In many ways, our current sports culture was shaped by going through an era where unsophisticated sportsmen with eager plans to dominate through brute force were supplanted by Ivy League nerds with an eye for the long haul. That’s how we got the tanking, consumer backlash against tanking, and the realization that even implementing a lottery project can’t nullify self-aware non-winners. That’s why, increasingly, baseball ops executives look like main characters with unique fandoms and also why they’re forced to take responsibility for making baseball bad.
The game is in a strange place. We can’t stop measuring the impact of rules designed to put results in the hands of athletes, rather than analysts. “Optimize” is a bad word often referenced in a list of modern afflictions, but teams that avoid it are punchlines for those in the know. One of the most enduring effects of baseball’s intellectualization is the belief that smart teams are willing to temper their dominance now in favor of the future—and that it’s foolish to sacrifice the future for immediate success.
The mistake, as far as I know, is that front offices operate on the assumption that the future is more controllable if you start trying to control it. Plan to be good later, and you’ll be the only one ready when we get there. Most years, even the best teams are unwilling to overtly prioritize capitalizing on their position; it is more important to pursue an ideal state of sustainability. Each is planning a future in which only he is willing to settle into a comfortable state of continued discord. But the calculations do not allow it, even if it is well intentioned.
(A little caveat: If every team wanted to approach free agency blind to the possibility that their division was already heavily defended, that would be a lot of fun. “Every team has hope on opening day” is a good operating philosophy for a league, especially as an ultimately unfulfilled ideal. At some point in the season, however, fates diverge.)
Last year, the New York Mets had a gloriously charmed season, pacing 103 wins on trade deadline morning — the most since winning the World Series in 1986 and the second-most in franchise history. After four straight years in which the Atlanta Braves finished first in Eastern Newfoundland, the Mets looked set to take the division and kick off what would surely be a long and illustrious reign of dominance under new owner Steve Cohen.
Then they were conservative at the deadline (and the moves they made fell flat, but that’s another story), with GM Billy Eppler openly addressing areas of apparent need that were largely unmet. He noted it, explicitly, to weigh what the cost of any move might mean for the team’s future odds.
“If you subtract one percent or one and a half percent overall over a four or five year period to increase one percent now, I don’t think that’s how sustainability is built,” Eppler said. Mets ownership and executives agreed that they would “do everything in the service of that sustainability.”
For the Mets in particular, Cohen’s deep pockets were meant to be able to fund short-term aggression, allowing them to simultaneously build toward a better future without spending their exploration capital. It’s an approach that gives them a lot of leeway in the free agent market. But the opportunity to build for October comes in the middle of the season, when you have to deal with prospects to pick up hard-hitting players immediately.
Now, it’s impossible to say whether the Mets’ missed trades would have made the difference between 101 wins with a first-round exit and 102 wins (enough for a bye) with a deep run in October. The 2022 Mets weren’t wrong to think there were more good years to come – there are! That principled approach last summer will serve them better now if they stay focused on the farming system amid daily reflections on the major league club’s disappointment – but for at least one team each season, the present just East brighter than the future. There’s no virtue in facing teams that are patiently waiting just to have another chance to do the same.
The buy or sell trade deadline binary elides the fact that both options involve an exchange of players from one organization to another. Everyone hopes to get what they need at an affordable price. The differentiator is when they need the deal to pay. So perhaps the best way to categorize the teams as we approach this deadline is when their wins will matter most: is it in the middle future, 2025 and beyond? Is it next year? Can they really balance strengthening their current club and building the next wave of talent?
Or is it right now, in 2023, that they have the best chance of winning a championship? In other words, is it really worth mortgaging their future for extra earnings this year? The rising tide of the Texas Rangers, the random success of the Miami Marlins, even the meteoric start of the ever-capable Tampa Bay Rays: it’s not an indictment of anything to say that for some it might not be the start. This may be their best chance.
Recently, I was talking about the upcoming trade deadline with a National League manager the way everyone who cares about baseball does it these days: by issuing and soliciting proclamations about what different teams should be doing. After a “we must go!” particularly categorical! evaluation of one team or another, he tempered this kind of consequence-to-be-damned armchair general manager. No one, he explained, wants to be the general manager who traded a prospect who turned into a really great player.
It’s always fear, isn’t it? Whether you’ll look stupid or stupid or short-sighted in hindsight. You could have had all that future value (cheap! controllable!) if it wasn’t for your team’s needs at the time. That this kind of thinking is pervasive is evidenced by the returns – teams don’t giving up the best prospects for so-called rentals. And if it’s just the modern market that everyone agrees to operate in, of course!
But a message for GMs: not all of you are going to win more games next year or three years from now. This could be the peak, the right time to push all your chips into the middle of the table.