It took me a little more than a year to get cynical. In December, 2019 I implored against the inherent cynicism of so thoroughly anticipating baseball to behave like a cold-hearted business that you barely bother to wish it wouldn’t. Save some earnest outrage — the kind that’s only possible if you get your hopes up — for owners who aren’t trying, I reasoned. Otherwise you’re just giving them preemptive cover not to. After all, fans didn’t force billionaires to buy sports franchises when Bitcoin or Google stocks or whatever else are right there. Even if it becomes expected to treat a public-facing facet of community culture like an investment in your portfolio, it still shouldn’t be accepted.
Two months later, the Boston Red Sox traded Mookie Betts to the Los Angeles Dodgers, who would go on to win a World Series in his first year in L.A. (in between some other stuff happening). As promised, I was furious. Betts, a proven superstar entering his age-27 season and final year of team control, was shipped out of the city he brought a ring to for the sake of getting the Sox under the competitive balance tax threshold, and because we accept as incontrovertible that teams should expect more return on investment for a talented player than simply his talent on the field in the years that they pay him.
In short, it was about saving money instead of building a better baseball team. That wasn’t new at the time but it seemed worth spelling out, excoriating the central figure (John Henry) and questioning why he had even bothered to buy the baseball team.
The Mookie Betts trade of this offseason just happened: After telegraphing that they would prioritize financial flexibility over the face of their franchise for years (again, a kind of critique that eventually functions as an excuse if you repeat it enough), Cleveland traded shortstop Francisco Lindor and veteran starting pitcher Carlos Carrasco to the Mets in exchange for infielders Amed Rosario and Andrés Giménez and a couple of prospects.
Carrasco is a beloved starter with a track record of success that bolsters the back end of a top-heavy Mets rotation. Lindor, just like Betts had been, is a proven superstar entering his age-27 season and final year of team control, and the Mets will likely look to extend him before he ever becomes a free agent. And the return to Cleveland? I’m sure it was the best their front office could find after abdicating the obvious leverage of making it seem like you even want to keep a perennial All-Star in his prime.
On one hand, the analysis is easy: No one thinks this is anything other than a salary dump for Cleveland, which is left with the lowest projected payroll in baseball. On the other hand, the analysis is becoming unnecessary: Color me cynical because I’m running out of ways or will to complain that baseball owners don’t treat the game with the same enthusiasm, affection, effort, or even interest as a casual fan, let alone a participant.
It’s hard to find something new to say because what’s the point of parsing the symptoms when the disease itself has already been diagnosed? Smarter people than I have written incisive takedowns of a system that’s doing exactly what it’s supposed to: Namely, enrich the owners with little risk. The past few years have been nothing if not a repetitive, eye-opening testament to how owners would rather profit than win — and while not mutually exclusive, those endgames are increasingly divorced from each other. That Cleveland would trade Lindor — and the Tampa Bay Rays would trade Blake Snell, and the Chicago Cubs would trade Yu Darvish — is proof of that. But if no one’s denying it — at least not credibly — what’s the fun in amassing evidence?
For a while, I said there were no bad trades in baseball. Not that there never had been or that any hypothetical trade would be a good one, but rather to define the stretch of time in which all front offices were equally sabermetrically savvy and all systems of evaluating players equally calibrated, so that of course the cumulative talent and/or perspective talent on either side of a deal was roughly equal. That’s how the barter system works. Maybe a trade wouldn’t pan out over time if a young player proved to be a bust or dramatically overperformed, or a catastrophic injury cut short a career, but at the outset, yeah: The different sides of the ledger should be roughly equal. That’s why the trade happened.
There were, of course, proverbial “buyers” and “sellers,” which essentially amounted to winning now or building for the future. But the allure of the future and the euphemism of sustainability have become a convenient cover for selling in a more conventional sense, one that focuses on the financial recoup — billed as “flexibility” that may or may not be exercised.
No Bad Trades was based on the assumption that every team had relatively equal information and the same goal, a World Series trophy. But what we’ve seen this offseason, the slowness punctuated by blockbusters that look like a steal for one side, reflects dramatically different mandates. Some are to win, many more are to simply spend less. When trying becomes a market inefficiency — and even more so when saying that “trying is a market inefficiency” becomes a cliche — the entire concept of the sport as a competition to see who’s the best at baseball is rendered obsolete. And it’s hard not to be cynical about that.
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