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The Banality of cheap baseball teams

Los Angeles Dodgers Introduce Kenta Maeda

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 07: Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman introduces Pitcher Kenta Maeda to the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium on January 7, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images)

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I know I don’t usually write on Sunday mornings, but a wind storm woke me up at 3:30am and some low-level existential dread kept me from going back to sleep. So, like any other person who is poor at self-care, I went downstairs, made coffee and went online for three or four hours to make the most of my insomnia.

And boy, oh boy, did I read some fun things from baseball front offices that shed a soft, banal light on this thus-far uneventful offseason. Let’s start with the Dodgers, who held their annual FanFest at Dodger Stadium yesterday.

As Dylan Hernandez at the Los Angeles Times reported, fans in attendance called out the names of players who they want the team to acquire. A 13 year-old kid asked Andrew Friedman to “sign Bryce for us.” Other fans chanted the name of J.T. Realmuto, who the Dodgers are reportedly looking to snag from Miami.

Later team president and part-owner Stan Kasten was asked about that fan enthusiasm, and about the concern on the part of some fans about the Dodgers’ less-than-ambitious offseason moves. Kasten wasn’t having it, though, saying “you keep making this stuff up.” His rationale: season ticket sales are strong so Dodgers fans must be happy.

Which, I suppose is one way to look at it. Another way to look at it is, as we’ve noted many times, to observe that there is a disconnect between how teams make money and what makes fans happy and that a sold out Dodger Stadium does not mean that there aren’t fans who would like to see a 92-win team that just barely avoided having to play in the Wild Card game get a little better. Either way, based on what I’ve seen, there are a lot of unhappy or, at the very least, confused Dodgers fans out there, wondering why arguably the richest team in baseball didn’t try to sign Bryce Harper or make any other big, impactful moves.

Maybe we just don’t get it, though. Here’s Kasten:

That’s also such a weird narrative,” Kasten said. “If we can do whatever we do and stay under [the luxury-tax threshold], there are a lot of advantages to being under — by the way, a lot more advantages than you all write about.”

Such as?

“I’m not going to go into that because that’s real inside baseball economic stuff,” Kasten said.

Told fans would be interested in the details, Kasten replied, “Hold on. Let me finish the answer. Some of the things are elsewhere in the collective bargaining agreement that no one’s bothered to look at. Some of the things are inside baseball. So there are more advantages than just a little tax.”

I presume he’s talking about how a team that significantly exceeds the luxury tax threshold can be subjected to an additional surcharge beyond the main tax rate and can have their top draft pick dropped ten slots. Which, yes, would stink, but it’s also worth noting that the Dodgers are nowhere near that on payroll right now, both because of where their current payroll is and because they got under the luxury tax last year, resetting the potential penalty schedule if they exceed it in the future. So, yeah, while Kasten is certainly coming off as testy here, it’s probably worse that he’s being disingenuous.

While Kasten’s stuff is interesting, I find the most significant thing in the article to be Andrew Friedman’s reference to the need for the Dodgers to have “financial flexibility.”

That’s a seemingly innocuous phrase. One we’ve heard from the mouths of virtually every front office executive who has been questioned about payroll this offseason. Those words are invariably joined by others such as “we want to be smart,” “we’ll add the right players at the right time,” and “we want sustained success.” We’ve also heard a lot of passive voice businesspeak about “our model” or “our plan.” We used to laugh at sports teams who talked about “trusting the process” but they all more or less say that now.

In a vacuum it all seems harmless, but when you try to keep tabs on every team like I do, you realize how banal and ridiculous it all is. You see how closely-related it is to the vapid and fatuous Silicon Valley-level chatter dedicated to making simple things seem complicated, cheapness seem like genius and greed seem like philanthropy. It has become so very common. I mean, I get it. It sounds kinda smart and it’s said by generally young, handsome, square-jawed guys with Ivy League and/or Wall Street pedigrees. We, as a society, give guys like the benefit of the doubt astonishingly easily, so why not use that tool if you have it in your kit?

So they use it. And it just washes over us. It washes over us so easily that we rarely question it. But question it we should. As I said last week, I have no actual evidence that baseball teams are colluding to stifle the free agent market and depress player salaries, but if they were doing such a thing, they’d likely come up with this exact sort of samey-same cloudspeak to cover for it, and yeah, that’s the sort of thing we should be questioning.

I decided then that I didn’t want to think about the Dodgers anymore, so I poured myself a cup of coffee and thought about my Braves. That was a mistake.

I should be pretty happy with them these days, what with the winning and Ronald Acuña and all of that. For those reasons I haven’t obsessed about their offseason as much as I usually do. The Josh Donaldson signing was pretty nifty, I thought, and even if the Nick Markakis signing wasn’t inspiring, it had the benefit of being something predictable in this mad, unpredictable age.

Then I looked at a Braves blog I like and realized that, at the moment, they have the 22nd-highest payroll in the game. A season after winning the division with the 19th-highest payroll in the game. All while (a) raking in massive profits thanks to their new taxpayer-funded stadium; and (b) presumably seeing an uptick across all revenue sources thanks to the return to winning baseball in 2018. Oh, and their general manager is offering up some of that couldspeak rebop about “the plan” and “the model” now too? “Excellent, excellent,” I thought, poured another cup of coffee and navigated away.

I was irked, but then I quickly realized that being a Braves fan this offseason is pure joy compared to what it must be like to be a Pirates fan.

The Pirates held their FanFest -- PiratesFest! -- yesterday too. Much of it was devoted to General manager Neal Huntington, manager Clint Hurdle and president Frank Coonelly defending just how damn cheap the Pirates are.

Pittsburgh is likely to have the lowest payroll in the National League this season and, probably, the second-lowest in all of baseball. Many fans called them out on it yesterday. In response to someone saying that it seems like the Pirates don’t want to win, Huntington said “there’s a lot to impact in that question,” Which is not how anyone actually talks in the real world, but like I said, these guys are operating on a different level than you and me.

Huntington later tried to explain the Pirates’ cheapness in plainer language, saying, “historically, we have proven you can win with a bottom-10 payroll.” This matches up with what Rob Manfred was arguing last summer when he talked about the Oakland A’s to the San Francisco Chronicle:

“I categorically reject the notion that payroll should be the measure of whether somebody is trying to win in our game today. I reject that not because I prefer low payrolls to high payrolls. I reject that because I know that the correlation between payroll and winning in baseball is extraordinarily weak.

Here I feel like Huntington and Manfred should’ve just reverted back to the truth-obscuring cloudspeak, because by speaking so plainly here, they reveal just how full of it they are.

It’s certainly true that in any one season there is no strong correlation between payroll and winning. The A’s can come from nowhere and win 97 games like they did last year. The Pirates can make the playoffs with a bottom-ten payroll like they did a few years back. The Tigers or the Giants or the Angels can stink up the joint despite spending a lot of money. It happens all the time.

As Craig Edwards of FanGraphs showed last summer, however, there is a strong correlation between winning over many years and spending over many years. Yes, you can have success on the cheap here or there, but if you want “sustained success” -- and, as noted above, that’s what all of these handsome, square-jawed GMs claim they want -- you’re far more likely to get it by spending more money on ballplayers. A lot of front offices have hired people who have worked at FanGraphs and all of them read it, so you’d think they’d be aware of this.

I don’t want to single out the handsome and square-jawed GMs when it comes to shoveling BS about payroll, though, because it seems that baseball’s 28th most-handsome manager is adept at it as well. Here’s Clint Hurdle talking about how the Pirates’ pitiful payroll actually makes his players better:

“They don’t get caught up in payroll,” he said. “They’re not going to get caught star-gazing at the names on the back of other teams’ jerseys.”

He suggested that coming from the bottom of the ladder in payroll puts a chip on his players’ shoulders.

“More often than not, that makes that edge a little bit sharper,” he said.

I’ll give credit to Clint Hurdle for that one. Sure, like all the other guys he’s being a good soldier and deploying nonsense to defend his cheap team, but at least he’s doing it in a novel way. Maybe it’s because he’s older and more worldly. Rather than only reading business books like a modern GM, he’s apparently spent some time reading Charles Dickens and some Victorian Era social scientists in order to pick up on that “deprivation makes you stronger” vibe. Or maybe he’s reading more modern theories on all of that. I’d ask Hurdle about that, but I feel like he wouldn’t want to discuss anything with a guy who has, basically, called him ugly for the past several years.

Insomnia is not fun, friends, but I experience it often. What they say about it always being darkest before the dawn is as true a thing as there is, both literally and metaphorically. By the time I got through with all of that I was as depressed as hell about the state of baseball this offseason and wondered if can get any bleaker than this.

Then I looked up from my computer and out my eastward facing window and noticed the first signs of light begin to chase away the long, dark and cold winter’s night. “I have to find some way to catch up on my sleep,” I thought to myself. “I need to find better way to deal with insomnia than going online and getting all pissed off about this stuff.”

Maybe I’ll go upstairs, lay down, close my eyes and say a mantra to myself to induce sleep. Something repetitive enough to sooth but uncomplicated enough that it doesn’t stir more thoughts. Something that is calmly meaningless.

Sustained success . . .

Sustained success . . .

Sustained success . . .

. . . zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

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