By Alden Gonzalez
Some day in the not-too-distant future, perhaps the terms "all in" or "championship window" will finally be extinct from the baseball lexicon, gone in the way of "dying quail" and "Baltimore chop" and "Uncle Charlie." (I mean really, who still calls a curveball "Uncle Charlie"?)
Teams are increasingly aiming to excel both now and in the future, trying to build sustained winners without interrupting immediate championship hopes and doing their absolute best to limit the inevitable tradeoff.
In other words, future wins are now more valuable than ever.
An expanded playoff field has made it increasingly difficult to win it all and, perhaps indirectly, has placed more clubs on a level playing field. The sheer randomness of October baseball makes it foolish to pump all your resources into one season, but the additional spots -- not to mention the television revenue -- make teams think twice about an all-out rebuilding project. (Hooray, parity!)
The American League West perfectly illustrates this point.
On one side you have an A's team that "went for it" in 2014, lost to the Royals in the Wild Card Game and pushed the proverbial reset button. They parted ways with Josh Donaldson, Jeff Samardzija, Brandon Moss and Derek Norris in prospect-laden deals, but they also spent $30 million on a 28-year-old designated hitter (Billy Butler), then traded for a utility man (Ben Zobrist) and middle reliever (Tyler Clippard) who are a year away from free agency.
"The underlying part of what they've done there is a lot of the players they've gotten back in those deals are going to help them right away," said Farhan Zaidi, the Dodgers' general manager who spent his previous 10 years in the A's front office. "I think the Angels are doing some of that as well."
The Angels won a Major League-leading 98 games and ranked second in run differential before getting swept in the Division Series by that same Royals team that personified erratic Octobers. Then they spent $15 million on 20-year-old Cuban middle infielder Roberto Baldoquin, traded for third-base prospect Kyle Kubitza and swapped one year of second baseman Howie Kendrick for six years of starting pitcher Andrew Heaney, a move that definitely made them better in the future but probably made them weaker in the present.
"If we can put ourselves in a position to win 90-98 games every year, we're going to give ourselves a chance to win championships," Angels GM Jerry Dipoto said. "It's not always about going out and accumulating as many household names as possible. It's not always about the sexy moves."
"Zero-to-three players" and "layers of depth" and "sustained winning" is the new sexy. Elevating your floor is suddenly more important than having a high ceiling. Perpetually compiling players who can contribute in their pre-arbitration years is a top priority, even for the industry's big spenders. And the current-day Phillies -- desperate to squeeze any value out of a collection of aging veterans tied to bloated contracts -- have become everybody's cautionary tale.
In the 20 years since the Wild Card was first introduced, the team with the best regular-season record has gone on to win the World Series only three times (the Yankees of 1998 and 2009 and the Red Sox of '07). In a 20-year span from 1970-89, it occurred seven times. From 1949-68, a 20-year span preceding the introduction of divisions, it happened nine times.
It's simple math, really.
Before 1969, teams that qualified for the playoffs after an arduous regular season -- a sample size large enough to generally reflect the best clubs -- had a 50-50 chance to win it all. From 1969-93, it was one in four. Once the Wild Card came into play, it became one in eight. Now, teams that don't win their division have a one in 10 chance -- and must survive a do-or-die game.
"The incentive of teams to give up significant parts of their future for what's essentially a three-week coin flip, where you just hope things go in your direction for a month, is not there," FanGraphs writer Dave Cameron said. "To give up multiple top prospects, to give up significant parts of your future for maybe a two- or three-percent chance of improving your odds and still being unlikely to win -- I think teams would rather not make that tradeoff anymore. Or at least they're less likely to do that than they used to be."
Zaidi believes every team is searching for that delicate balance these days.
"Maybe some teams are more fully in rebuilding mode, but how many teams out there right now are really not trying to compete in 2015?" he asked. "I don't even know where to start that list."
Besides the aforementioned Phillies, it's tough.
The Twins? Nope. They signed Ervin Santana and Torii Hunter.
The Astros? Not anymore. They added Evan Gattis, Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek to a young core.
The Braves? They traded Jason Heyward, Justin Upton and Gattis, but signed Nick Markakis, Jason Grilli and A.J. Pierzynski.
The Rockies? Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez still haven't gone anywhere.
The Cubs? Yeah, right.
Even teams that aren't built to make an immediate run at the playoffs have enough incentive to build toward mediocrity. That's what separates MLB from the NBA and NFL.
High Draft picks are nowhere near as valuable in baseball as they are in football and basketball, where teams immediately reap the benefits of acquiring the best collegiate players. Of equal and sometimes greater importance is keeping fans interested throughout the summer, to maximize attendance for 81 home games and keep ratings up for flagship stations doling out billions of dollars in T.V. contracts.
On the flip side, how many teams are disregarding their future for a chance to win it all in 2015?
The Tigers still epitomize the all-in team, but they have an 85-year-old owner, Mike Ilitch, whose lifelong dream is to see his hometown team win the World Series. You may also include the Blue Jays after overpaying for Russell Martin and trading for Donaldson, but they should've learned their lesson -- they went for it in 2013, and that didn't work out so well.
The Dodgers? Amid a flurry of moves, the new front office has held onto its top two prospects, Corey Seager and Julio Urias, and cleared a path for young center fielder Joc Pederson.
The Nationals? They've spent most of the offseason trying to shore up organizational gaps and may part ways with their everyday shortstop, Ian Desmond.
The Padres? A.J. Preller is the offseason's busiest man, but he also inherited a plethora of young pitching.
The Yankees? While no one was looking, they've actually rebuilt some flexibility and depth in their farm system.
Every offseason since he took the job in October 2011, Dipoto gets one question more frequently than any other:
Does this mean you're all in?
"I tell them, 'We're all in all the time,'" Dipoto said. "We were all in yesterday, we're going to be all in tomorrow. Our goal is to win a World Series. We're doing all we can do to put the best team on the field. Now, I say that, but I'm not going to go out and spend $350 million on a roster of the best player in baseball at every position, and we're not going to fill a team of all 31-year-old, prime-year veterans. You have to balance it so that year after year, you're in a position to contend."
More and more teams are starting to feel the same way.