Thursday, 13 November 2014

This Winter, MLB Powerhouses Reach Historic Crossroads

Baseball at a philosophical crossroads.
From coast to shining coast, baseball executives are hunkered down for winter, protecting their fiefdoms, tweaking their plans, and concocting their strategies for the long offseason ahead. 

In the dark and seething Bronx, a New York Yankees General Manager prepares to shop for a shortstop for the first time in twenty years. 

Over on Yawkey Way, soon to be sprinkled with snow in the worsening Massachusetts chill, a cadre of otherwise energetic men feel the pressure to construct a quintessential Boston team of which Red Sox Nation can be proud. 

And at the corner of Waveland & Sheffield, just off the biting lake in sweet home Chicago, a dream managerial team strives to put meat on the bones so laboriously assembled.

We live in a unique moment for baseball. The great game has reached a figurative and philosophical crossroad. The way rosters are constructed, much like the way teams are run and the game played, has changed immensely in the past five years, with new regulations, at home and internationally, forcing General Managers to adapt and embark in new directions.

A more comprehensive revenue-sharing system means teams can no longer monopolise assets, like the Yankees and Red Sox did at the century's turn. Once, the finest players from the smallest markets would've tumbled into the open arena at a prime age, to be clawed at by a wealthy half-dozen and eaten alive by the king carnivore. Now, even the most plebeian of ballclubs compete to keep their marquee players, such as Milwaukee with Ryan Braun, Tampa Bay with Evan Longoria, and Colorado with Troy Tulowitzki. The result is a depleted free agency market typically stocked with older veterans plagued by injury and controversy.

This market, and the offensive environment of contemporary baseball as a whole, is further sapped by more stringent testing for performance enhancing drugs. With offence down across the board, it would appear less players are taking the steroid risk, which means production and durability from guys aged 30+ is at a generational nadir. One could even argue that the prime years of an athlete, traditionally considered to be between 27-33 in baseball, has shifted to 24-30. Freshly endowed with large television deals and payments from the juggernaut of fiscal parity that is Selig's MLB, teams are more inclined to lock-up burgeoning stars through this age range, forcing conventional free agent powerhouses, such as Boston, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, to consider a paradigm shift away from extreme indulgence to considered sustainability. 

Many teams now focus more of their energy and resources into scouting and player development, attempting to create an organic framework around which to pack as many cost-controlled, homegrown, similarly-aged stars as possible. The Cubs, Red Sox, Mets, Giants and Cardinals lead the way in this new approach, which preaches discipline, patience and responsibility in place of impulse, irrationality and haste. 

Similarly, the entire sabermetric sphere has evolved into what I like to call the postmodern realm. Nowadays, teams have moved on from a mere obsession with on-base percentage, and are freshly appreciative of team chemistry and the power of forging a group of twenty-five positive, likeminded guys. Kansas City and San Francisco reached the World Series without tearing the record book apart in any one category. Rather, they had all the right leaders in all the right places, a healthy blend of youth and experience driving their every endeavour.

In this regard, more trust is being placed in the manager than at any time since I began watching baseball. Executives are cognisant of the changing landscape and, more than ever, realise that, with money holding less sway in the modern game, an emphasis must be placed on squeezing from every asset its maximum value. Increasingly, teams are taking the view that, if we're on a near enough equal footing to our rivals, we must simply get more bang for our buck. This means a greater investment in coaching, management and development; a true commitment to the human faculty of improvement. 

Accordingly, teams value their own players more now than at any time in the past thirty years. The various regulations regarding luxury taxes and qualifying offers, coupled with the aforementioned surge in team-friendly extensions for homegrown talents, have created a genuine dearth of readily available superstars. Once, the Red Sox could pluck a 28-year old Manny Ramirez from the open market; the Yankees could add Jason Giambi, Hideki Matsui, Gary Sheffield and Johnny Damon in a five-year spell. Now, one can easily envisage a scenario whereby Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen and Giancarlo Stanton never become available to other organisations. Often, we hear about hypothetical nine, ten and eleven-year contracts for these franchise-altering players.

This takes away a certain element of fun, with all teams stockpiling talent, all teams guarding their assets like the Holy Grail, and all teams run by geniuses who'd rather poke at their eyes with a rusty fork than concede even one inch to a near rival. 

Cubbie Renaissance

Here, the Chicago Cubs spring to mind. The switch has been flicked at old Wrigley Field, with an already awesome front office headed by Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod adding Joe Maddon, conventionally adjudged to be amongst the most effective managers presently working in baseball, to the enthralling rebuild. The Cubs' very pursuit of Maddon, regardless of Rick Renteria's presence, symbolised an increase in intensity, a quickening transition, a definitive move of the cycle. Maddon, a beacon of vibrant enthusiasm and throbbing desire, instantly puts the Cubs back at the big table, chewing on a gourmet banquet of extreme positivity. The bar has been raised and, pretty soon, games will matter again on the near North Side.

With the Wrigley renovations finally beginning, and a new television deal in the offing, Chicago executives can finally envisage a profound revenue stream which will allow them to make the moves necessary to enrich the homegrown core and begin to attain the lofty objective of competing at the Major League level. Everybody knows the Cubs need starting pitching. Do they go and pluck a Scherzer or Lester from the pile? Will they stitch together a few mid-level arms, such as Justin Masterson and Francisco Liriano? How about a veteran catcher named Martin to coax the best from Jake Arrieta and Travis Wood?

Theo and Jed have toiled tirelessly in stripping and redesigning entirely in their own image the entire Cubs organisation. Finally, they've reached a point where the cornucopia is ready to bloom. One winter of pointed ambition could truly transform their timetable for success, alter forever the complexion of baseball in Chicago, and echo in the annals of baseball history, if the right parts fall into place. 

Beantown Retool 

Meanwhile, in Boston, where Epstein and Hoyer cut their teeth and honed their legend, Ben Cherington, a valued former colleague and present adversary, is similarly preoccupied with adding transformational cogs to his spluttering machine of enigmatic prospects.

At this point, Red Sox Nation is a confused and restless place. After experiencing two 90-loss seasons sandwiched between a deeply emotional World Championship, and watching a succession of stars traded away amid fiscal restructuring, we no longer know what to expect from the Olde Towne Team. 

This winter, the Sox must reiterate their intention to compete in the largest market. After losing Jacoby Ellsbury, failing to offer Jon Lester his true worth, and instigating an impromptu fire sale last summer, Boston needs to flex some muscle. After the debacle of Grady Sizemore and the failure of any prospect beside Mookie Betts to perform, Boston needs to show itself. After a succession of dreary seasons wrapped around one sweet aberration, and just one playoff appearance in the last five years, Boston must come out fighting. 

We need to see that ownership is still interested; that owning Liverpool Football Club hasn't drained Fenway Sports Group of ambition and cash. 

Similarly, the Sox need to find a player who is truly thrilling to watch; a player who can fill the humongous void of class and charisma still gaping from the departure of Kevin Youkilis and, in particular, Manny Ramirez. They need a genuine megastar capable of filling the Boston market; an in-prime competitor to Tom Brady as the biggest media draw in New England. Papi and Pedroia need backup, and Sox fans yearn for that one character who, like Manny, can transcend the sport and city. 

In short, the Red Sox need Giancarlo Stanton. Badly.

As baseball fans, we want to see the biggest stars play for the greatest teams, in the most thriving cities. Stanton, this hulking mass of giddy raw potential, is undoubtedly one of the brightest stars this new era of baseball has to offer. The guy already has 154 career home runs and five consecutive seasons of twenty round-trippers or the age of 25! He is without question the greatest slugger this burgeoning generation will ever see.

Yet, one feels ever so slightly sad that he struts his stuff down in Miami, a veritable baseball wasteland, in a bizarre ballpark, for a Marlins team which still routinely struggles to draw even 20,000 fans and seemingly teeters on the fault line of tectonic plate Loria.

What Stanton does is seriously stupendous, but I can't help but think it'd be even more impressive in a city that actually cares. Giancarlo in Boston would be a scintillating story. One I'm anxious to write.

We know the Red Sox like Stanton. Honestly, who doesn't? Therefore, perhaps it's time for Cherington to actively pursue the one piece which would instantly transform the future of his ballclub. The Marlins are working to extend Giancarlo, but nobody knows whether the dollars are available on Miami's side, nor the inclination to remain in baseball purgatory on Stanton's. If negotiations break down, Cherington could step up his efforts to land the big fish, hauling a battalion of prospects into negotiations. At this point, I think the Red Sox would pretty much allow Miami to select a package of any players bar Pedroia and Ortiz. A package centred around Betts and Cespedes? Sure. Bogaerts, Owens and a few mid-level prospects? Go ahead.

Prospects are valued higher now than at any time in living memory but, when the return is Giancarlo Stanton, you hand over the keys to the farm. 

In modern times, Boston has relied heavily on it's young players. They built three championship teams in a decade largely by virtue of prospects flourishing into stars. However, the triumphs of 2004, 2007 and 2013 weren't so much homegrown as home-flavoured. In all three cases, those teams made sparing use of young players for effect, rather than saturation without purpose. 

In 2007, Pedroia and Ellsbury were plugged in seamlessly. In 2013, it was Xander Bogaerts, quietly starring in the World Series at the age of 21. In both cases, there was a galaxy of stars already in place, on which the burden of production lay, and to which the media gravitated. With Manny and Papi and Youk and JD Drew and Josh Beckett in the clubhouse, Pedroia and Ellsbury could slip under the radar, without the instant overbearing pressure to perform. Similarly, with Jon Lester and John Lackey and Shane Victorino leading the way, there was no need for Bogaerts to worry, no rush for him to matriculate before time. 

When the veteran stars were around, Boston rookies could concentrate on being just that. Rookies. Nothing more, nothing less. But, in 2014, the main problems came when a glut of raw youngsters graduated from Pawtucket to Fenway whilst that traditional framework of support simply wasn't in place. Jonny Gomes was traded alongside Lester; Peavy went just like Lackey; Pedroia struggled with injury; Victorino was absent. All too quickly, green players like Christian Vazquez, Jackie Bradley Jr., Allen Webster, Anthony Ranaudo, Rusney Castillo, Mookie Betts, Brock Holt and Ruby De La Rosa were pushed onto the stage and asked to perform in the searing spotlight, without a script. There was no reference point, no veteran shield. The process had been artificially expedited and, naturally, performance suffered across the board. 

Therefore, Cherington must concentrate on enriching the elite end of his Major League club. Perhaps he makes a big splash through free agency or, in evaluating some of the aforementioned prospects, ships an assortment in return for experienced impact talent, namely Stanton.

Regardless of how, the Sox GM must place a winning and sustainable team on the field, so as to restore order to an increasingly bewildered Red Sox Nation, and possibly save his job.

Yankee Dilemma 

As always, the enemy Yankees will be right there trying to spoil the party. After spending $500m last offseason, Brian Cashman will likely be more considered this time around, but still has a few specific roster spots to fill. On the surface, the Bombers likely need a frontline starter, what with Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia coming off injury-plagued years. Will New York dig further into its cash reserve and ink Max Scherzer or Jon Lester to another exorbitant contract? You wouldn't bet against it.

However, this brand of rampant Yankee capitalism seems far more controversial and ineffective than in bygone years. When they constructed a universe of megastars orbiting Giambi and Rodriguez, it seemed almost acceptable, because the results were available for everybody to see. The Yankees were perennial contenders. Yet, with two consecutive seasons where the Yankees have laid low in October, the club's traditional modus operandi has come under increased scrutiny.

In many respects, how the Yankees approach this offseason is emblematic of the entire crossroads faced by Major League teams: do they join the breakaway crowd by building from within, or do they stick to their guns and risk becoming painfully anachronistic?

It's a real dilemma.

On one hand, they are the New York Yankees, with all the history and mystique and meaning that entails. There is a certain precedent, set long ago by the mighty George Steinbrenner, to upkeep; a precedent which calls for a championship-calibre team to don pinstripes each and every season.

But, on the other hand, the modern baseball climate, as outlined above, simply isn't as compatible with exorbitant expenditure as it once was. Accordingly, the Yankees, constricted by albatross contracts given to ageing, injury-prone players such as Mark Teixeira, Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran and Sabathia, find themselves in a philosophical bind. 

Do they risk the wrath of New York by entertaining a very un-Steinbrenner-like rebuild, or keep pouring good money after bad in the hope of buying their way out of trouble? 

Only time will tell.

Dodger decisions

A similar riddle greets Andrew Friedman in Los Angeles, where his Dodgers, bloated from years of over-indulgence, are in dire need of strategic direction. The Dodgers, a sprawling monolith of sports, grew tired of inefficiency after allowing Ned Colletti free reign and now, with a new team of analytical number-crunchers in command, will strive for more organic success.

In LA, Friedman, the former Tampa Bay Rays GM hired as Dodgers Baseball Operations President, will, much like Epstein in his early days with the Red Sox, seek to utilise small market sensibilities regarding financial efficiency, but on a much grander scale. He'll adhere to the same ethos, mastered in Tampa, of milking every drop of value from every dollar spent, but with more freedom and a larger crumple zone.

In this regard, it's highly probable that Friedman will prune the crowded outfield at Chavez Ravine. In Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier and Yasiel Puig, the Dodgers have a lavish group tied to gargantuan contracts. From Friedman's viewpoint of cold mathematics, all four seem grossly overpaid compared with Major League performance. Therefore, trading one or more of these outfielders would be the logical starting point for Friedman and company, should they plan an extreme makeover.

Similarly, the new Dodgers front office, stitched together from valuable cogs in the small market war rooms of Oakland, Tampa and Arizona, subscribes to the modern belief in team chemistry. The aforementioned Joe Maddon was a large part of Friedman's success with the Rays; his manager able to massage every possible victory from the decidedly imperfect roster which could be fashioned with Tampa's minuscule budget.

It's only logical that Friedman would seek to replicate this strong team environment in Los Angeles, which may signal the end of players typically adjudged to be controversial and prickly, such as Puig, Kemp and Crawford. 

Admittedly, we must not lose sight of the fact that this is the Los Angeles Dodgers, equipped with a near bottomless pit of cash. Friedman will naturally scour the market for efficiencies, savings and value, but what happens if, after due diligence, he identifies those attributes in one of the prime free agent players? The prospect of a Kershaw-Greinke-Scherzer-Ryu-Harden rotation, for instance, changes everything, not only in the National League, but in baseball as a whole. 

Ultimately, Friedman has, in Kershaw, a once in a generation building block about which to mould, in his progressive vision, a world class Dodger ballclub. It'll be absolutely fascinating to watch him go about his business this winter. Absolutely fascinating.

Adding on

Elsewhere, the Dodgers' notorious foe, San Francisco, usually takes a year off after winning a World Championship. But, in all seriousness, the Giants, equipped with a fantastic player development system and, in Bruce Bochy, one of the greatest managers of modern times, are always only one or two accent pieces away from serious contention deep into October. 

Similarly, St Louis, a wonderful model franchise, are perhaps just one central superstar away from crossing the Rubicon; Texas, possessing a star-encrusted roster, must decide whether to stick or twist after an injury-ravaged disaster in 2013; and Seattle, freshly endowed with a luxury core of Robinson Cano and Felix Hernandez, will look to add even more impact talent in the fight for relevance.

The search for solutions

Whilst the free agent market is deeper than recent years, it becomes obvious that there simply isn't enough talent to go around. As outlined throughout this article, many of baseball's most powerful organisations require major surgery this winter; surgery beyond the kin of simply dipping into the open market. 

Thus, expect a winter of rampant trading.

Ultimately, the balance of power in Major League Baseball for the next generation rests in the hands of a select cluster of mid-to-small market GMs and owners. Across the land, some of the game's less heralded teams hold extreme autonomy over what shape this sport will take in the years to come. In Miami, where Stanton looms as a glistening prize. In Colorado, where Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez may finally be available. In Philadelphia, where a fire sale is desperately needed. In Tampa, where the Rays must reflect on losing Maddon, Friedman and David Price, the very Rushmore of small market baseball, in the space of three months. Depleted of difference-makers and frustrated as the rest of baseball catches up, do the Rays blow up the whole thing and concentrate on again reinventing the wheel? Do they make Longoria, Ben Zobrist, or Alex Cobb available, risking the eternal admonishment of an already indifferent fanbase and making a move to Montreal ever more likely? 

We just don't know.

What we do know, however, is that these smaller teams have the commodities about which the larger organisations dream. The Red Sox love Giancarlo. The Yankees, Mets and Cardinals yearn for Tulo. The Cubs want Cole Hammels. 

Thus, we see how, in contemporary baseball, the little guy is the kingmaker. He has the assets and ability to shape an entire industry for the next decade. He, finally, has power.

The traditional powerhouses still have a sweet tooth for the cotton candy of superstar excess, but, with time, have become more disciplined, more restrained, more dignified. Now, they're cautious and careful, about chemistry and finance. More than ever, they build for the long term rather than the short.

Amid this tense cauldron each winter, we see which teams are most creative, which teams care deepest about winning, and which teams are sincere in their commitment to fielding a championship-calibre ballclub. 

These days, it takes extreme guts and guile to be a Major League executive. There are no hiding places and no margin for error. One twitch or whim could alter, for better or worse, the very destiny of ones team for perhaps a decade to come. 

The hot stove is crackling, and everything is up for grabs.

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