantially limit themselves in the offseason market. Both of those teams have already made aggressive salary dump trades just to be in the market at all, pulling back on years of trying to be the best at all costs. They were, of course, profitable enterprises even doing that, and winning ones, too, but they can be even more profitable if their luxury tax burdens over the remainder of the CBA are reduced by tens or hundreds of millions.
Baseball needs to fix itself. This isn’t good for our game. It might be good for the pockets of ownership groups, and we might be confusing that for the good of the game. The CBA might be locked in through the 2021 season, but that doesn’t mean there is peace. Where this goes is a demonstrably worse product on the field, with major-league quality players being replaced by cheap Quad-A filler. It leads to worse competition, to lousier pennant races. It leads to stars being congregated on a small number of teams. It ultimately leads to labor strife that threatens a season four years down the road. And it’s not fun.
We need baseball to be the game that lasts forever. Baseball needs to be that hope of illusion. Baseball needs to be a green field, in the sun.