For some teams, this year is the best it can be

For some teams, this year is the best it can be

In many ways, our current sports culture has been shaped by passing through an era where unsophisticated athletes with impatient plans to dominate through brute force were supplanted by long-term Ivy League nerds. This is how we got to tanking, the consumer reaction to tanking, and the realization that even implementing a lottery cannot undo self-conscious no-win. This is why, more and more, baseball operations executives look like major characters with unique fandoms, and also why they are 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 back in the hands of athletes, not analysts. “Optimization” is a dirty word often mentioned on a list of modern woes, but teams that avoid it are jokes to people in the know. One of the most persistent effects of baseball’s intellectualization is the belief that smart teams are willing to temper their dominance now for the sake of the future—and that it’s stupid to sacrifice the future for immediate success.

The fallacy, as far as I can tell, is that front offices operate under the assumption that the future is more controllable if you start trying to control it. Plan to be good afterwards, 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 some ideal state of sustainability. All are planning a future in which only they are prepared to settle into a comfortable state of continual containment. But mathematics does not allow this, even if it is well intentioned.

(A quick caveat: if every team wanted to approach free agency blind to the possibility that their division might already be widely talked about, 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 unachieved ultimate ideal. At some point in the season, however, fate diverges.)

Last year, the New York Mets were enjoying a gloriously charming season, en route to 103 wins on the morning of the trade deadline — the most since winning the World Series in 1986 and the second most in franchise history. After four straight years of the Atlanta Braves finishing first in the NL East, the Mets looked poised to take over the division and begin what was sure to be a long and illustrious reign of dominance under new owner Steve Cohen.

So they went conservative on the deadline (and the changes they made didn’t pan out, but that’s a different story), with General Manager Billy Eppler openly addressing areas of apparent need that weren’t met. He explicitly attributed this to weighing what the cost of any move might mean for the team’s future odds.

“If you’re subtracting one percent or one and a half percent aggregate over four or five years to go up one percent now, I don’t think that’s how sustainability is built,” Eppler said. Mets ownership and executive agreed they would “do everything in the service of that sustainability”.

For the Mets in particular, Cohen’s deep pockets should be able to fund short-term aggressiveness, allowing them to simultaneously build a brighter future without spending their prospective 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 season, when you have to deal with potential clients to bring back immediately impactful players.

Now, it’s impossible to say whether the Mets’ unmade trades would have been the difference between 101 wins with a first-round exit and 102 wins (enough for a bye) with a long run in October. The 2022 Mets weren’t wrong in thinking there were more good years to come – there are! That principled approach last summer will serve them better now if they remain focused on the farm system amid daily ruminations on the major league club’s disappointment – but for at least one team each season, the present just It is brighter than the future. There is no virtue in rival teams patiently waiting just to have another opportunity to do the same.

The Buy or Sell trading term binary eliminates the fact that both options involve an exchange of players from one organization to another. Everyone hopes to get what they need at a price they can afford. The difference is when they need the business to work. Perhaps, then, the best way to categorize teams as we approach that deadline is when will their wins matter most: is it the mid-future, 2025 and beyond? Is it next year? Are they really in a position to balance reinforcing their current club and building the next wave of talent?

Or is it now, in 2023, that they have the best chance of winning a championship? In other words, is it worth mortgaging your future for incremental gains this year? The rising tide of the Texas Rangers, the unpredictable success of the Miami Marlins, even the hot start of the ever-competent Tampa Bay Rays: it’s not an indictment of nothing to say that, for some, this can no be the beginning. It might be your best chance.

Recently, I was talking about the upcoming trade deadline with a National League manager the way everyone who cares about baseball does these days: issuing and requesting proclamations about what different teams must do. After a particularly emphatic “they should go for it!” In the estimation of one team or another, he moderated this kind of general armchair management of damn consequences. No one, he explained, wants to be the GM who traded a prospect to become a truly great player.

That’s always the fear, isn’t it? That you will look stupid, silly or shortsighted in hindsight. You could have all this future value (cheap! manageable!) if it weren’t for meeting your team’s needs right now. That this type of thinking is widespread is evidenced by the returns – teams no give up the main prospects of so-called rents. And if this is simply the modern market everyone agrees to trade in, sure!

But a message to GMs: not everyone will 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.

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