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Image credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

A couple days prior to the trade deadline, amidst a sea of tranquility posing as the lead up to the trade deadline, Bob Nightengale took to Twitter. Nightengale, who was probably wearing his pants backwards at the time, tweeted that MLB GMs were coming around on the idea that the unified trade deadline should be moved back from July 31 to August 15, so they could better assess their positions in the standings and whether they should buy or sell. To which I said:

This might strike some as reductive and churlish. And it might be that, but it isn’t really wrong, either. Jeff Quinton wrote a great piece yesterday, discussing the environmental factors that enable front offices to avoid risk without upsetting the apple cart within their own fanbases. I don’t believe that it goes far enough, however. His article gives us the proper framework through which to understand why these behaviors have been allowed to seep into front offices throughout the league. Understanding the reasons behind these actions are different from excusing them, though, and GMs should not be let off the hook for their non-competitive approach to the trade deadline (much less the offseason).

***

It’s fair to say that fans as a group have rarely, if ever, been pro-player. It is also fair to say that in the time during and following the Moneyball revolution, the pendulum swung from fans who cared intensely about winning in the moment (and thus might be intolerant of a rebuilding approach) to fans who supported building a team that could compete throughout multiple seasons, viewing the playoffs as a crapshoot, with the thought that getting multiple bites at the apple was a better approach than taking a bigger bite in any one season.

There’s nothing wrong with that approach, and I still find merit in that argument. However, it seems that the pendulum has swung too far in that direction. Teams are overvaluing some of the individual factors that make themselves long-term contenders rather than attempting to seize a championship when given the opportunity. It’s a difficult needle to thread, as Matt Trueblood, Zach Crizer, and I discussed in regards to the Diamondbacks and their tenuous position in the playoff chase on July 30.

And surely, they (and those in similar positions) would have liked another two weeks to clarify where they stand so as to better marshal their resources. We’ve all asked for a few more minutes when staring at a menu. But all of these GMs and front office personnel are where they are to make difficult decisions. They have proprietary data and internal analysts dedicated to understanding their position relative to the rest of the league, and how any move in the here and now impacts their long-term vision. To complain (if that report is accurate) that over half the season is not enough to properly assess their season is bullshit of the highest order. Move the deadline, and you’d simply have  increasingly discounted trade offers because teams would be acquiring even less control of anyone they’re acquiring, rental or not.

Major-league front offices are behaving like the managers they lampooned two decades ago. They’re effectively sacrificing a runner to second in the ninth inning — not because it’s the correct move, but rather because it is safe. It used to be that the phrase “moral hazard” was used to describe general managers who made ill-fated, short-sighted decisions aimed at locking in wins and securing their jobs at the expense of their team’s future. Now, general managers are guilty of committing moral hazards in the opposite direction, playing it utterly safe and terrified of becoming scapegoats.

In lieu of bold action, they opt to pussyfoot around a current window of contention, choosing instead to play the long game and stack up years of control like they’re blocks in a game of Jenga. GMs pass on signing quality players in free agency because the back-end of the deal might look bad, and because they might be able to squeeze out 70 percent of the production from a player who costs a tenth as much. That’s a safer investment, too, because it’s also hard to prove a negative — it’s impossible to prove that Manny Machado would make the Mets a playoff team in 2019-2020, but it’s easy to say that the back half of Robinson Cano’s contract sucks. Owners, who rule over GM’s jobs, are also humans with human brain processes that will always make the so-called albatross contract uglier than the road not taken.

These days, GMs are remembered for the bad deals they make and the surplus value they generate, not the acquisition of expensive, necessary talents that meet their market worth (or fall slightly short while still providing significant on-field value). And front offices know that one or two expensive misfires can cost them their jobs, no matter how many good deals they make.

No front office exemplifies this ethos more than the Toronto Blue Jays. General Manager Ross Atkins had this to say following the Blue Jays underwhelming trade deadline:

This is by no means the first time that an executive will cite years of control to justify their actions, which is often just another way of saying “don’t look at what we got, look at how much we got of it.” Atkins touts quantity to elide the discussion of quality — either, that of the players acquired, or those given up. Remember: the other teams presumably value years of control, too.

Atkins also had some thoughts to offer regarding free agents back in early 2018:

This ignores, of course, whether the player can create enough value in the front end of a contract to justify the longer term of a deal, and the decline that often occurs in the back end. It also ignores whether the player can fill a need the team requires and put them in a position to compete for and win a championship. But as teams seemingly avoid contention at all, where they might end up having to consider and later justify some of these tough decisions, we still see risk-averse approaches.

Anthony Fenech’s article on two trades that recently extended GM Al Avila didn’t make get at this issue rather well:

Passing on those deals was defensible: Both players had yet to break out and trading [Michael] Fulmer — a pitcher who appeared to be a future ace, no matter his injury concerns — would have taken serious gumption, opening Avila up to strong criticism.

Avoiding strong criticism is something each of us can understand as a motivation, but the avoidance of criticism only matters if that criticism is valid. In Fulmer’s case, shoving his injury concerns aside affects not only the years that the team controls him (he is currently missing a full season due to Tommy John surgery) but also the quality of those seasons, as his knee and elbow injuries combined to dampen his effectiveness even when healthy enough to pitch. But it was easy to present the then-current image of Fulmer as a top of the rotation pitcher who the team had under its domain for the next five seasons as something to build around. The status quo isn’t nearly as often second-guessed as a decision that disrupts it.

***

With the possible exception of the Astros’ Jeff Luhnow, MLB GMs are risk-averse to a fault. They are ivy-educated and consulting firm-approved, and yet they can’t seem to avoid leaving wins on the table in their all-consuming lust for a non-existent $/WAR championship. They are supposed to zig when everyone else zags, and not merely pay lip service to the idea of zigging through a calculated PR plan built on convincing the fan base their approach is novel when it actually apes most of their competitors. Instead they’ve become far more concerned with making safe, accepted-by-the-new-common-wisdom decisions, such that our prior understanding of what a moral hazard is has become inverted.

I can’t blame them entirely, and not only because of the reasons that Quinton illuminated in his article, but also because of the damage wrought by the introduction of the second wild card (WC2) spot. MLB’s desire to have more teams in playoff contention has sparked anti-competitive behavior. Teams know now that they do not need to swing big as they assemble their roster because there is a good chance that a mediocre team can either catch fire and capture a division, or muddle along until they back into the WC2.

Simultaneously, the one-game playoff has neutered the WC1, putting an entire season on the flip of a coin like some sort of baseball-obsessed Anton Chigurh. While the one-game playoff makes sense as a way to increase the value of winning a division, it also means that if a front office doesn’t like its chances of overcoming a behemoth like the Dodgers or Astros in the offseason, they have few incentives to chase glory. Similarly, the relative inaction in the NL Central at the trade deadline — despite a wide open division — can be explained by the idea that any high-variance investment could still result in only a wild card (or worse) result, given the mere two months left in the season to make an impact.

***

As stated at the top, we should not confuse reasons for excuses. The implementation of the second wild card is just one of many environmental factors that influence how each front office operates. I am convinced that it is one of the larger factors, but I am also convinced that organizations need to shed the yoke of “efficiency at all costs” so that they can instead pursue competition, as the spirit of the game intends. Until they do, we’re all deadline losers.

Thank you for reading

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Shaun P.
8/06
Here, here!
ChicagoOriole
8/06
What do you mean that avoiding criticism isn't important if the criticism isn't valid? If fans stay away from the ballpark that's important even if they are drunk, ignorant slobs as long as they are ticket-buying drunk, ignorant slobs. While winning is the most important ingredient for fan interest, hope is often a necessary substitute. If sending Fulmer away is stealing fan hope that's probably a bad thing for the club. I think a bigger reason to make some trades that don't meet the green eyeshade test is because they do inject hope. If you do that often enough your fans will maintain interest. Also, I think fans align with management because to a certain extent fans feel an ownership of their team, and so management, not players, are a better proxy for that feeling.
brewerstt
8/06
I think what he is saying is that the level of fan satisfaction, with either results or hope, is disconnected from the incentives that drive the organizations. The incremental value of one fan in one seat is so low that disheartening him or her is irrelevant.
brewerstt
8/06
If the fans have no leverage, and the objectives of the organizations are being met, I wonder what might ever change the realities you have illuminated so well here.
Patrick
8/06
In my opinion, actually having to pay players what they are worth earlier in their career would also help somewhat disincentivise prospect hoarding. The financial structure of the sport is great for current owners, but as a fan, I'm very concerned about the long-term outlook.
deadheadbrewer
8/06
Good article, and I'll play Devil's Advocate on two points. One--that the majority of fans are looking for the long window of contention. Most Twins fans I know have no idea who Royce Lewis is, but they sure know the value of watching a first-place team in the August sun. I believe that most fans would still rather see a great season every third go-round, rather than three years of mediocrity. And I have recently come to view the Astros' front office as cut from the same cloth as the now-timid front offices; that report that they wouldn't even consider trading Tucker for Syndergaard made me scratch my head. The only reason you don't give up a young OF to have a playoff rotation of Verlander/Cole/Thor is because you're afraid of losing the magical Years of Control. The Astros won't deal any top prospects, and it hasn't haunted them yet because other front offices eventually come around to accepting much less than they should get from the Astros.
Craig Goldstein
8/06
That's a fair point re: the Astros (and why I said "perhaps") but they're also a team that has repeatedly made win-now moves in recent years. Greinke is still relevant, as they took on long-term money and traded prospects, Verlander, obviously, but even signings like Brantley, Reddick, etc. I don't mean this to say you're wrong -- I think that's a really valid point, but just some things that convinced me to type what I did.
Tom Shipley
8/06
You can make the case that the Cubs have made more "win now" moves that the Astros. I mean, they traded Gleybor Torres (who'd yet to play a single MLB game) for half a year of Chapman. Then Jiminez and Cease the next season. Plus, giant contracts for Lester, Heyward and Darvish.
Craig Goldstein
8/06
That's fair, I'd have little issue including them, though I think some of those moves extend beyond the window of time that I'm talking about -- where the market has treated acquiring players differently (Lester/Heyward, particularly). But I think those are absolutely fair points to make in that regard.
Tom Shipley
8/06
Yeah, I don't know, I'm not sure the Toronto GM isn't doing this the right way, especially given he's competing in a division with Boston and the Yankees. It seems you're taking his quote and solely focusing on the quote and not the broader strategy of building a contender around young, controllable assets (which Toronto has plenty of) then making a splash in free agency once the iron is hot (basically the Houston/Cubs model). Given how hard it'll be to unseat both Boston and New York, that doesn't seem like such a bad strategy.
Craig Goldstein
8/06
I think I am in fact addressing the broader strategy. My point is that basically everyone in the league is parroting that strategy and you can't have double-digit teams doing it that way all at once without cannibalizing the strategy to some degree. You cheapen the value of the strategy because the things you seek ("assets" as you called them) become more expensive across the league. It's harder to create the required depth to withstand prospect attrition when everyone is pursuing those same young, controllable resources. Also, everyone is seemingly locking up their young players to long-term deals, so the idea that you're going to create a splash in free agency (assuming the exact right FA comes along right when you're contending) needs some reconsideration, imo, especially in light of Atkins saying that he won't pay for the decline phase of free agent contracts.
Tom Shipley
8/06
so I guess my point is that, sure, maybe that's not the best strategy anymore because of all the reasons you state, but I'm not sure Nightengale's deadline deals were about risk aversion rather than following that strategy. I'm guess in a year or two, they'll be more willing to take risks by trading some of their young controllable assets (as I call them) for high-wattage players and offer longer term contracts to in-prime players. So, I guess my real point is, yes, teams are less likely to take "risks" but it's less because they are inherently risk averse, but because they are following the template House and Chicago set, meaning teams build toward a period when they are willing to take risks, meaning there are less teams taking risks year over year. Anyway, maybe the Mets will win the World Series this year and start and new trend.
Craig Goldstein
8/06
My argument is that the model that Houston and Chicago set is no longer the primary goal as demonstrated by the free agent market the last couple offseasons and nigh-on every team's adherence to the luxury tax (even the behemoths).
Tom Shipley
8/06
gotcha
brewerstt
8/06
Addressing the last point only, about the assumption that right free agents will be available at the right time: very interesting and makes sense. On the other hand, it seems more likely than ever that offering a real prospect will gain the short-term value player of your choosing.
Craig Goldstein
8/06
Fair point, but also the best prospect traded at the deadline was Taylor Trammell (our 30th ranked at midseason). It doesn't seem as if teams are interested in offering "a real prospect" by and large. (I love Trammell and Chisholm and others, but I think you understand my point).
brewerstt
8/06
Yes indeed. It would have to be a team that somehow convinced itself to be contrarian to the trends you have outlined.
Mark Mason
8/06
Bravo! Except that BP has been beating the drum for that kind of approach for 20 years so it is mildly disingenuous to critique its widespread adoption.
Craig Goldstein
8/06
I don't think it is disingenuous, but I agree there is a level of hypocrisy to it. I also think I've been fairly good about acknowledging that we've undergone (or are undergoing) something of a tonal shift in regards to some of our prior arguments and the damage to the game/labor that they imbued. It's not worth standing by our priors out of a sense of avoiding hypocrisy if we no longer believe in them. Alternatively I'd bet a fair number of the authors of the last 20 years might disagree with me. Each iteration of BP unto itself, to some degree.
Cliff Mayo
8/06
If only the MLBPA would take them to task... I'm coming around recently to the idea that dropping back to 154 games and making the Wild Card Games into 3-game Wild Card Series would be better for everybody. The risk aversion taking over from actions meant to be competitive is corrosive to the game. Also, shoutout to Mike Rizzo and the Nationals, who haven't seemed all that risk averse lately. Falsely constrained by the de facto salary cap yes, but risk averse no.
ofmontreal
8/06
Nice work Craig. I've been pondering this for a couple of years now and as I see it, it's kind of case by case. Agreed that teams understand that the approved PR sell is the rebuild model popularized by the Dayton Moore Royals (pre Houston & Cubs). But I also wonder if we are just describing a culture change that has taken place. Ross Atkins is just a perfect poster child for the conversation. But his role in the deadline moves is important because he's the real reason the Astros don't have to trade Tucker. The Astros are going to bet they can fix an underperforming arm that the Blue Jays can provide, while the Mets are going to play hard ball. On the other hand, Toronto does seem to be without a real discernible strategy except 'we got young position players!' The past answer (as we know it) for them would obviously be to overpay for free agent pitching to bridge the gap and pretend to be competitive. But teams aren't doing that at previous rates, which brings in the current 'problems' in free agency. Any frustration that fans feel about Kimbrel et al I put in the hands of their agents. So that means what? We need more gamblers? Revenue streams are now super locked in. Until we get an actual floor on the salary cap, teams aren't gonna throw money at players. Personally I dig what the Reds are doing - they just traded Scooter Gennet! They are taking some crazy risks and I feel that they are incrementally making the team better. Anyway, I love that you got this conversation going because it's super nuanced and difficult to hold all the pieces in your head so the more discussion the better.
Craig Goldstein
8/06
These are some really great points. And I agree (and said on Twitter what I didn't in the article that the Mets/Reds are recent exceptions to this too) with what you're saying regarding the Reds. It's really interesting to see them put so much value into pitching, and combine it with their investment in a pitching coach who seems to have really made some progress with their arms. I don't think the Kimbrel issue is purely an agent problem, but that is certainly part of it, too. I think that we need some teams to be more willing to accept additional risk because the risks are becoming less and less expensive based on the actions of the rest of the market (and I also think we need to change the reward in the value proposition as it pertains to both the draft and the playoffs to be geared more around competition). Thank you again for the comment and your thoughts - it's a very involved discussion and it's going to be a messy one, but one I think the community should be having.
ofmontreal
8/06
Thanks. I don't do twitter and it's moments like this I have some regrets. I'd love to see a series of articles about the landscape so we could fond some agreeable boundaries for the conversation.