It’s not even the offseason yet, but the Flexibility Wanters are everywhere

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If you’ve been following along with MLB’s front office buzzwords the last few years, you know that “flexibility” is one of the more popular ones. It doesn’t mean what it’s supposed to mean here: no, within an MLB context, coming from an owner or general manager, “flexibility” is more about the potential to spend money should an opportunity arise in a vague future that will likely never come. The 2019-2020 offseason is apparently not going to be any different, as, before any postseason games had even been played, multiple team leaders went out of their way to bemoan a lack of flexibility or promise their team won’t do anything with the flexibility they do have.

The Colorado Rockies gave a two-part performance in this regard, with team owner Dick Monfort telling assembled reporters that “[the Rockies] don’t have a lot of flexibility next year.” The Rockies spent $145 million in 2019, or, $61 million below the $206 million luxury tax threshold. A year ago, they pulled in $291 million in revenue — this before their cut of revenue-sharing — and this season, though they were terrible, they still drew just under 3 million fans, the sixth-most in the league. And the kicker: the day before Monfort said there wasn’t much flexibility, he announced the signing of a new television deal for the team, one with a “sizable jump” in money for the franchise. The Rockies can afford to spend more than they do, but they don’t want to, so here we are, having to read about all of this as if can’t is the same as won’t.

That’s not all for the Rockies, though! GM Jeff Bridich had some awkward honesty in his own presser, telling everyone that he’s the one who pushed for the opt-out in star third baseman Nolan Arenado’s lucrative extension. Why would he do that, you ask? Well, according to The Athletic’s Nick Groke: “Bridich said he feels no pressure to prove a winning team as a way to keep Arenado.” So, the Rockies locked up their most popular, best player to a long-term deal, earning some goodwill, which was much-needed after years of losing previous franchise icons for one reason or another. They also provided that player with an escape hatch he didn’t ask for, and straight-up said they don’t feel like they need to try in order to keep him from going through it. So, should Arenado leave because Colorado decides being a garbage fire is better than trying, the Rockies can at least hypothetically blame him for taking off: it was out of their hands, you know, he had the option to bail.

The Rockies aren’t alone in saying they don’t feel much like trying in 2020. The Mariners already made it clear they’re continuing with their current plan of flexibility over everything:

“Generally, again, we are looking at a young group and wanting to let them run with it,” said Dipoto. “The bullpen we might tinker with a little bit. That’s an area where we have room to add and if we do anything notable in free agency, it’ll be there.”

“I don’t know how active we are going to be in the trade market,” he said. “I would say moderate is going to be about as strong as a word I would use. And in free agency I would say… the likelihood is we’ll shop early and we’ll shop late and you won’t hear a lot from us around the holidays.”

“We don’t want to block the rotation,” he said, referring to Dunn and Gilbert. “We also don’t think we are one pitcher away. So, surfing at the top of the rotation in the free agent market is probably a little premature for where we are in our growth. I would say any type of premium additions for us, we would see more as an opportunity buy or an opportunity trade this offseason, or something that would be more focused on say midseason next year.”

There is really nothing stopping the Mariners from trying to acquire pieces in the present that will help them in the future, a la the Padres with Manny Machado this past offseason. Nothing besides an organizational adherence to the philosophy of flexibility, anyway, which, surprisingly given the name, is an extremely rigid school of thought.

The Mariners are going to throw all their young players out there and see what happens, because it’s the cheapest right thing to do while building a team. They’re set to pay $80 million in guaranteed money in 2020, after dropping the payroll to about $150 million in 2019: that’ll go up as the salaries of all of their young players arb-eligible and pre-arb players are added to the mix, but they’ll have shed Felix Hernandez’s $29 million salary and they’ll owe far less to departed players like Edwin Encarnacion, so 2020 is going to be a much less expensive year. What’s it building to? Well, we’ll have to see where all of these young players get the Mariners, a franchise whose farm system has mostly been good at producing reclamation projects for other organizations of late.

If the kids don’t pan out? Well, at least it’ll be fun trying to see Mariners’ leadership trying to justify their next direction.

Last up we’ve got the Blue Jays’ President of Baseball Operations, Mark Shapiro. When speaking about Toronto’s offseason, Shapiro made sure to say just enough to let you know things are moving in the right direction, while simultaneously telling you they weren’t moving at all. According to Ben Nicholson-Smith, Shapiro said that the Jays have “flexibility with both term and the amount of money we can offer.” However, “Shapiro cautions that  #BlueJays aren’t looking to win the off-season. Mentions San Diego and Philadelphia as teams that have spent big without winning big.”

The Padres, as previously mentioned, weren’t trying to win big in 2019 when they signed Machado. And when they tried to go big a few years ago and it didn’t work, they ended up selling off many of those pieces for the prospects that are currently setting up the team Machado is inevitably supposed to help win. That’s a lazy example by Shapiro, who, as you’ve seen me say before, has infected much of MLB’s front offices with his particular brand of cowardice.

The Phillies didn’t actually spend big, either. Even after acquiring Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Jake Arrieta a couple years back, Andrew McCutchen, and so on, their payroll only got up to around $150 million for 2019. They were still well, well under the luxury tax threshold, but were too afraid of the big bad Dodgers to even try at winning, despite building what I’ll describe as a “win-soon” core. The short version is that neither of Shapiro’s cautionary tales even did the thing he is cautioning against: he’s just hoping, like most executives, that his audience is too busy nodding their heads at everything the boss says to notice what’s wrong with it.

This is a long way of saying that the Blue Jays might sign a reliever or something, and to more than one year. Anything else would be just a little too hasty, just like in Seattle, and in Colorado.

The Jays might be a little better simply because their young players like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. will be a year older with more experience under their belt. The Mariners will probably be about the same, as will the Rockies. There’s no real excuse for this stasis, not when they all have room in the budget, whether they admit it or not, to aim for the offseason’s most significant free agent targets, or try to make trades that see them taking on salary but adding talent in the process. This is what you do now, though. You just kind of float in place, avoiding spending as much as you can, until you’re close enough to winning to decide if you want to “We tried” like the Phillies or Mets, or if you want to push a little harder and actually bump up against the luxury tax threshold like, say, the Astros. Both plans require you do as little as you can for as long as you can while hoping the notoriously fickle draft brings salvation in the form of inexpensive young talent. It’s not a great bet to make, even if it’s one that worked for Houston, and it’s even more difficult gambit to pull off when half the league is making it at once.

And yet, here we are.

  • What is going on in Pittsburgh?

  • Wednesday’s Wild Card pre-game festivities included proxy threats of A’s and Rays moves to other cities, even as those two teams were gearing up to play against each other.

  • Here’s an explanation on what California’s bill to pay NCAA players means, courtesy Matt Brown.

  • And here’s Kim McCauley explaining what MLS players are trying to get in their CBA negotiations.

  • Neil deMause wrote about empty seats being part of the plan for MLB, not part of the problem, and cited this guy right here in his reasoning.

  • A correction for Monday’s newsletter: the pension in MLB was never $34,000 per year following 43 days of service time, despite the multiple reports from 2011 I discovered and referenced saying that was the case. The MLBPA reached out to let me know that there is pension eligibility after 43 days, but that it’s for $5,375 per year. Neither of us knows where those reported 2011 figures came from, but I was assured the real figures haven’t gone down. In addition, the maximum pension at 10 years of service time is now up to $215,000. The overall point of that newsletter entry remains — it’s a drag fewer opportunities to earn the pension will exist because of the September roster rule change — but the money in play is much less than initially believed.

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