The Core Four. Gehrig and Ruth. MJ and Scottie. Magic vs Bird. All cornerstone pieces around which the foundations of dynasties were built. All fundamental to periods of sustained success. All synonymous with the franchises on which they played. And all, perhaps, representative of an outgoing era in MLB.
About a week ago I wrote about the league-shaking trade sending Mookie Betts to the Dodgers, and what it could mean for Aaron Judge. I would like to take the time to examine more broadly how that trade, as well as various other rumblings during the offseason, illustrate changing approaches with regard to roster composition.
For much of this millennium, the framework for assembling a contending team remained mostly stable. The formula comprised of cultivating homegrown talent into superstars, and constructing the team around them. These supporting pieces often came in the form of big-money free agent acquisitions or trade deadline additions.
These past few offseasons, the most recent in particular, have challenged that convention. While teams do still focus their efforts on building from the farm up, the efforts to keep hold of that young talent have become far less sincere. Players whose departures would in the past have seemed unthinkable, like a Mookie Betts, have now become far more expendable.
Francisco Lindor rumors circled toward the beginning of the free agency period. Nolan Arenado continues to add fuel to the flames surrounding his disconnect with the Colorado front office. Kris Bryant found himself on the trading block amidst his service time grievance with the Cubs.
These players are the faces of their respective franchises. Borderline immortals in the eyes of their young fans, they are the beating hearts of their clubhouses. That their teams are so willing to shop them around should seem inconceivable. It evokes imaginations of the Yankees putting Derek Jeter up for sale, an action which would have sparked riots.
The corporatization of baseball teams has helped drive these changes. More than ever, MLB players are treated as commodities with peaks and troughs in value, and bullish vs. bearish markets in which to deal them. Whereas previously one saw massive contracts handed out on extensions or in free agency to players in their 31+ year-old seasons (Robinson Cano, Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, and Alex Rodriguez all come to mind), these ten-year deals carrying into the players’ forties are rapidly becoming extinct.
No longer are established veterans being as handsomely rewarded for their past contributions. Now it is agreed that such contracts would hamstring current franchises under the auspices of payroll flexibility. Let’s be fully honest, between the net worths of the owners, the ludicrous image rights and television deals, and the revenue sharing system, every team (except maybe the Marlins) can afford to exceed the CBT. This isn’t to say doing so would be a financially prudent decision, but in no way would such a move cripple the team or owner.
Owners do not like to get burned on deals, particularly ones in which the tail-ends may return negative value. And in this dawning era of commoditization, owners especially do not want to give up an asset for free/no return. It makes more sense to trade a player than retain them in their final year of team control, even if that means hampering a chance at World Series contention. So how has this manifested itself with respect to player negotiations and roster construction?
While the aim is to still build around young controllable position players, the methodology differs. There are now two predominant courses of action. The first is to buy out the arbitration/free agency years of developed young talent to team-friendly contracts (see: Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies, Eloy Jimenez, Luis Robert, Aaron Hicks, and Luis Severino to name a few).
The second is to capitalize on player’s value at its acme. A team may feel it is worth more to trade a player at the trade deadline in the second year of arbitration or the winter before the third year of arbitration than to hold onto them. The key is maximizing value, whether this is extracting value out of a player’s affordable years, or returning value via trade. And so Mookie Betts is in Los Angeles.
What the Betts’ trade and the speculation around Arenado, Bryant, and Lindor reveal is the fleeting nature of a team’s championship window. Teams used to field the best talent they could, even if the odds of winning a championship were slim. Now teams who have determined that the path to the World Series is not clear have also decided that keeping the players needed to do so does not make sense. It is why teams who have recently won the World Series (Red Sox and Cubs) or even made the playoffs (Indians and Rockies) appear to be conceding competitiveness in the near future.
Does this bode ominous for the Yankees? The Bombers have their own crop of young superstars under team control, including Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, and Gleyber Torres. In addition, Masahiro Tanaka and James Paxton are both in contract years and figure to be indispensable pieces in New York’s championship aspirations.
Gerrit Cole’s signing signals a spending shift for the Yankees and incontrovertibly reveals that their championship window is still wide open. It gives hope that greater effort will be expended to retain the current cost controlled players who are instrumental in that pursuit, even when their prices rise.
While some teams seem to accept the closing of artificially transient championship windows, there are still reasons for optimism for MLB. Having several of the perennial division leaders take steps back this offseason allows other teams to enter contention. Indeed, we have already seen teams like the Angels, Twins, White Sox, and Reds attempt to seize the opportunity at playoff runs with massive free agency expenditures. This re-ignition of the offseason hot stove was a welcome sight after two straight frosty free agencies. Let us hope these new roster trends yield improved on-field products.