The Tampa Bay Rays are maybe the premier model for the sustained success of a very small-market team in MLB today, and they got there with Wall Street maneuvering by smart, urbane men. Jonah Keri chronicled their relentless pursuit of marginal advantages in ‘The Extra 2%,’ and that terrific tome lays out how important it can be to think like a financier when constructing a ball club.
When evaluating the construction of a club, though, one must think more like a surveyor, or a forester. Roster moves are trees. Some seem well-placed; some do not. Some are appealing in visage, aroma or spacing; some look sickly or appear to block your path. Nor are those perceptions wrong. Trees can be poorly placed; planted at the wrong time to maximize chances of survival; or get Dutch Elm Disease. The thing is, the trees don’t matter. You have to see the forest, and the forest is the roster itself.
That’s a fairly unclear cliche, so let me clarify through example. The Mets have made two major moves this winter, trading R.A. Dickey and others for two elite prospects and a short-term catching upgrade, and extending David Wright for $138 million over eight years. Both moves are very good in and of themselves. They’re both tall, sturdy trees, maybe good for picnicking under, maybe good for climbing.
I still don’t like the Mets’ offseason so far. The individual moves they have made make sense, but the big picture here–the forest–is eclectic and not well-formed. The choice to rebuild even as they commit huge long-term money to Wright leaves one wondering what their target window in which to compete is, and the crucial question of their willingness and ability to spend on the free market remains unanswered.
The Diamondbacks are the antithesis of the Mets. They’ve had sort of a weird winter. Their three big moves: trading Chris Young to Oakland, basically, for Cliff Pennington and Miami’s Heath Bell; dealing Trevor Bauer, Matt Albers and Bryan Shaw to Cleveland for the Reds’ Didi Gregorius and the Indians’ Tony Sipp and Lars Anderson; and signing Cody Ross for three years and $26 million. None of these transactions strike me as a steal, or even an especially astute measure of the market.
Looking over the Arizona roster, though, they now have three competent defensive shortstops (two with some offensive upside); six big-league outfielders whose skill sets complement one another quite well; the flexibility to use Jason Kubel to mitigate Paul Goldschmidt’s weaknesses; six good starting pitchers; and a slightly improved bullpen. It’s an 87-90 win team, a true contender, despite the appearance that GM Kevin Towers has not blown anyone away with his brilliant machinations.
Last example: the Boston Red Sox. I don’t love three-year, $39-million commitments to Shane Victorino and Mike Napoli. I don’t love this Joel Hanrahan trade. I don’t love locking oneself in for two years each with Ryan Dempster, Jonny Gomes and David Ross. Yet, the roster resulting from these non-sexy moves has a case as the AL East’s best, and after the megadeal with the Dodgers in August (which also was not perfect on its own), they now have long-term flexibility and a really deep organization.
On some level, most thinking fans understand all this. You don’t list the winter’s moves on the back of the envelope when you and your friend are huddled over the table at the diner. You write out the lineup, the rotation, the bench, the bullpen. Yet, people always fall for the hype when teams make big waves, even if the result of those waves is a creaky, poorly aligned and poorly deployed roster. We saw it last winter with the Angels, and may see it again in 2013 with the Dodgers. The trees in front all look good, but the forest remains unhealthy. You have to see the latter, not the former, when evaluating teams during the long winter.Next post: Rebuilding is an Odyssey, and the Cubs Are Just Floating By
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