Last week, the Dodgers and Braves completed a trade that must have baffled millions of fans. The Dodgers shipped out Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir, Brandon McCarthy and Charlie Culberson for Matt Kemp.
On the surface, this trade seemed questionable. The Braves don't need Gonzalez and wouldn't appear to be ready to take on a bunch of payroll in 2018, particularly an empty salary like Gonzalez's. And Kemp on the Dodgers was even more confounding; why would the Dodgers want to bring back the slow, pricey slugger -- who is in the top 10 all-time in homers in franchise history -- when they famously wouldn't make a serious offer for Giancarlo Stanton? And wait … you're telling me that the two centerpieces of this trade, Gonzalez and Kemp, are going to be waived by their respective new teams before they even play a game? What? Is this from one of those fake Ken Rosenthal Twitter accounts?
The joke here, of course, is that we saw none of that bewilderment and backlash to the Braves-Dodgers trade.
Everybody got it, pretty much instantly. The Los Angeles Times' Bill Plaschke wrote a "relax, fans, the trade makes more sense than you think" column the next day, but it wasn't necessary and even felt a little dated, as if we still lived in a time when newspaper columnists had to decipher and interpret the otherwise inscrutable movements of those wise souls in the front office genius towers. Fans of both teams got it. The Dodgers get under the luxury tax for 2018, therefore resetting it after five years of going over and letting them go high hog during the crazy free-agent season next year, when Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Clayton Kershaw (probably) and others hit the market. The Braves lose Kemp, a player who didn't fit on their roster and one they were going to have to pay for two more seasons (and one who was standing in the way of Ronald Acuna), and bring in some rotation arms and an insurance policy at shortstop if Dansby Swanson continues to struggle. It was simply a shifting around of debt in order to facilitate future moves. It was a long-term play.
And fans had no trouble understanding this. If there was a single Braves fan who said, "Why are we trading for Gonzalez when we have Freddie Freeman," or a single Dodgers fan who said, "Why do we want Matt Kemp in our outfield?" I didn't see them. Fans are so much savvier than they used to be on all of this. They look at a trade like this and instinctively understand that there's more going on than just, "OK, we got Gonzo!" They don't need their hands held.
This is important for front offices to understand and, I'd argue, instructive. Earlier this offseason, I wrote about how fans had developed an unprecedented amount of faith in their favorite teams' front offices. In that piece, we looked at a Jeff Sullivan survey on Fangraphs that found that only five teams had fans who didn't trust their front offices to be "average or better" in a poll. Such a poll shows, first, that fans are maybe a little more trusting of their front offices than they maybe should be; the collective record in baseball is still .500 -- 25 teams aren't going to win, after all. But there's also a strong case to be made that this faith is borne out of wisdom, out of the dramatic expansion of publicly available baseball information in the past two decades, from sabermetrics to park effects to Statcast™ to even biometrics. Fans know that the teams that win are the ones who are smart about their moves and plan ahead. If they need any further evidence, they can simply look at the last two World Series champions, the Chicago Cubs and the Houston Astros. They are what happens when fans trust their teams to follow their long-term plans through to fruition. They're the case for chilling out and thinking years ahead.
This evolution in fan thinking is more revolutionary than we appreciate; it has essentially changed the calculus for every transaction. There is no -- or at least little, accounting for sports talk radio -- lizard brain reaction to transactions, no knee-jerk, "I'm angry, I want to win NOWWWWWWWW" backlash if a team decides to take a step back to later take a leap forward. Teams can take the longview and understand that their fans will ultimately be there with them. The Astros infuriated their fans when their new front office team came in, but no one remembers or cares about that anymore; World Series rings erase those. We've all evolved. We understand how this works.
And this exposes the fault lines in a lot of old-school thinking and can point to some actionables for current teams. The idea that you have to keep your fans happy, that you owe something to the current paying customers to put The Best Team On The Field Right Now, has been a staple of baseball conventional wisdom for decades. Fans won't tolerate a team that isn't flooring it to win a championship right now, the axiom goes. You can't trade away a fan favorite, even if your team has no chance of winning this year; these mantras have driven teams for years and years.
But there's no need to do so any longer. Teams have enough money coming in that attendance is not the primary mover of revenue; if you don't have 3 million fans through the turnstiles, you can still do just fine. But it's not just that. It's that fans get it. They can figure out an unwieldy Kemp-Gonzalez-McCarthy trade and see why it's good for both teams even if it won't change their 2018 fates one bit. They can understand what's happening around baseball, how rolling the dice and making One Last Charge with your veterans is more self-destructive than anything else. They know this takes a while. They don't want to wait. But they are willing to.
This is something to keep in mind if you are, say, the Blue Jays, or the Orioles, and you are weighing whether or not to trade Josh Donaldson and Manny Machado, respectively. When you look around the American League East, you see the Yankees loading up, the Red Sox as powerful as ever, and both teams situated to remain so for the next half-decade. Then you look at your teams, older and not as well-positioned to compete with them in 2018 and beyond. Fans love Donaldson and Machado. People go out to the ballpark to watch them. It hurts to let them go. But fans see your team just as you do. They'll be cheering for them for a long time, not just 2018; they are smart enough to understand what has to be done.
Maybe the Blue Jays and Orioles will get a worthwhile deal for Donaldson and Machado, and maybe they won't. But there is no longer any need for "fan sentiment" to be a reason not to trade either of them. Fans are paying attention. They are not fools. They are not using their lizard brains. They are rational and focused on the long term, just like you are. And deep down, they know what has to be done. This should make the job easier, not harder. This should make it easier to press the button than it has ever been before.
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