Why Repeating is So Difficult

In the fall of 2001 I was starting my last year of undergrad, working as an RA, trying to figure out what to do with my life, and using Barry Bonds’ chase of the home run record as a diversion from the reality that was staring me straight in the face.

I have always loved baseball, but at that stage of life I had become a part-time baseball fan. The main reason for this: The Yankees and The Braves. I loved the game, loved the Giants, had started dabbling in some unsophisticated fantasy games, but loathed/detested/hated the post-season. I hated NBC and Bob Costas and Joe Morgan, and then I hated FOX and Joe Buck and Tim McCarver. I hated the fact that Giants only sniffed the playoffs and when they got there bowed out quickly and often in very lame ways. Mostly, I hated the inevitability of the Yankees, and to a lesser extent the Braves. I hated Paul O’Neil and Chipper Jones and that my boyhood hero, Roger Clemens, was in pinstripes. I hated that a team could win 116 regular season games and then fold like a house of cards in the face of the “indomitable” Yankees. And I hated the Braves and the complaining about how they had “only” won one Series despite winning the division every year, because I would have given an arm for “only” one WS trophy. The post-season sucked.

And the Yankees made the World Series again in 2001 and it was this big stupid patriotic thing because of 9/11 and everyone just knew the Yankees would win because New York needed them to. It all seemed wrong…America’s game had been taken over by a corporation, the evil empire, and it was awful. I railed against the system, called for a salary cap, decried the injustice.

And then a funny thing happened: The Diamondbacks won the World Series. The Diamondbacks. They hadn’t even existed five years before this! Then, in 2002 the Yankees lost to the Angels in the FIRST ROUND OF THE PLAYOFFS…the Angels. Then in 2003, the Yankees made it back to the WS and lost to the Marlins…the Marlins? And then, in the kicker of all kickers, in 2004, after having acquired Alex Rodriguez, the Yankees collapsed in the most dramatic and amazing way possible to the Boston Red Sox…the Boston freakin’ Red Sox.

Then the floodgates of weirdness opened up. The White Sox won in 2005 for the first time in a hundred years. The Cardinals won in 2006 after winning only 83 games. The Red Sox won AGAIN in 2007 (hell really had frozen over). The Phillies won in 2008 after spending 30 years as one of the worst franchises in baseball (and the Yankees didn’t even make the playoffs that year!). The Yankees did win in 2009 after spending big, but it didn’t have the same inevitable feeling as the late 90’s teams. And then, miracle of all miracles, the Giants won the World Series this year. (Let me just say that again…the Giants won the World Series this year!!!!!!!)

Since the Yankees late 90’s dynasty no one has repeated as WS champion and only one franchise (the Red Sox) has won 2 and they did it with two pretty different teams.

Meanwhile, people still rail against the injustice of baseball’s structure (even though, over the same 10 year window, the NFL has had 2 teams win half the championships, and the NBA has seen 2 teams win 7 of the championships).

In many ways, the NFL and NBA do have more “fair” economic structures, but it hasn’t produced the same kind of parity at the championship level that baseball has. Why is this?

Much has been said on this subject, but I want to explore my own “pet” theories, so here is part one of a two parter on why it is so hard to repeat as champions in MLB.

Part One: The Big Picture

1) In the early 2000’s MLB created a new collective bargaining agreement that has allowed for revenue sharing and a luxury tax. Far from the “harder” cap system of the NFL it has allowed for small market teams to enjoy a larger revenue stream and has helped curb, to an extent, the spending of the big market franchises.

It’s not a perfect system and I can go on and on about some of the details in the deal, but the bottom line is this: in each major league season there are AT LEAST 10 teams (more like 10-12) that can realistically win the the World Series (I would argue that pre-wild card, there were closer to 5-6).

So, can the Pittsburgh Pirates hope to win the World Series year in and year out? No. But can they (or the Kansas City Royals, or the Oakland A’s, or the Tampa Bay Rays, or the Minnesota Twins, etc) work and exploit the system and be competitive for windows of time? YES!

Some teams (The Yankees, the Red Sox, the Phillies) can spend their way into contention every season. That is inevitable under the current system. However, large market teams do find ways to screw this up all the time (see the Mets, the Dodgers, the Cubs, even the Angels this past year).

The point is there are 10-12 good teams every year, and it is harder and harder to have one supremely dominant team (the Red Sox are going to challenge this notion this year), which means that the 8 that get in to the playoffs are all capable of making a run.

Look at some of the teams that didn’t make it this year: the Cardinals, Rockies, White Sox, and Red Sox. Were the 2010 Giants CLEARLY superior to those teams? Not really. In fact, it’s not hard to imagine one of those teams making it in on the last day of the season and enjoying a Giants-like ride through the playoffs (each team had better line-ups than the Giants and strong starting pitching)…

2) Which brings me to the fickle nature of the playoff system: The Giants have been on the brutal end of this before, but with 8 closely matched teams in 3 short series, statistically speaking, anything can happen. Jose Cruz, in the middle of a Gold Glove season, can drop an easy flyball in soul crushing fashion, or Ian Kinsler can hit a ball off the top of the wall that comes back into fair play. Weird stuff happens and sometimes it screws you over and sometimes it leads to a parade down Market Street.

3) The rise of market-exploiting, statistically minded, smart executives has helped close the gap between rich and poor teams. Mostly this has meant the recognition of the importance of using young, cheap players who offer similar production value to older, more expensive options. Nothing new in this statement, but it has helped create the effect I described in point number 1. When it gets to playoff time, there are a lot of good, evenly matched, teams in the playoffs. And even if all 8 teams aren’t good, the series’ are short enough that mediocre teams can have everything work right at just the right time (see the 2006 Cardinals). The worst team in baseball can beat the best team in baseball in a short series even one out of ten times.

I do not think that it is impossible for a team to repeat under the current conditions. I also think that if the right pieces fall together a shrewdly managed club with deeper resources could put together a good multiple championship run (the Phillies and Red Sox are the closest to this right now).

However, the current economic structure of MLB, though still unfair, has actually created some of the greatest parity the game has ever seen, making repeat championships an impossible (to this point) feat.

Tomorrow we look more specifically at the role pitching plays in repeating as champions.



Windows of Opportunity?

There is much debate over the validity of “windows of opportunity” for major league franchises. Yankees fans will point out that their window is always open, and fans of, say, the Pittsburgh Pirates, will roll their eyes as they’ve heard rumors of this proverbial window for two decades now but have yet to see anything like it.

That being said, there seems to be some validity to the fact that teams build towards something. My hometown Giants have been building a post-Bonds franchise around pitching and defense, suspecting their window to be 2010-2012 (an era where their young pitchers would mature and where some homegrown position players would emerge). They just happened to strike gold in the first year of that window. Even here in Boston, GM Theo Epstein controversially labeled 2010 a “bridge year” indicating that while the team could be competitive (and they likely could have won the division this year if healthy) they were really working towards making a splash and big push for 2011 and beyond (and boy was that the understatement of the decade).

So now we come to the hand-wringing over the Zack Greinke-to-the-Brewers trade. For some reason I know a lot of people from Missouri who grew up rooting for the Royals and they, to a person, seem to see this trade as “classic Royals.” “Just when we get a good, homegrown player who has had some success and who we like, the team trades them or lets them go in free agency claiming some future payoff down the road.” They will then cite the all-star team of players who were prospects with the Royals but played their prime years elsewhere: Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye, Carlos Beltran, etc, etc.

There is also hand-wringing in Milwaukee, where some see this move as another overpay for a small window of opportunity (i.e. trading several prospects to Cleveland for three months of CC Sabathia in 2008 when they made the playoffs but got swept out of the first round). The window, they argue, is only for one year, and when Prince Fielder leaves after the 2011 season, others (Greinke, Marcum, Weeks) will soon follow leaving a few good players (Gallardo and Braun) with no prospects left to fill in the blanks. It’ll be ugly!

I would argue, though, that this is exactly the trade both teams should be making given where they are at in their “window” cycle. It is, quite possibly, the most perfect baseball trade in recent memory. This is not a small market team dumping a soon to be expensive player in the laps of a perennial powerhouse with resources to absorb the financial hit. Nor is it a mid-market team trying to make a foolish off-season splash to generate interest among its fan base. It is EXACTLY the kind of move each team should be making right now.

There are other articles out there on the interweb that explain each team’s situation better than I will here, but consider this while I build to the point I want to make about the Giants.

1) Milwaukee: There is a very good chance that they lose Fielder at the end of the year. I get that. However, even if they do they still will have three guys in their rotation who are beasts (Greinke, Marcum, Gallardo). They also will still have a middle of the order force in Ryan Braun. If 2011 even goes remotely to plan and they can get in the playoffs, the revenue bump should make keeping Greinke/Weeks/Marcum a whole lot easier especially if they DON’T go all in on Fielder (just think of the cheap and decent 1B options out there right now and it’s easy to see how they could deal with his loss). As Ken Rosenthal points out, the Brewers have every small and mid-market teams dream: a core of under 30 pitchers and position players together for a 1-2 season run at glory (possibly longer if they play this right). This is the window that every team in their situation is working towards and they should be commended for going for it even if 2013 could be awful.

2) Kansas City: Despite the track record, the Royals are actually doing things the right way behind the scenes. Drayton Moore has been building a farm system that is now the envy of baseball. Just as the Rays did from 2008-2010 and the Twins have done for years, the Royals are about enter into a phase starting in 2012 where they will roll out excellent young players at almost every position (and throughout the starting rotation). Nothing, obviously, is guaranteed, and my cynical KC friends will tell you that the Royals will figure out a way to mess this up, but they just added four pretty good guys to a mix that could flip the power structure of the AL Central around over the course of the next five seasons. This is exactly the kind of move the Royals should be making [note: some will point out that the Royals could have received better players from other teams who were interested, but it seems that Greinke would not have been a fit with those teams, either because of wariness on the part of other other team (Yankees), or Zack not wanting to go there (Blue Jays, Nationals)].

What does this have to do with the Giants? This is all about a team accurately assessing where it is at in its competitive window and being able to make shrewd moves given the current market situation. My argument is not that this was a good or bad trade vis a vis the players involved, but that it is the PERFECT type of trade given where each team is at in its window.

In my last post I debated whether the Giants have done enough this off-season. My conclusion (given the market and what was available to them in resources) is: yes. That being said, since they are right in the middle of their window of opportunity there is some logic to leveraging their situation and getting even better. I just don’t know that there has been as perfect a situation for the Giants as the one the Royals and Brewers just took advantage of.


Why the Cliff Lee Decision is Good for the Yankees

it seems like the prevailing theory on cliff lee’s decision to join the phillies is that the yankees are screwed. you will hear all kinds of rumors about this player and that player being yankee targets (grienke and chris carpenter are two hot ones right now), and they will undoubtedly do SOMETHING before the season opens. but there is no way they can compete with the red sox and the phillies now right?

the immediate/gut-level reaction is: yes. at the very least, there is revelry over the fact that for once new york didn’t just open the checkbook and get their guy (which makes texeira look like even more of a bottom-line scum bag now).

we will see how this all plays out but i actually think this could be good for the yankees long term. i’ll admit, there was a secret part of me that hoped the yankees would sign lee and then be stuck with a bunch of old guys getting paid 20 million dollars a year for the next several years.

don’t get me wrong, i think lee is great. he was the cornerstone of my pitching staff in my most important fantasy league last year. he just struck out 185 guys and walked 18 during a season in which he missed over a month with an injury (that is an otherworldly k/bb ratio of 10.28). he’s been ridiculous in the post-season. he is a really, really good pitcher and is everything i wish barry zito would be/become.

but here’s my other line of thinking on lee. he was in the MINOR LEAGUES at the end of 2007 because he was really, really bad. he will be 33 before the 2011 season is over. he will be 38 when the contract runs out. he does not throw hard and relies on some of the best (freakish) control you will ever see. the giants exposed how hittable lee can be when he doesn’t hit his spots (see game one of the 2010 WS and edgar renteria, 2010 WS MVP). he also strained an abdomen in spring training last year and missed all of april, then tweaked his back in august and struggled up until the post-season.

lee is still nasty and likely has two great seasons left in him, but the decline will come soon, if it hasn’t started already, and it will not be pretty, especially in that ballpark. the phillies were right to go after halladay last year (similar age, but the kind of pitcher who will get old in a more pleasing way, plus he’s cheaper).

to top it all off, how much better does lee actually make a team that has 3 excellent starters? (this brings up the question of value, value added, and allocation of resources. not something i’ll explore in this post, but it is an interesting question.)

bottom line, as a giants fan i am very scared of the phillies now. but, this is a team that is getting older, doesn’t have jason werth (or any right-handed presence), and is going to continue spending on aging stars for some time now. they will be a beast in 2011, but after that it could get interesting (rollins, for example, might be following werth out-of-town next year).

all of which brings me back to the yankees. anyone with a brain who read moneyball in 2004 had to wonder how long it would take for the rest of baseball to catch up with the billy beanes of the world. well, that has happened in the last few years, with the yankees, of all people, teetering on the brink of being a full on moneyball team (at least in the sense of valuing young players…especially since brian cashman took over more of the baseball ops circa 2006). no one doubts their ability to spend, but the question has always lurked: what if the yankees were forced to be shrewd and still had all their financial resources available to them?

the 2011 yankees as presently constructed are still extremely talented but also something of a mess. there are about 10 other rotations in major league baseball i would take over the yankees right now. they are not deep in the bullpen or the bench. the core is getting older especially the left side of the infield.

i hoped they would sign cliff lee because that would have been business as usual and helped gloss over some of the cracks showing in the walls of the house that jeter built. now, though, anything is possible. it will be fascinating to see if the yankees panic, or if they (and i mean cashman who should be empowered by this rather than the opposite) take this as an opportunity to get creative.

i don’t know what the answer is or what they should do (sherman has some ideas, as does sheehan) but i have been fearing a moment like this: one where the yankees can no longer simply write a big fat check and band aid over whatever ails them and instead have to get smart. what if the yankees become efficient on top of being rich as a result of losing cliff lee to the phillies?

that could be a problem.


Giants Dynasty?

ok, ok i’m a giants fan, so this is homer-positivity all the way, i’ll admit that upfront. but hear me out…the Giants are in the beginning of a national league dynasty.

two disclaimers to begin with:

1) i DO NOT think the giants will repeat in 2011. it is really hard to do, and in fact has proven to be impossible under the last two collective bargaining agreements (in place since 2002). the yankees haven’t done it, the red sox have won twice in that time frame but with two different teams, and the phillies went to the WS in back to back years but could not pull it off. playoff teams under the current CBA’s are evenly matched, meaning luck has a lot to do with it, and as much as i loved and appreciated the run of the 2010 giants (only WS champion in my life time and, for that matter, in my dad’s lifetime) they benefited from a good deal of amazing fortune (thank you cody ross, edgar renteria, brooks conrad, and the center field wall at AT&T, among other things, for that). all that to say any number of things could go incredibly wrong and mess it all up, which makes repeating very difficult, in fact impossible.

2) the competition is going to be good this year: the phillies just got scarier, the red sox have added a few good players, the rockies are locking up their young core, the white sox are quietly nasty, the reds could be even better this year, the cards can hit and pitch, don’t forget about the yankees (still pretty good) and it goes on and on. the giants are the same team essentially, and miguel tejada doesn’t exactly get the blood flowing.

with that in mind though, i do think the Giants have begun a golden era that could harken memories of the Atlanta Braves 1995-2005 run (or the yankees for that matter). let me explain:

1) the baseball powers of the day will be great in 2011 and 2012 but could enter into a down window after that:

i’ll post some red sox thoughts soon but maybe the best thing they’ve done is replace beltre/martinez with better (slightly) AND younger players. that’s key (the price to do was pretty steep however). on the other hand their rotation is getting old fast and it is my opinion that the last couple of years of the crawford deal will be painful (AGon, i think will age well).

same can be said for the phillies…as nasty as they will be in 2011, their guys are getting older and the game today, especially in regards to pitching, is more and more a young man’s game. they have a ton of cash tied in to three guys who will be in their mid 30’s, plus the lineup is aging fast (and showing it in injuries, a big reason i think the giants got past them in the NLCS)…it’s not hard to imagine philly trying to dump a lot of expensive old guys with big names after the 2012 season.

the yankees, as presently constructed, are in worse shape than anyone. they will be good in 2011 and certainly competitive every year after that, but again, tons of money invested in old and declining players means they will be vulnerable (see the 2010 NY Mets or the 2008 Yankees).

conclusion: the next two years are going to be ultra competitive and then a huge window will open up in which the big players will vulnerable. look for teams like the reds, royals, rays, and a’s to start thinking very strategically about the 2013-2014 window, the stars may be aligning for them during that time.

and it will be an opportunity for the Giants…

2) I will break down the Giants’ off-season and future outlook more in upcoming posts, but consider this…by the end of the 2011 season the Giants’ could have a lineup that feature a young, homegrown core of Posey C, Sandoval 3B, and Belt 1B to go along with the arms they already have.

a lot will have to break right for the following scenario to occur, but in 2013 the Giant’s will NOT have Rowand and probably not have Zito (any chance the Giants ship him to the Yankees now), and could have a completely homegrown lineup AND rotation:

CF Brown

RF Ford/Peguero

1B Belt

C Posey

3B Sandoval

LF Neal

2B Culberson

SS Crawford/Adrianza

1) Lincecum

2) Cain

3) Bumgartner

4) Wheeler

5) Runzler

and a bullpen built around Wilson, Romo, Sosa, at al.

conclusion: for that to happen a whole lot will have to go right. naturally, i don’t realistically think this will/could happen. but the giants are entering a window where they, like the vintage braves, could keep integrating a few young players each season around their core of great pitching providing the ground work for a consistent winner for the foreseeable future. a remarkable change events for giants fans. likely? we’ll see.