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Can Baseball’s Dying Middle Class Be Saved?

A disturbing trend has emerged this offseason: Mid-tier teams are joining the cellar dwellers in selling off coveted players. It’s definitely bad for players and probably bad for the sport, but it does create an avenue for ambitious teams to quickly turn into contenders. Will anyone try?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Baseball’s best teams are more dominant than at any prior point in this century. In 2017, three teams won 100 games, which was the first time that happened since 2003. Then it happened again in 2018. From 2010 to 2014, only one team, the 2011 Phillies, posted a triple-digit win total. Because baseball is zero-sum—each season features an equal number of wins and losses—those wins have to come from somewhere.

This past season, three different teams lost 100 games in the same season for the first time since 2002, which seems to indicate that in addition to great teams getting better, awful teams are getting worse. But if there’s a trend so far in the young 2018-19 offseason, it’s that the top clubs in the league—the Red Sox, Yankees, Astros, Dodgers, and the like—will soon find a new source of wins: not just the basement-dwelling clubs, but MLB’s disappearing middle class. This offseason, it’s not just rebuilding teams selling off aging and expensive veterans. Teams that until recently had playoff aspirations are also selling off good players on team-friendly contracts.

Earlier this decade, an above-average, but not great, team could sneak into the playoffs and, with a few breaks, make a run all the way to the World Series. The Royals won back-to-back pennants this way, and the Giants won the World Series three times with deeply flawed rosters. That 102-win Phillies team lost in the first round to the 90-win St. Louis Cardinals, who sneaked into the playoffs on the last day of the season, then went on to win the title when David Freese turned into Reggie Jackson for two weeks.

As recently as a decade ago, the prevailing sabermetric wisdom was that the playoffs were generally unpredictable—an uninspiring 89-win team could knock off an unbeatable-looking 98-win team, so just making it to the playoffs was the important thing. That’s not really true anymore. The past three World Series champions each won at least 101 games, and all of their opponents were deep, well-constructed teams that have sustained success for multiple seasons—even the 2018 Dodgers were favorites to win the NL pennant despite stumbling through the regular season. While it’s possible for the equivalent of the 2007 Rockies or 2014 Royals to drag a ramshackle roster to the World Series, it’s much harder to do now than it was even in the recent past.

The 89-win Seattle Mariners have already traded their starting catcher, Mike Zunino, to Tampa Bay, and their best pitcher, James Paxton, to the Yankees. They’re also considering trading second baseman Robinson Canó, as well as two of their four 2018 All-Stars: shortstop Jean Segura and closer Edwin Díaz. The Diamondbacks, who won 82 games in 2018 after making the playoffs in 2017, are reportedly shopping first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, the best position player in franchise history. The Mets, who despite the woe they inspire have a playoff-quality starting rotation and several talented young hitters in a winnable division, are looking into trading right-hander Noah Syndergaard, the hardest-throwing starter in baseball this year (min. 150 IP), rather than surrounding him with solid supplementary players.

Then there’s Cleveland, which has managed six consecutive winning seasons under manager Terry Francona, and has won the past three division titles. The future looks equally bright: The Indians have essentially the entire core of their roster under team control on below-market deals for the next few years, during which the AL Central looks set to give them an automatic bye to the ALDS. And yet, the Indians are inviting trade offers for two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, as well as catcher Yan Gomes, starter Carlos Carrasco, and other veterans.

One could make an argument that clubs like the Diamondbacks and Mariners are nearing the end of a competitive cycle, but teams with winning records are also deciding, with alarming frequency, to get better by getting worse first.

This is definitely bad for the players and probably bad for baseball in general. More selling teams creates a buyer’s market not only for trades but also for free agency. Player salaries are severely depressed up until free agency, and now when the time comes for them to cash in, they’re finding potential suitors less interested in paying for established players, and extremely hesitant to throw big money at players in their 30s. Instead of filling their roster with veteran free agents, teams prefer to lean on younger, cheaper, pre-arbitration players. This upsets the balance of the bargain the MLBPA has struck not only with ownership but within its own ranks: Young players pay their dues early so they can cash in big as veterans. For all but the biggest stars, that’s just not how it works anymore.

Moreover, baseball relies on hope as a sales pitch. Spring training optimism is a long-lived and really wonderful sporting tradition. As the weather turns warmer and drier, baseball fans emerge from winter hibernation embracing at least the possibility that their team has a shot to win it all this year. And not just Yankees, Red Sox, and Dodgers fans, but fans of rebuilding or mediocre teams can look down the road and see a path to the postseason if their club just gets a few breaks. It’s hard to gin up that kind of optimism when ownership is selling off the players who’d give fans a reason to be optimistic in the first place.

If there’s good news in this relatively bleak long-term picture, it’s that this sudden leaguewide sell-off presents an opportunity for an enterprising middle-class team to turn into a championship contender quickly and relatively easily. It’s not always possible to build a winning team during one offseason. Sometimes the free-agent class is weak or the trade market is sleepy, and there just aren’t that many bargains to be had. Not so this year. Manny Machado and Bryce Harper headline an exceptional free-agent class—MLB hasn’t seen a pair of position players this good hit the open market at the same time since Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramírez in the winter of 2000-01. And in addition to top-level talent, this year’s free-agent class is full of useful veterans available on shorter or less expensive deals, as the Braves proved by signing former AL MVP Josh Donaldson to a one-year, $23 million deal. That’s a big offensive improvement for a team that batted Nick Markakis (.400 SLG in four years with the Braves) cleanup 157 times last year.

Then there’s the trade market. With more sellers than ever and fewer buyers, teams with prospects to move, cash to spend on veteran players a rebuilding team might want to move, and courage to make a big deal have their pick of players to fill out their lineups. And even baseball’s elite teams are reaching the end of their willingness or ability to buy. The Cubs and Red Sox both built up tremendous farm systems earlier this decade, but now those prospects are either in the majors or have been traded for veteran contributors. The Dodgers and Yankees, meanwhile, are talking about staying under the luxury tax rather than building an unbeatable juggernaut, which kind of defeats the point of being the Yankees or Dodgers in the first place.

Consider the position of a team in that dwindling middle class if such a club wanted to buy this offseason. It would have numerous avenues for improvement, and therefore tremendous leverage in negotiations either in a trade or free agency. Last offseason was one of the slowest free-agent markets in recent memory, but one of the most aggressive teams was the Milwaukee Brewers, who paid a reasonable price for free agents Lorenzo Cain and Jhoulys Chacín and traded prospects for Christian Yelich. In 2018, Yelich and Cain were Milwaukee’s two best position players, and Chacín was the best starting pitcher on a club that improved 10 games and tied a franchise record with 96 regular-season wins. Milwaukee came within a game of the World Series, and won as many playoff games last year (six) as it had in the previous 35 seasons put together. Some of Milwaukee’s success was the result of clever or innovative strategy, but that cleverness didn’t put the Brewers over the top: going out and buying up good players did. There’s nothing stopping other teams from going out and doing likewise.

It was probably once true that the tank-and-rebuild strategy that led the Cubs and Astros to titles in 2016 and 2017 was an innovative way to—in the immortal terms of Moneyball—exploit a market inefficiency. No longer. The pendulum has swung too far the other way, with too much emphasis on team control and cost efficiency, and too little on the risks of the hard tank. There are times when a team’s roster is so broken it has to be torn down to the foundation, but tanking is time consuming and extremely difficult. The Cubs needed to nail four top-10 picks in a row to win their title, while the Astros needed to conjure Marwin González, José Altuve, and Dallas Keuchel out of a bucket of odds and ends, then swindle the Tigers out of Justin Verlander. And even in those cases, those championship windows were preceded by at least five years of noncompetitive bottom-feeding. There are easier ways to win a title.

With sufficient investment, a team with money or young talent to spare could essentially snap its fingers and fill the remaining holes on its roster. The Braves, by signing Donaldson, are doing precisely that. Their division rivals, the Phillies, are not far behind—after signing 2015 Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta last offseason, owner John Middleton is talking a big game about going after free agents this offseason, to the possible chagrin of GM Matt Klentak, who’s part of a generation of executives who view big-name free agents as inefficient expenditures of capital.

More teams should take advantage of this favorable market. The Rays won 90 games last year with a $68.8 million payroll—almost exactly half the MLB median. Imagine how many games they could win if they spent even an average amount of money. Or imagine the Padres, rumored to be a landing spot for Segura, supplementing their major league–ready prospects like catcher Francisco Mejía and infielders Fernando Tatís and Luis Urias with a bat like Harper’s or an arm like Patrick Corbin’s.

In a league in which teams are owned by billionaires or billion-dollar companies, and each club gets a share of billions of dollars in broadcast revenue, it’s unfortunate that so few organizations are lining up to spend what it takes to field a winning team. But this trend, while troubling for the game at large, will in the short term reward owners and GMs who invest in their clubs. We praise athletes for giving their all for a winning cause; this offseason, teams with the will to win will be rewarded more than at any time in recent memory.