The state of preparing to compete has no predefined end point

February 25, 2021

Many people have written thoughtfully and righteously about Kevin Mather, the now-former President and CEO of the Seattle Mariners, publicly denigrating players in the organization and openly admitting to service time manipulation. In some respects, it’s amazing he said such racist crap on video, and yet those of us who have paid even scant attention to the business side of Major League Baseball over the past decade shouldn’t have been surprised that someone would slip up and admit the obvious, that these days winning baseball games is still part of MLB teams’ purpose, but it’s nowhere near as important to their existence as it used to be.

I’ve been thinking a lot about a post on USS Mariner that lays out the argument cleanly and directly. You should read it, because while USS Mariner is a Mariners blog, and so it’s about Mather, it’s also very much about how many fans who aspired to a certain brand of savviness internalized a management point of view and management-inspired values, which I definitely recognize in myself. I cringe when I think about how often I argued about athletes as “assets” and cheered “smart management” like keeping promising minor leaguers off the big league roster long enough to gain another year of team control in the arbitration process on the back end.

It’s all gross and weird because now, I’ve come around to identifying more with players than management. I still want my team, the San Francisco Giants, to be successful, but now I’m far more inclined to wish a player happiness and fulfillment than wish management skims a few bucks here and there until they’re able to sign a slightly better reliever. To someone peering through the management lens, it might appear I don’t want the Giants to win as much as possible, but actually I believe that modern MLB management isn’t focused on winning, but on finding value, and building a winning roster is just one of many ways to maximize value from a given starting point.

The scheme is simple, really. For the modern MLB team, they can compete, or they can be in a state of preparing to compete, and the state of preparing to compete has no predefined end point. So the Giants' starting rotation this year could have Anthony DeSclafani, Alex Wood, and Aaron Sanchez(!) this year. Scott Kazmir(!!!) signed a minor league deal. And they ended a long streak of avoiding arbitration entirely by going through with it over $650k for breakout infielder Donovan Solano. All of which makes sense if they’re trying to field a roster that produces more baseball value as measured by the going rate than what the Giants will pay out this year.

But because I’m not management, and my priority as a fan is winning, the question is: When will they compete? Is it going to be when Joey Bart is in his third full season and Hunter Bishop and Marco Luciano get called up? Because by then Yaz will be 33 and Brandon Belt will be on another team and God knows what the pitching situation will be. Or will they trade Bart for “more assets" knowing they just drafted catcher Patrick Bailey out of college this year?

What the USS Mariner piece argues so plainly and effectively, I think, is that ultimately the downside of losing is so incredibly unpainful for management that of course they'll try to find a sweet spot of being on the verge of contending in some fuzzy-yet-visible future, with enough wiggle room to reset the clock without actually getting to contending, because that's expensive. Just look around MLB, and, with the notable exceptions of the Padres, Dodgers, and — I guess? — the Mets, virtually every ballclub has refrained from going all-out to compete for a championship this year.

Should MLB’s powers see this as a problem, the plausibly actionable solutions are all far too timid to make much of a difference because from the management perspective, being able to make good money whether the on-field product has been managed well or not is an ideal state of affairs and they’re unlikely to change without a major rupture. I’ve spent way too much time thinking about how to implement promotion/relegation systems at the highest levels of American sports, and I have a bunch of ideas about how to make it work in baseball, especially one level below MLB, where extensive travel could be a problem, and I thought about snarking that pro/rel should be attractive to MLB teams because that way they wouldn't have to pay for any minor league systems at all… and… and… yeah, gotta stop spiraling.

(Photo: "HDR Wrigley Field" by Jasen Leathers. Used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.)