Tuesday afternoon, my favorite baseball team signed a player I had literally never heard of.
Save for some teenage international prospects and maybe some Minor League roster filler, I don't think that's ever happened before. The minute the 2017 St. Louis Cardinals baseball season ended, I immediately began poring through every chart of every free agent and trade target I could find, trying to find the right fits for a team that has missed the playoffs for two consecutive seasons and is hungry to return. I've dug through future payroll charts, I've mapped out potential Giancarlo Stanton trade permutations, I've read every single Derrick Goold chat and I've even scoped out video of the random Blue Jays Minor League outfielder the Cardinals got for Aledmys Diaz. I spend half the year watching the Cardinals and the other half obsessing over how they might get better. It's what being a fan is.
And yet: After all that research, the Cardinals still signed a player whose name I hadn't heard once in my life. The player's name is Miles Mikolas, a pitcher who hasn't appeared in the Majors since 2014 but has spent the past few years dominating in the Japan Central League, including posting a 2.25 ERA with a 9.0 K/BB ratio in 2017. The Cardinals are giving him $15.5 million over the next two years and expect him to be in the regular rotation; if he sticks, that price will be quite the value.
But again: I have no idea. I had never heard of the guy until yesterday. Yet when someone asked me what I thought of the move, I said: "Great! Makes sense!" And I absolutely believe it. And I have no idea.
One of the strangest sensations of following baseball in the year 2017 is the historically unprecedented conviction that most fans have that their front offices are generally making smart, well-researched decisions. This is not what fans usually do, right? We're supposed to be ranting and raving about overpaid players and about how much better we would do. But the increased wonkiness and specialization of baseball front offices, along with the increased avenues of baseball research that we can all access as fans, has given us more faith in our front offices.
Twenty years ago, most smart baseball writing was from the perspective of the outsider, the insurgents with their noses pressed against the window, lobbing rhetorical grenades over the wall at the former players who made up most teams' front offices. It was joyous to watch the smart alecs knee-deep in advanced analytics run logical circles around the jocks. It felt like a revolution. But 20 years later, the revolution is over, and while the wisenheimers won -- many of those outsiders now work for the teams themselves -- there isn't much to revolt against anymore. It is nearly impossible to find bad front offices anymore. In the past, you always had a mark, the guy the smart GMs could call to pull one over on. But those don't exist anymore. All 30 teams are run by smart people.
And fans have noticed. On Tuesday, Fangraphs' Jeff Sullivan wrote a post asking his readers to vote on whether or not they thought their favorite team's front office was "very good," "good," "average," "bad" or "very bad." I don't have any data from polls 20 years ago, but there is no way such a poll would have been nearly as positive as this one. Let's go under the presumption that any team that has 51 percent or more of its fans at least calling its front office "average" or better is generally happy with its front office. So how many teams have a worse than 51 percent approval rating in Sullivan's poll? Five. The Marlins, Mets, Orioles, Reds and Tigers. And even those can be seen as outliers in the current moment: The Marlins have a new ownership group facing its toughest decision in a decade, the Orioles and the Tigers are about to begin a long rebuilding process, the Reds seem behind every other team in their division (though are doing a better job, I'd argue, than the poll suggests) and half the fun of cheering for the Mets is complaining about them. Fans of 25 of the 30 baseball teams are actively pleased with their front offices, according to those polls. That's sort of amazing, right? Only one team gets to win the World Series, you know.
But that's the world we live in now. Our default is to assume competence in our executives. That's a greater change than I think we've appreciated. Not too long ago, we cheered a movie in which Billy Beane outsmarted the good ol' boys network. Now everybody is Billy Beane. And we're all collectively more satisfied. Even though … well, everybody still has the same record. The collective baseball record is still .500. There is still only one champion.
The job of a fan is to cheer for his/her team and hold that team's feet to the fire, to make sure they put a high-quality product on the field for the fans' entertainment dollar. It is just as healthy to be skeptical of your team as it is to cheer: After all, if your team is making you happy, it means they will be happy too. But we're maybe a little happier than we should be. So many baseball fans think their team's front offices are among the very best in the sport. But they can't all be. This is still a zero-sum game.
I'm thrilled with the Mikolas move. I believe it to be cost-effective and smart long-term planning, giving the Cardinals rotation further depth and the opportunity, potentially, to trade from that depth for some much-needed impact bats. I'm excited to have him on the team; I think he makes the Cardinals better. Yesterday, I didn't have the foggiest idea who he was. Today, I think he's the first step in getting my team back to the postseason. I have no idea what I'm talking about. When does faith become delusion? Twenty-five teams' fan bases can't all be right.
Eventually, someone has to lose. I just hope it's your team, and not mine. But that's all it is: Hope.
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