The other day Vladimir Guerrero Jr., a teenager in a major-league spring-training baseball game, took a scyther’s swing at a low first pitch and bounced it off the left-field wall. The sportswriters called it a “one-handed double.” I liked that, physiological improbability and all. It made it sound as if John Henry had been penciled into the heart of the Toronto Blue Jays’ order.
Warm little lies get told about great prospects. Cynical big ones do, too. Since the fall, Ross Atkins, the general manager of the Blue Jays, has argued against all evidence that Vlad Jr. is not ready for the major leagues, that he needs time to “develop” in the minors, meaning that in all likelihood the most exciting phenomenon in baseball will not be on the Blue Jays’ opening-day roster.
Everyone knows what this is really about, and surely Atkins knows that everyone knows. It has nothing to do with the barrel-aging of Vlad Jr.’s talents. It’s about cost control. As soon as the Jays put Guerrero on their big-league roster, he will begin accumulating service time, moving toward the day when he will have the power to demand more money in salary arbitration, and, after that, the power to sell his services on the free-agent market. If they wait and stash him in the minors until at least 16 days have elapsed during the regular season, then 2019 will only count as a partial season, and Toronto can lock him up for another year. The Jays are willing to live without those one-handed doubles and lose more baseball games right now, if it means they can underpay Guerrero for longer.
For years there had been an understanding: Teams could manipulate the service clocks of their best prospects, and fans wouldn’t complain too noisily. Some might even support the move as a savvy asset management, cost efficiency having become an end unto itself amid the giddy financialization of baseball and the rest of the world. But that understanding is falling apart. “The Blue Jays need to make a horrible business decision to benefit humanity,” pleaded a headline on For The Win, a property of USA Today, once a reliable voice of baseball’s establishment consensus.
Post-competitive baseball didn’t just happen; it was achieved, quietly and largely behind the backs of players and fans.
Why have the old alibis begun to wear thin? It’s because we are plainly in the thick of what we’ll call the era of post-competitive baseball. There was much tut-tutting in October when free-agent-to-be Manny Machado, after not vigorously running out a grounder, was blunt enough to say, “I’m not the type of player that’s going to be ‘Johnny Hustle.'” Fans are supposed to take it as a moral defect if a player doesn’t try hard all the time—yet fans were supposed to accept it when something like 28 of the 30 teams in the majors chose not to try to sign Machado, the rare superstar to hit the market on the upswing of his age curve.
Post-competitive baseball is the Yankees, once ruthless free-spenders, declining to make a run at either Machado or Bryce Harper, bowing out of the most significant free-agent sweepstakes in years. It’s the Indians shopping around half their roster this winter despite being favored to win their division. And it’s the Blue Jays deciding that they are content to lose games in a season in which winning only 84 of them might well get the team into the playoffs.
Post-competitive baseball didn’t just happen; it was achieved, quietly and largely behind the backs of players and fans. The causes are straightforward and well documented. Most significantly, the luxury tax has evolved into a sort of crypto salary cap, the dream of ownership since half-past the reserve clause. High-revenue baseball teams could point to the luxury limit as a reason not to throw money at one more superstar. Mid-revenue teams could point to the high-revenue teams’ limits and set their own budgets lower, and so on down the line.
The second wild card was intended to goose baseball’s middle class into spending more in pursuit of a more attainable playoff slot. But it arrived at a time when teams were finding ways to make money independent of their ability to make the playoffs, or even of the quality of baseball they played. The growth of local cable TV deals meant ticket sales mattered less to a team’s bottom line, which meant that the day-to-day product mattered less, too. And the sale to Disney of BAMTech, MLB’s streaming-media arm, generated enormous piles of money for the owners that lay beyond the reach of the players. The league and its owners retained a minority stake in BAMTech, which is now central to Disney’s effort at creating a streaming competitor to Netflix and Amazon. There will assuredly be more piles of money.
Financial success has come uncoupled from baseball success. Five franchises have payrolls that are not even halfway to the $206 million luxury tax limit—minor-league teams charging major-league prices, and collecting major-league revenues. Another 13 are spending less than 75 percent of the threshold. This has created a competitive dynamic in which teams with a real shot at making the playoffs—a valuable proposition, at least once upon a time—seem uninterested in paying for the marginal wins that would get them there. Denard Span is still on the discard pile. Dallas Keuchel is perpetually having “discussions” with teams (and the knowing coves are helping to rationalize the soft market for him in pure baseball terms). Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is going to spend his April in Buffalo.
Look at the fat peloton in the middle of FanGraphs’ projections: 12 teams winning between 81 and 88 games, with the second wild card in the American League going to an 84-win club. Nearly everyone has a shot that hardly anyone seems to want. The entire American League Central presents a new, negative form of competitive balance, in which no one has a payroll within $70 million of the limit.
The AL Central is the home of the Cleveland Indians, one of a handful of major-league baseball teams of which it could reasonably be said that they are planning to win baseball games this season—92 in all, by FanGraphs’ reckoning. They ought to win the AL Central handily. It’s just that they would like very much to win it a little less handily.
The Indians spent the offseason trying to trade away their best pieces, among them Corey Kluber, who has been as good as any pitcher in baseball over the past few seasons. FiveThirtyEight’s Neil Paine called it a “have-your-tank-and-beat-them-too” model. Running practically unopposed in the division, the Indians will be their own opposition. They will try to degrade their own product, make themselves less fun. If they succeed in their efforts to succeed less, they will be the grotesque realization of post-competitive baseball: a good team playing no one but itself.