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Image credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

If the 2019 playoffs have been defined by anything, it has been dominating pitching performances, perhaps aided by a rocket-less ball. Gleyber Torres, however, has used the postseason to define himself as a superstar, shining brightest when it matters most. While pitchers have commanded center stage, the spotlight pulls us toward Torres—wherever he is. Flashy defensive plays have become de riguer for the 22-year-old Venezuelan, and he’s mashed his way to a 1.440 OPS, a hundred points higher than any player that made it to the LCS.

It’s difficult to say where the Yankees would be without Torres, one of the few members of the team who didn’t succumb to an IL stint throughout the year (though did sit a few games with some nagging injuries). That it is borderline impossible to imagine the Yankees being where they are now, with the season they’ve had, without Torres’ contributions have led many to revisit how he arrived on the team.

When this acquisition is revisited though, it’s often used as a way to score points; to smarmily point at the status quo at the expense of context. In doing so, it flattens the discussion and elides necessary nuance by capitalizing on our willingness to decontextualize the past, discard our priors, and recast those actions under the conditions of today’s landscape.

It does this in two significant areas: 1) The cultural and behavioral shift among teams to fully embrace the competitive balance tax at the expense of a more competitive ball club, and an ever-growing emphasis on cost-controlled, 0-3 players, and 2) how teams in the league comport themselves around the issue of domestic violence and the players who enact it.

***

It’s been three-plus years since the Cubs traded Gleyber Torres, Rashad Crawford, Adam Warren, and Billy McKinney to the Yankees for Aroldis Chapman. The Cubs won the World Series that year, and Chapman played his part.

People will look back on his stats and tell you that another reliever could have done what he did, that the Cubs didn’t have to trade Torres to achieve that same goal. That might be true, it might not be. We don’t really have the means to undo history like that, and when we try to, we tend to skew the way it might have played out towards our preconceived notions. It’s easy to freeze one image in the mind to symbolize a passage of time, and some might choose a weary Chapman, digging deep for breath, staring down Rajai Davis.

Chapman is back in pinstripes, as though he never left, and Torres is now a significant part of a young and exciting Yankees core. He’s been everything the Cubs would have told you they thought he could be since they brought him on as an international free agent and gave him a $1.7 million signing bonus in July of 2013.

The reason this is relevant here, now, in 2019, is not just that Torres has blossomed into a four-win player, with another potential gear in store. But also because it is impossible for people to make peace with a notion that Dodgers’ President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman recently spoke to, saying:

“If you expect to win a deal from a value standpoint in July, you’re not going to make deals. We made plenty of offers that were definitely underwater from a value standpoint but felt good about making because of the team that we have.”

People who care about the pursuit of championships almost universally agree with the concept Friedman describes. If the point is to win, it’s okay to leak some value in a deal that gets you where you need to go. But that sentiment fades the further you get from having accomplished that goal. In the aftermath of breaking a 108-year streak of not winning a championship, Cubs fans might have acknowledged the enormity of Torres’ promise, but found it a worthwhile exchange for the unburdening of their sports souls.

Many would do the same in 2019, but there’s a natural pull to feel a little more sorrow. After all, it’s easier to regret paying a hefty price for a good meal once your appetite is sated, as compared to when you’re hungry. And fans are always, above all else, hungry.

Michael Lewis’ book The Undoing Project is about famed psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The titular chapter discusses “‘counterfactual emotions,’ or the feelings that spurred people’s minds to spin alternative realities in order to avoid the pain of the emotion. Regret was the most obvious counterfactual emotion, but frustration and envy shared regret’s essential trait.”[1]

Kahneman continued to plumb the depths of the human psyche, looking to create ground rules around not only what generates counterfactual emotions, but also how those emotions play out within our minds. Lewis writes:

Imagination wasn’t a flight with limitless destinations. It was a tool for making sense of a world of infinite possibilities by reducing them. The imagination obeyed rules: the rules of undoing. One rule was that the more items there were to undo in order to create some alternative reality, the less likely the mind was to undo them…Another, related, rule was that “an event becomes gradually less changeable as it recedes into the past.”[2]

In this light, it’s easy to see why this deal is so often revisited by fans of both teams alike. Chapman’s performance as a Cub wasn’t so distinguishing that it becomes difficult to mentally undo his contributions while still holding the championship as something that was likely to be attained. Likewise, Torres has been good enough to cause regret, beget frustration, and inspire envy, as he steals the limelight on a team studded with superstars.

Further, the World Series win was not so long that it is unchangeable. Its trophies have not yet developed their patinas. No, it remains in a mentally malleable overlap between history and present, and is likely to remain so until Torres reaches free agency, a time when the Cubs would have had to compete with others on the open market for his services anyway.

Whether you choose to believe the Cubs would have won the 2016 title without Chapman, and then choose to believe that the Cubs might have won one of the following World Series because they had Torres on their roster instead is not something that can be debated. Understandable as the notions are, they are active choices based on premises that do not and cannot exist.

But that the argument continues to pop up in the form of some weird scoreboarding mechanism is frustrating given the complex aspects that the trade and ensuing history embody. Some of this is just one set of fans setting out to antagonize another. So it goes. That they choose to provoke the fans that saw their dreams realized via the same trade is an odd decision in this author’s eyes, but this author has never been particularly interested in smack talk.

That the last time a team paid a hefty price at the trade deadline to achieve greatness and succeeded is held up as a point against the current team goes a long way towards explaining why teams are now so comfortable in remaining quiet at the deadline. What should be held up as an exemplar in how a competitive team behaves at a deadline, of fortune favoring the bold, is instead presented as a “gotcha” moment.

To be clear, fanbase reactions and sentiments in this regard only go so far. The reactions of a team’s consumer base has become increasingly disconnected with the rise of guaranteed, multi-million and -billion dollar television deals. But they do remain a part of the risk calculus that every front office is taking into account when deciding how to operate. That we’ve already seen a shift (from outside the relevant fanbase, admittedly) from “well worth it” to a laugh line helps inform baseball clubs motivations. It tells them that aggressively pursuing talent in the short term is not something that will drive lasting respect for the front office and their decisions, and makes it easier to play it safe.

***

That Chapman was acquired by the Yankees “on the cheap” under the cloud of a domestic violence suspension, and then spun for a pretty penny, is also something that gets touted either directly or implicitly in these discussions, and is quite ugly to consider. Especially when taking into account that Chapman was acquired with the potential for his suspension to grant the Yankees another year of control, by affecting his service time.

It’s also surprisingly easy to not consider, especially as time passes; with each year, the numbers on the baseball card stand still while memory obscures more of the stories surrounding them. That this is now used as a way to make Yankees fans feel bad about having Gleyber Torres is also an ignorant and unpleasant way to go about taking the full context of the situation into account.

Major League Baseball still hasn’t figured out how to grapple with the complex ramifications of domestic abuse incidents. There are a lot of important things to consider, including the endangerment of the people we seek to protect when we lodge calls for stiffer punishments. A focus on safety, rehabilitation, and education while maintaining respect for due process is paramount.

The path from here to there is a complicated one, and is unlikely to be mapped expeditiously. In the meantime, we are left to our own devices in terms of reconciling the cognitive dissonance of the apparent need to not only employ those who perpetrate abuse, but reap their on-field rewards, while also being told that it isn’t today that matters but tomorrow, and tomorrow after that. There is no such thing as purely ethical fandom; rooting for baseball teams means rooting for billionaires, crooks, and cheats. There’s no ethical anything, for people who live in the real world. We muddle and compromise and do our best. To consider our own positions as other than that is hypocrisy.

That we’re forced to suffer the balancing of “bad person, good player” is an injustice in the first place. To have to do so when many teams won’t even bother adding the finishing pieces onto what could be championship rosters is insulting. To witness a fan use their favorite team’s prior arbitraging of this balance as a means to laugh at others is ugly. And to see those being laughed at ignore their team’s part in making that arbitrage happen just to point out the “bad person” part of things as a means to even the score is depressing and exhausting.

To see all the complexities described above—which admittedly elide plenty more—reduced down to boasting and puffery is bullshit, and it needs to stop. Fandom demands a lot from us, but the least of it is good faith.


[1] Lewis, Michael. The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds (p. 302). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

[2] Ibid, (p. 303)

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newsense
10/16
Torres was a very promising prospect but so was Addison Russell. They were rather similar - topline middle infielders with pop. It would have been ironic if the Cubs had traded Russell for Chapman instead of Torres and the Yankees ended up with something of a dud with domestic violence issues. Or Russell could have met his promise and Torres could have turned out to be like Russell has been.
Dan
10/16
I agree that the July 2016 Cubs-Yankees trade (Chapman for Torres + others) can be viewed as fair. The Yankees played it brilliantly, being out of the race. They traded 3 months of a fireballing closer for a young stud. The one that still frustrates the tar out of me, is the Reds-Yankees trade from December 2015. The Reds had a super-valuable guy, and they traded him at the absolute BOTTOM of his value - a month after he had fired a gun in a garage or whatever. They got 4 guys who were fringe prospects at best, even at the time. HUGE missed opportunity for the Reds (probably driven by Castellini, I would guess). At worst, the Reds should've just waited for it all to blow over, and try to deal Aroldis at the deadline. In theory, Gleyber Torres could be a key building block for the Reds, not Yankees. They could've made the same deal the Yankees did, if they had the patience to wait til July. (I'm a frustrated Reds fan, as I'm sure you have guessed already. To me, this was the biggest missed opportunity in their so-far-miserable attempt at "rebuilding.") You can argue that the Reds should've been more realistic about where they were much earlier than that - July 2015, or even back in 2014. Imagine how much 1.5 or 2 years worth of Aroldis (free of any domestic troubles) could've gotten them! Oy... ;)
Dan
10/16
Ack, no paragraph breaks?!? Sigh... apologies for the huge block of text...
morro089
10/18
Ah, and as you were writing it, did you click around a few times and have the page auto-shift back to the bottom of the article. So then you had to scroll back to your comment and click the correct location in the small comment box? Yeah. It's been like this for years.
Matthew Gold
10/16
The Yankees also traded Andrew Miller for Clint Frasier that same mid-season. I don't recall how those two trades were compared at the time, but Frasier hasn't yet become quite the star Torres has, so I guess the spotlight isn't on that trade so much.
morro089
10/18
This is what gets me. Cashman was publicly saying Miller wasn't available, but after Chapman left he ended up trading Miller too. And, seemingly, for less (opinion now and in 2016) despite having an extra year..and it turns out, a better 2016 too...plus plus no domestic violence. Melancon was also available that trade deadline for what turned out to be peanuts. This is part of what makes that trade so frustrating. I didn't like it on its face, but the Miller trade really makes it look bad even if you look at it from a "win now" standpoint, despite knowing that playoffs are always a gamble and making the playoffs year-over-year is a much truer measure of performance. Maybe the Yanks viewed Frazier better than he turned out while also being MLB-ready in 2017, whereas Torres was 2018. I don't know. I didn't like it at the time, but trusted Theo.
Shaun P.
10/16
Here, here to the excellent conclusion!