The teams who are engaged in the most prolific and dynamic offseasons — namely, the Chicago White Sox, Oakland A’s, San Diego Padres, and Tampa Bay Rays — still remain somewhere in the middle of FanGraphs’ projected 2015 standings. As Dave noted early last month at Just a Bit Outside, it appears that teams’ response to the new second wild-card spot is to push towards the middle and hope to catch lightning in their bottle, a la the 2014 Kansas City Royals.
The entire standings are getting compressed: as Dave notes in his article, there are only a small handful of teams who are going through a rebuilding cycle (whether aimless or not) and thus can be considered out of the running for the 2015 World Series. What I find most interesting about the current state of the league is that the standings are being compressed from the top as well. Or, as Dave wrote:
This is essentially baseball teams adopting the old adage of not putting all their eggs in one basket. And as more teams adopt this strategy, the less it makes sense for any one team to try and pull away from the pack. After all, if you have to beat 10 or 11 other decent teams for a playoff spot, your margin of error is going to be lower than if half the teams in the league are conceding defeat on opening day.
That explanation makes enough sense. But, also, this article was written back when the Padres’ most significant acquisition was Clint Barmes, and I think A.J. Preller’s subsequent transactions have helped define a new standard as to what is and isn’t possible within the span of an offseason.
Maybe you don’t like the Matt Kemp deal. I still don’t totally know what to make of it myself. That’s fine. We’ll leave it aside for now. Let’s look at it this way: Preller acquired Justin Upton, Wil Myers, and Derek Norris in exchange for their starting catcher (Rene Rivera — from whom I have developed a mighty crush), their fourth starter (Jesse Hahn — or fifth starter, depending on your view of Odrisamer Despaigne), and a big bundle of the Padres’ middle class of prospects.
The Padres received value in these three trades by offering sheer quantity as their own value for offer: Preller shipped out 12 players (and two international bonus slots) while receiving 8. (Those numbers jump to 15 players out and 10 players in if you include the Kemp deal.) And, all the while, the Padres’ projected 2015 payroll ($88.9M) is actually a touch under their 2014 Opening Day payroll ($90.6M).
Preller has retained, by Kiley’s rankings, three of the organization’s top four prospects. He traded away the middle class — not the upper class — of his inherited farm system in exchange for significant Major League experience, all the while assuming no financial burdens. Okay, so the Padres don’t look, even now, like a playoff team next year. But it’s hard to find a downside to Preller’s approach — unless the middle class of any team’s farm system at any given time is actually incredibly, incredibly valuable to an organization’s long-term health.
Judging by the behavior of other Major League teams, especially those who are already projected to do well, that middle-class of prospects is just that valuable. Preller is not the only General Manager who was just hired from outside the organization in the last few months. Meaning, he was not the only GM who has just inherited a farm system that was put together by a GM who was ultimately fired. Dave Stewart of the Arizona Diamondbacks has mostly sat on his hands, trade-wise, actually giving up established major league value in Miguel Montero. In Atlanta, John Hart started the offseason from essentially the same position as Preller, but decided to move in the opposite direction, sending away players valuable in the present-tense (Jason Heyward, Upton) for future-tense potential.
Teams with contending-ready cores have also effectively sat on their hands this offseason in the trade market. The Seattle Mariners have only used their organizational depth to acquire Justin Ruggiano (in exchange for Matt Brazis). The Washington Nationals have only received minor leaguers (Joe Ross, presumably Trea Turner) in exchange for their minor leaguers (Steven Souza, Travis Ott). The Pittsburgh Pirates have traded for Antonio Bastardo and Francisco Cervelli.
These right here are the teams that would have taken significant steps closer to the World Series had they engineered the types of trades that Preller made this offseason. But these teams have decided, in effect, that their middle class of minor leaguers is more valuable than the likes of Myers, Norris, Upton.
And, shoot, maybe these already-contending teams are right. The available population of even replacement-level major leaguers is certainly finite, and maybe Preller’s offseason will ultimately make it very difficult for the Padres to fill out their whole roster from 2017-2021.
The thought I keep coming back to, though, is how much prices on the trade market inflate at the Trade Deadline. Any combination of the Mariners, Nationals, and Pirates will be positioned as buyers late next July. If they make a move then, unlike now, they are doing so because they know for sure that they are well-positioned for a postseason run. But if they make a move now, unlike then, the price tag is significantly lower. Like: what if Preller traded for Upton this winter purely in anticipation of flipping him at the Deadline? The package that Preller would receive for a half-season of Upton would no doubt exceed in perceived value the package that he gave up for a full season of Upton. (Not to mention it would be a pretty slick new way to rebuild a team.)
Basically, what I’m saying is: I really like the mindset behind the offseason that Andrew Friedman, Farhan Zaidi, and company have put together for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Currently the Dodgers are projected by FanGraphs as the best team in baseball, a 91-win team over the Mariners’ 89. I very much admire their “double-trade” tactic to separate the wheat from the chaff of their roster. For instance: with Dee Gordon’s trade value no doubt at its highest, the Dodgers trade him, Dan Haren, and Miguel Rojas to the Miami Marlins for a package that includes Andrew Heaney. Heaney is then traded, straight-up, to the Angels for Howie Kendrick. While there are other players moving around in this trade, the effect is that Gordon is swapped for Kendrick at second base, a cunning way of improving major-league talent without significant effects to minor-league depth. The same double-trade maneuver was triggered by the Kemp deal: the Dodgers acquired Zach Eflin for Kemp, and then sent Eflin to Philadelphia (with Thomas Windle) for Jimmy Rollins. The Dodgers turned their outfield logjam into a veteran starting shortstop and netted Yasmani Grandal in the process.
Maybe, across the majors, teams are scared of pushing their chips to the middle because the 2014-15 Oakland A’s loom like a cautionary tale — an organization depleted after they pushed in their own chips. But there’s more than one way to interpret the last 12 months in Oakland, and one interpretation is: their error was not pushing all of their chips in, but rather waiting until July to do so.
Whether or not it earns the Dodgers the World Series, I commend them for proactively attempting to separate their team from the pack.