When Yankees general manager Brian Cashman has an idea for a trade, one of his staffers related the other day, he will wait days before raising the concept with the other team. In the interim, he and his staff will deliberate over all sides of the would-be proposal, assessing and reassessing, like geologists turning and studying each millimeter of a rock.
Only after he is wholly educated on value involved will he make the call, fully armed to discuss what he wants out of the deal, and prepared to anticipate what the other guy might want. After two decades of running the Yankees, Cashman tends to not be reflexive or reactive, if he ever was. His many years of experience — the failures and the successes — have made him better. The same is said of two of his big-market peers, the Cubs’ Theo Epstein and the Dodgers’ Andrew Friedman.
Many factors have contributed to the stagnant winter market, from the impact of the luxury-tax threshold to the growing trend of teams opting to be really bad rather than merely mediocre (i.e., tanking). Another is that three of the teams with greatest resources — the Dodgers, Cubs and Yankees — are run by baseball operations executives devoted to efficiency.
This trio of big-spending teams might be among the clubs least likely to make impulse buys along the lines of the Angels’ 10-year signing of Albert Pujols — a contract put together by owner Arte Moreno in about 48 hours — or in the way George Steinbrenner used to negotiate with players he liked. Working independently from his front office to sign David Wells and Gary Sheffield, he impetuously scribbled out terms on napkins, because he could.
The players and their union would benefit from some recklessly aggressive spenders right now, especially at the top of baseball’s food chain. But that is not how Epstein, Friedman and Cashman operate.
“They’ve each had a ton of success,” said one of their peers on management side. “The tools they use are even sharper. They try to analyze and quantify, and they look at things like aging trends. And then there’s the discipline that’s required.”
Yes, fans get excited, media members criticize and cajole, and owners can push and nudge based on feedback they’re getting from friends. Friedman, Cashman and Epstein have constructed mute buttons on that sort of stuff, the peer said, and tend to ignore it.
Consider the Dodgers’ situation with Zack Greinke, the executive said. In the fall of 2015, Greinke reached free agency after a Cy Young-caliber season, and the Dodgers offered a five-year deal, for a contract in the range of $150 million. He turned it down, and then waited. And the Dodgers waited. And waited.
When Friedman was with the Tampa Bay Rays, he was forced by circumstances to not even consider players as expensive as Greinke. He had to work from the other side of the offseason menu, those areas where you had to identify the most appropriate investments.
“Andrew placed a specific value on what he was comfortable with in those [Greinke] negotiations,” an executive recalled. “He was not going to go beyond that.”
With Greinke unsigned and hanging in the market, the Diamondbacks swooped in and quickly worked out a six-year, $206.5 million deal — another classic example of an impetuous contract negotiated at the ownership level. In the days after the move went down, the Dodgers and Friedman absorbed a lot of negative reviews for allowing a great pitcher to get away (including from this writer), in spite of the franchise’s spending power. Greinke is about to enter Year 3 of the contract and, the evaluator said, it’s apparent that Friedman absolutely made the right call not to compete with the D-backs’ offer.
Long-term contracts on veteran free agents, the evaluator said, “are — at best — a 50-50 outcome for the teams. They can be really harmful, and having the [financial] flexibility is really important as you’re trying to put together a roster.”
Evaluators also referenced how Epstein, Friedman and Cashman have all placed a high priority on building good farm systems, to create a steady stream of young talent that reduces or even eliminates desperation in the pursuit of a trade or free agent. Yes, the Dodgers probably could have made an aggressive push to get Giancarlo Stanton, to plant him in the middle of their lineup, but they were concerned about his performance at the back end of his 10-year, $295 million deal — what he’d be in 2025, 2026 or 2027. The Dodgers already have the 22-year-old Cody Bellinger and the 23-year-old Corey Seager to anchor their lineup. The Cubs had similar concerns about Stanton’s contract, and their lineup is filled with young players they’ve drafted and developed or traded for, from Anthony Rizzo to Kris Bryant to Willson Contreras.
Because the Yankees have access to the DH, they weren’t as concerned about having a landing spot for Stanton later in his baseball life. “And they didn’t have to give up any of their elite prospects to get him,” one GM said. “They waited until the price tag was shaved down to $243 million, instead of $300 million. It sounds strange, but it became a value deal for them — and they still have their prospects.”
Not every deal works out. When Epstein was with the Red Sox, he would joke about his own failed attempts to find a long-term shortstop solution for Boston. Two years into Jason Heyward’s eight-year, $184 million deal, that appears to be a mistake because his strong defensive play has not fully offset his offensive struggles. Cashman advised the Yankees’ owners to let Alex Rodriguez go in the fall of 2007, rather than give him the 10-year, $275 million contract, but Cashman pushed for the signing of outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, who is now dead weight on the New York roster with three years remaining on his deal. It’s possible that in playing his hand conservatively, Friedman may have passed on players who could’ve been difference-makers for the Dodgers, a team so close to winning its first title since 1988. Everybody who runs a team long enough will make deals — or not — that will work against them; that’s the nature of competition.
But Friedman, Cashman and Epstein work carefully to improve. When Epstein assumed control of the Cubs, an internal conversation started with this premise: They wanted to be the best at everything. In talent acquisition and development, of course, but also in helping players make their families more comfortable, in helping them transition from level to level more smoothly. The Cubs aimed to be the best in nutrition, in designing and constructing a new clubhouse, in their medical practices.
Part of the conventional wisdom about the market slowdown this winter is that the Yankees and Dodgers are preparing for a gaudy free-agent splurge later this year, after Bryce Harper and Manny Machado hit the open market. By working to get under the luxury tax threshold this winter, the Dodgers and Yankees could reduce their exposure to penalties if they sign the most expensive players next winter.
But if you’re assuming that Friedman or Cashman will shove their respective teams into deals of $300 million-plus with a Harper or a Machado, then you haven’t been paying attention, rival officials say. “Those guys are not wired that way,” said an NL evaluator. “They’ve been burned on some of those kinds of deals. I don’t see them doing that again.
“Do we really know who the best players in baseball are going to be in five years? [Mike] Trout, maybe Machado. But there’s a lot we don’t know, which is why those deals carry a lot of risk.”
The Cubs probably could use Arrieta in 2018, but they don’t appear to be interested in signing the right-hander if it means giving him a monster six-year contract; they have instead focused on less expensive options, like Tyler Chatwood (who signed a three-year, $38 million deal) and Alex Cobb (who remains unsigned).
So much of what is happening in the market now is about risk management, and even executives who could probably assume more risk than just about anybody else — Epstein, Friedman, Cashman — continue to diligently devote themselves to making a proper assessment, backed by ownership groups that trust them.
Baseball’s current labor issues
Fourteen months after the negotiations on the most recent collective bargaining agreement, the working relationship between the Major League Baseball Players Association and Major League Baseball might be at its worst since the labor stoppage of 1994-95. The latest evidence: The two sides have had almost no formal negotiations about the forthcoming pace-of-play rules. In lieu of progress, MLB will unilaterally implement its own regulations before the start of spring training, including a pitch clock of 20 seconds and some limitations on mound visits.
Under Michael Weiner, the former union chief who passed away in 2013, the players’ association and Major League Baseball developed a collaborative relationship through which there has been labor peace and prosperity. The value of the teams has never been higher, and the average wage for players has never been higher.
But in the last round of CBA negotiations, many agents believe, the union lost enormous financial ground, through decisions that have seemingly manifested the past two winters, in the depression of the free-agent market.
Some of the same agents who last year predicted the current problems now privately believe that the union will continue to entrench on issues like pace of play in order to register unhappiness over the stagnancy in the free-agent market. If that theory is accurate, the strategy makes no sense. That would be like a pitcher giving up a home run and allowing anger over that result to spill over into the next at-bat.
It would be a lot more productive to handle the current struggles the way the players do in their everyday work as batters and pitchers. The union and its members should ask hard and necessary questions about past performance; they should be wholly accountable about the choices and learn, and make necessary adjustments for future talks, rather than diving into a bunker and creating rumblings about a possible work stoppage in the next round of labor talks (something that’s already been raised with young players this winter).
The idea that the market slowdown is due to collusion, some longtime agents believe, is laughable. That comes off as an excuse to them.
“I don’t think for one instant that this is collusion,” one agent said. “[The union] negotiated the terms of this CBA, and it’s up to us [the agents] to adjust and give the best possible advice to our clients based on the market.”
Weiner and Rob Manfred navigated through one negotiation after another because they understood the serious damage that would be inflicted on both sides if there was a strike or a lockout.
They talked constantly and fought through their disagreements proactively and productively, and everybody has benefitted.
That relationship probably cannot be replicated, but moving forward, it should be a model of what the union and MLB can strive for together. Anything less is just passive-aggressive waste.