Earlier this month, the San Diego Padres capped the baseball offseason's biggest splurge by finalizing a four-year, $75 million contract with free-agent pitcher James Shields. Shields joins the all-new outfield of Matt Kemp, Wil Myers, and Justin Upton, and will throw to another new arrival, catcher Derek Norris. It's hard to know what all this motion will add up to, given that the talent-laden Dodgers and defending-champion Giants still stand in the way of the Friars' hopes in the division.
There is no doubting their gumption, though. It would have been bizarre to see the somnolent Padres doing such stockpiling in years past, but it's surprising to see any team do this sort of thing these days. A cold front of front-office conservatism has settled over the league in recent winters, the result of a burgeoning epoch of reasonability, and the game is both smarter and a little less fun for it.
The first decade-and-change of this century belonged to big dealers. The Red Sox won two championships with the services of converted Bostonians David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez. The Phillies imported the class of a pitching generation. George Steinbrenner's Yankees, of course, spent the period buttressing their accomplished turn-of-the-millennium squads with every offseason's most notorious name: Rodriguez, Sabathia, Burnett, Granderson. Each approaching winter came with its own kabuki gossip ritual, an abstraction that most of the baseball world could only watch from afar. Rodriguez announced his free agency during the 2007 World Series, Cliff Lee spurned New York for less-ostentatious-by-percentage-points Philadelphia, and fans in flyover country warmed themselves with boozy gripes about the predictable circulation of baseball's fame and capital.
Over the last couple years, though, several trends have conspired to stem the offseason flow of superstars to the usual parties for the usual prices. Some of those big names have soured and advertised the trouble with shelling out for 31-year-olds; in just a few seasons, CC Sabathia and Alex Rodriguez went from World Series heroes to sunk costs. Small- to mid-market teams are locking up potential franchise players earlier, keeping them from free agency; larger-market teams are doing less savvy renditions of this approach with their aging stars. Mostly, there has been a change in perspective and approach across the game, and it has both flattened things out and cooled things down. Teams across baseball, the super-rich among them, are diversifying their investments.
These shifts have impacted not just how front offices operate, but how we watch. The transition from up-and-comer to star has become more nebulous, unmarked as it is by the old rite of inking a megadeal with a stock metropolis, and the conversation surrounding the game has taken a brighter tone. We look to identify emblems of a team's upswing—in recent years, anyone from Andrew McCutchen to the green core of the Royals—and catch a whiff of the wholesome even on wealthy champions, as when homegrown Giant Madison Bumgarner erupted into an aw-shucks supernova last postseason. Where in previous years the baseball-watching world may have found common ground cursing shared enemies, it seems now to delight in an ongoing search for the next civic surprise. The age of the heel is ending, and a cheery parity is taking its place. This is, mostly, a good thing.
But what heels they were! The joy of those stacked squads came not only from their demises but from imagining, in spite of whatever inclinations against the mechanisms that brought them about, what they might become. The Yankees of the late 2000s were never more fun than in March, when a thousand runs seemed possible; ditto the ace-heavy Phils, who looked like an annual threat to replace the 1990s Braves in the record books.
Better still were the would-be villains that fell flat. In this category, for both the audacity of their promise and the degree of their downfall, it's tough to top the 2012 Miami Marlins. Set to open his publicly-funded citrus-deco ballpark, owner Jeffrey Loria had spent the offseason on a spending spree, signing reigning batting champ Jose Reyes to partner with Hanley Ramirez in the left side of the infield, adding Mark Buehrle to stabilize the rotation and Heath Bell to finish games, trading for Carlos Zambrano, and hiring Ozzie Guillen. It was easy to envision these Marlins as a teal mural, Reyes's scooped doubles and Hanley's moon shots and Buehrle's slow turners and Ozzie's Byzantine expletives all combining over the course of a pennant chase.
Then came the season. The Marlins played the year's opening game, hosting the Cardinals on a Wednesday night, and some misguided event planners decided to invite Muhammad Ali to deliver the game ball. Hunched on a cart next to a beaming Loria, Ali was a sad sight, but he also served as a timely parable on the disconnect between design and fruition. Ali handed the ball to Ramirez, the Marlins lost, the Marlins kept losing, Ozzie was suspended for praising Fidel Castro, the Marlins limped to last place, and, in typical Loria fashion, the purported core of the new Miami baseball—Reyes, Buehrle, Josh Johnson, Guillen, and later most everyone else—was shipped off.
Eras are elastic, and exceptions endure, but 2012 is as good a signpost as any for the end of the big-market star buffet of the 2000s. The same year the Marlins went shopping, the Angels signed Albert Pujols to a 10-year, $240 million contract that has become synonymous with front-office shortsightedness. Since then, the baseball news of November through January has increasingly centered on re-signings (Clayton Kershaw, Miguel Cabrera) and middle-tier shufflings (this winter, Boston's signing of Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez). Those top-level players who do change teams, like Josh Donaldson or Max Scherzer this offseason, tend more and more to do so as addendums to set squads instead of as part of an incoming armada.
Today, Loria and his fast-dealing ilk stand for the death throes of a dumber baseball—Loria himself represented an especially cynical and manipulative strain—but they also embodied a brand of romanticism, however accidental. If the present state of careful team-building has a founding principle, it may be this: individual greatness is far more likely to diminish than to last. With this credo in mind, teams hold fast to prospects, study dour forecasts, and balk at big figures. They are run with an eye on return-on-investment, which is sensible and prosaic in equal measure.
Frustrating as they could be, those old hefty checks and blockbuster trades were more than baseball's haves ensuring their dominion over its have-nots; they were testaments to a now-obsolete optimism. Each one signaled a simple and happy belief: that good players would stay good, and that piling as many of them as possible onto a lineup card was what mattered most.
This is not to say that all hopefulness is in inverse proportion to knowledge. The game is as full of, and more aware of, young talent than ever before; a new star springs up for every one that falls off. But, as this reasonable winter nudges into the annual unreason of Spring Training, it's easy to miss the comfort of those rich and knowable teams, the ones you could imagine with dread in spring and hate wholeheartedly in the fall. I'll be pulling for the Padres to put something together. And if their bold moves fizzle—as I expect them to—I'll hope that not every decision-maker in baseball notices.