You might think baseball has a severe parity problem. You're sick of the top three payrolls -- Yankees, Phillies, and Dodgers -- winning every year, and you wish there were a hard salary cap to fix everything. If so, you might want to check out now. This column will probably just annoy you.
You might think baseball has a slight or moderate parity problem. It's been over a decade since a World Series winner had a payroll in the bottom half of baseball (2003 Marlins). Teams can't buy their way to a championship, but it's not a funny coincidence that the high-payroll teams seem to hang around the postseason water cooler more than the low-payroll teams. If so, this column might be for you.
Before the 2014 season, I spent a lot of time making bad predictions. One of those bad predictions:
The Rays are the best team in the American League
That was nine months ago. I'll go one step further: They weren't just the best team in the AL on paper, they were the best team in baseball. They had pitching and young hitters. David Price might have been the best pitcher in the league. Evan Longoria was one of the best non-Trouts in the league. They didn't have a player on the 25-man roster who didn't make sense in some capacity on a winning team.
Nine months later, that team is being forcefully rejiggered. The obvious reason for the team makeover is that the Rays were surprisingly dreadful in 2014, but that's overlooking the real reason: money. The Rays traded Price because he never entertained the kind of team-friendly deal that Longoria or Ben Zobrist agreed to. They traded Price because that was the only way to get a majors-ready starting pitcher who wouldn't cost a lot. They traded Matt Joyce because he was going to make too much for a platoon bat, even if he was one of the more consistent hitters for the Rays over the last few years.
And now they're reportedly trading Wil Myers. We don't know as of this writing if it's a deal between the Rays and Padres, a three-team deal, or a 17-team deal that ends up with Myers back on the Rays. We'll assume that Myers goes away, and younger players come in, ostensibly further away from arbitration. The young players will be cheaper for longer. Even in a deal where the cheap players get shipped out, the Rays have to think about money.
There are other reasons the Rays might want to get value for Myers now instead of later. This charming quote, for example:
"Last year I came into spring training wanting to prove to everybody, wanting to prove to a new team what I can do," Myers said. "And this year I kind of came into spring training thinking I had already arrived and didn't really work as hard as I should have, like I did the year before."
Self-reflection is a valuable thing. But, man, don't say that stuff out loud. It paints a picture of a player who thinks he has baseball figured out, even though baseball is a 36-sided Rubik's Cube with 64 different colors and 128 different glyphs that need to align.
That's just one possible reason for the Rays to sell low on Myers. It's possible that the Rays traded for him because they thought they could fix his contact issues, and now they're skeptical after last season. It's possible that they have six other moves on the front burner, and they're concerned they'll lose leverage if they acquire two or three other outfielders before dealing Myers.
I'll go with the money explanation, though, even as something that exists background radiation for any of the other reasons. If it takes Myers a while to get his work ethic in gear, do the Rays really want to wait around until he's making money in arbitration? If it takes Myers a while to overcome his high-strikeout ways, do the Rays really want to wait around until he's making money in arbitration? As such, now's the time to deal him. It's not optimal, but even after the injury-riddled down year, Myers still might be as valuable as he'll ever get.
It's fascinating. The way the Rays have to look at every roster is fascinating. It's not just the Rays, either. The A's ditched Josh Donaldson and Brandon Moss before they got expensive, a template they've been following for the last decade. Billy Beane builds a baseball team like someone playing "Eruption" on a harmonica while doing his taxes with his toes at the same time. He doesn't want to do it; he feels like he's forced to do it.
The 5 surprising win-now teams of the offseason
For these five teams, getting to .500 next season would be a marked improvement. Instead, they're convinced they can contend.
Teams like the Rays and the A's are one of the reasons why baseball has the best offseasons and trade deadlines of any North American pro sport, and one of the reasons why it's not close. The level of creativity and imagination they have to employ to keep pace is almost impossible to fathom.
This isn't to say that it's worth the lack of parity. It'd be easy for a jackass like me, someone following a big-spending team, to come to that conclusion. Look at how these other teams have to scramble to stay ahead! How adorable! The tomatoes would fly, they would be rotten, and they would be deserved.
No, this is more a side effect. We can have the parity debate later, but for now, just appreciate how hard the Rays have to work in a division with the Red Sox and Yankees spending five times as much. Look at the different angles they have to examine, the risks they have to take. And look at how fascinating it is for the rest of us.
The NFL offseason is an accountant's delight, with bonuses and cap figures ruling everything. The NBA offseason is a place where the least valuable player in basketball might be an incredibly valuable trade chip if he's in the last year of a laughable deal -- picture teams eyeing Ryan Howard in a couple years, making him a key part of their offseason. More than that, though, teams have a simple, boring strategy: Get the best players. There are rebuilding teams and different philosophies, sure, but in a salary cap world, everyone's dancing around the same chairs, trying to get the best players.
Baseball isn't about getting the best players, necessarily. It is for some teams, forever and always, but for more than a few teams, the question is "How can we sustain this?" How can they trade a side of beef for enough canned goods to last through a tough winter? How can they turn six widgets into 12 blodgets? How can they trade their best players for something that will allow them to procure the best players of the future?
Those are the questions that drive every July 31 deadline, every offseason. It's why David Price gets traded in the first place. It's less about somehow winding up with a star at the end of the day, and more about turning a potentially great player into three good ones and considering it a victory. I'm out of my depth when it comes to the other sports, but it feels like that's a uniquely baseball thing. The different permutations and strategies make for the best hot stove league and trade deadline around. And it has to do with there being clear haves and have-nots.
That doesn't mean it's the best system. That doesn't mean Rays fans aren't right to be annoyed when they have to trade a player like Joyce, a key contributor, at the same time the Dodgers can take a $10 million flyer on Brett Anderson a day before eating all of Brian Wilson's $9.5 million commitment. There's at least one silver lining, though. Look at this wacky offseason. Wait until the next wacky trade deadline, and then get ready for the next wacky offseason. It's creative, advanced-difficulty-setting teams like the Rays that make it happen, even if they wish they didn't really need to be quite this creative.