Know Thyself: How Self-Assessment by Teams Fires The MLB Hot Stove

For a front office on the verge of making a move, sometimes the biggest risk is uncertainty about how good—or bad—their team already is.

by Rian Watt
Jan 23 2017, 3:36pm

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Who in the world do the San Diego Padres think they are? That's not rhetorical. The team finished 68-94 last year, just locked up Wil Myers for six years and $83 million, and seem to believe that someone named "Ryan Schimpf" will be playing second base for them in 2017.

These three things do not make a consistent story. And together, they speak to a systemic tension in the dynamics of Major League Baseball.

All things considered, it's better to be a good MLB team than a bad one. That much is obvious. But it is also far better to be a bad team—and know it—than it is to be stuck somewhere in the middle of the standings, and not know who the hell you are.

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Baseball's regular season runs on a six-month cycle—April to September, October if you're lucky—and, as fans, we're used to the familiar rhythms of that summer season of bat on ball. Games start in the sunshine, end in the dusk, and the results on the field are duly noted and recorded in the ledger of the season. Each game ends, in a win or a loss.

However, there is also another version of the game that runs year round: the organizational cycle of self-assessment and, ideally, self- improvement. For organizations hovering somewhere between mediocrity and brilliance, each year rotates around two inflection points: The offseason, and the trade deadline. It's in these moments that the team is forced to state, for the record, what it believes itself to be, and then to go about acting like it.

Some teams get it right: Last year's Yankees, for example, correctly identified their 2016 as a bust by mid-July, and then sold enough pieces at the deadline to finance a year's worth of Baseball America plaudits for the depth of their farm system. Some teams get it wrong: The Marlins, for example, probably didn't need Andrew Cashner to finish 79-82. And then there's the Padres, who are currently very much doing whatever the hell it is they're doing.

Here's how the story unfolds, in any given year.

Surprisingly, Andrew Cashner was not enough to push the Marlins into the playoffs. Photo: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports.

I — The Offseason

The work begins the minute a team's final pitch of the season is thrown. From that moment, every team is trying to work out whether—given the composition of its roster, the strength of its division, and the purchasing power of its pocketbook—next year is going to be a year worth going for it. This is almost never an easy process.

"Yeah, every year, you'd love to say—hey, we want to win 95 games this year, so let's go out and get exactly the players to do that," said one senior NL executive. "But clubs are smarter than that, and I think the smart ones—and the smart executives—are very practical and honest with themselves about what they are and what they aren't."

For some teams, like the Cubs of 2012-2014, that's meant writing off whole seasons at the big-league level. The Cubs are champs now, but that strategy is mostly played out these days: The benefits of tanking—high draft picks and international slot money, mostly—only accrue meaningfully to the very worst team, so there's not much of a benefit in aiming for 90 losses when some other team will have 100.

Besides, few executives—a competitive breed, in the main—can stomach the years of losing that a full rebuild requires, and even fewer have ownership groups or fanbases willing to give them the leash to do it, should they want to. So most teams enter the offseason trying to put together a major league roster that, to the degree possible, plays to their strengths, minimizes their weaknesses, and is likely to hit somewhere around 85-90 wins.

"You've got a thousand little things that go into it, even when you feel like you've got a pretty good sense of your ballclub," said one executive. "How long a tenure does the general manager have, and how long is his current contract? How stable and consistent and long-term looking is the ownership? How have the last five years been? The last ten? What's the current season ticket base? There's just so many different factors, and there is a huge wide spectrum of thought on each of those issues."

When all those factors are priced together, teams tend to sort themselves into one of three groups: The teams that are going for it, the teams that are taking a knee, and the teams that are caught in between, like San Diego.

That feeling when your new general manager has realistic expectations for his roster. Photo: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports.

Think, for example, of the (many, many) moves Jerry Dipoto has made in Seattle this winter, turning what had been a power-happy roster and converting it into more of a speed-and-defense operation, without sacrificing the things that have worked: most notably, Mr. Robinson Cano. Dipoto's moves are typical of a middle-of-the road team that thinks they have a chance at contending—and at a relatively low cost. If the 2017 Mariners suck, Dipoto probably won't be kicking himself for giving up, say, Seth Smith.

Headed in the opposite direction are the White Sox, who—after years of vacillation between GOOD GOD, WE MUST WIN NOW and "Well, this probably ain't our year"—have finally committed to building up their farm system in a meaningful way, trading Adam Eaton, Chris Sale, and (eventually) José Quintana for a stellar collection of prospects and young big-leaguers that will serve them well both in 2017 and beyond. To be clear, this isn't a bad strategy: It's definite, which is what's important these days.

Much more troubling is what's happening in Miami. Are they contenders, or are they rebuilding? It's hard to know, mostly because they don't seem to know, either. The Marlins signed Edinson Volquez this December, which is the kind of thing you do if you have three pitchers better than him to slot in the first three rotation spots. But the Marlins have ... Adam Conley. (Acquiring Dan Straily last Thursday helped, a little.) Their outfield is brilliant, but their bullpen is something of a mess. Dee Gordon is a nice player, but Justin Bour is ... well, you get the idea.

But that's how the Marlins are choosing to go into the season—punting on the question of whether they can actually win, and simply giving their fans just enough to keep 'em buying seats. But we know how this story ends. Almost invariably, it's the teams that punted that end up hurting the most. That's because, before you know it, the season starts, your plans are laid bare, and then, suddenly, there's ...

II — The Trade Deadline

Here's a thought experiment. Let's say that Mark Melancon, or another reliever of comparable quality from a non-playoff team, became available last October 1st as a free agent, but on a contract that would last only for the entire month of October. Afterward, Melancon would revert to his original, pre-October contract status.

How much would such a reliever command on the open market, given that only the ten playoff teams would have any incentive to bid for his services at all, and even then they'd only be able to command those services for a month, at most? Would $1 million be too high a price to pay? Would $5 million? $10 million?

In other words, in an age where Andrew Miller can almost single-handedly pitch his team to a World Series championship, how much is a good reliever worth when you know you'll get to use them in October and don't have to price in any uncertainty about whether you'll reach that point in the first place?

It turns out to be a question of some relevance.

"Very few teams," one executive told VICE Sports, "have the luxury of knowing, in mid-July, that they'll be playing in October. So of course everyone's pricing some degree of uncertainty into their moves, and that'll dictate the kind of players you'll go out and get."

Few teams, for example, would have gone out and sent four well-regarded players and twenty-plus years of team control to New York get three months of Aroldis Chapman's left arm, as the Chicago Cubs did this past summer.

It's not that the rest of league builds player acquisition models that are all that different than the Cubs'. It's that Chicago knew, in July, that they had a 99.1 percent chance of making the playoffs, and so could go out and get the player they knew they'd need in October without discounting the cost even one little bit to account for the chance they'd miss the playoffs.

Only a team with a 99.1% chance of reaching the playoffs would trade this guy for a closer rental. Photo: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports.

Without that certainty, every mid-season acquisition has to be discounted for the chance that the player or players acquired will be wasted on a season that ends without a shot at October. In a league whose governing structure increasingly rewards only teams at the performance extremes—the very good and the very bad—getting that discount rate right can be very tough.

That both compounds the problem middling teams like Arizona, San Diego, and Miami face at the deadline—their peers who know just what they are at the deadline, one way or another, have a tremendous advantage over the men in the middle—and drives observed and inconsistent valuations for certain categories of players. Impact relievers, for instance, are probably overpriced for their regular-season contributions and underpriced for their impact in the postseason; everyone knows this, but no one knows quite how to reconcile it. Every executive who responded to the Melancon hypothetical for VICE Sports projected he'd get at least $3 million. One went as high as $10 million. For one month.

None of those executives, of course, would dream of giving Melancon $60 million for a six-month season, and nor should they. But for the 11-game season, it seems that at least one MLB executive would be happy to pay upwards of a million a game to be sure that the back end of their bullpen is on lockdown. The difference between that price, and the price impact relievers actually command in July, and then again in December, is the cost of uncertainty.

Do teams have a formal process in place for pricing that cost? "Not that I can share with you," said one executive, after a bit of a pause. "But we all have our ways. Sure we do."

And one way or another, those processes drive teams to conduct deep, honest assessments of themselves. The last thing they want to do is get stuck in the middle, and pay a fortune for a player who ends up getting them all the way to 80-odd wins and one game back of a Wild Card spot. An here, once again, it's worth noting that the Marlins would probably like that Andrew Cashner trade back. 79 wins and a view from the couch for the duration of October are poor rewards for a guy who's pitching for Texas now.

And, yes, those pesky, Myers-happy Padres, at 2017's trade deadline, will once again have to reckon with who they are—except this time with a half-season's worth of evidence sitting right there in front of their fans.

We like to believe that the game, in professional sports, is the one being played on the field. That's true as far as it goes, but that's not the only game that matters. The game is also about keeping the GM's job safe. The game is also about keeping you, the fan, just interested enough for just long enough that you'll spend that extra dollar at the team store. And the game is in allowing the owner to believe that he's done a swell thing by owning a pro team.

There are, in short, many games being played all at once in professional sports, some of them for the fans and some of them not, and the structure of our leagues and our society is such that it can be hard to tell which one is being played more seriously. That's what teams and their executives are forced to decide at the trade deadline—what matters most. This requires an honest period of self-reflection, about factors on the field and off it. And then it demands a play, one way or another.

As long as the game's formal structures, with their heavy incentives toward extreme failure, or extreme success, continue to co-exist uneasily with the normal, appropriate, and very human tendencies toward pleasing others—whether they be ownership groups, season ticket-holders, or future employers wondering what the heck you were doing in that previous job—there will always be tension and conflict at baseball's contested middle, as teams try to sort themselves out through a series of nearly-impossible choices. There's no best move here. There's just picking a direction and hoping it works out. Last week, the Marlins acquired Dan Straily.