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.
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.
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