On Thursday, Major League Baseball wrapped up its first virtual winter meeting. Don’t worry. You didn’t miss anything.
Nobody made any major trades. No premier free agents were signed. Even the rumours that leaked were snoozers. This was the Winter Meeting That Wasn’t.
Typically, the most action on the final day of a winter meeting is at the taxi stand outside whatever god-awful convention-centre hotel they’re holding it at. After being trapped together for the better part of a week, everyone’s desperate to get out of town as soon as possible.
This time, Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins had the luxury of doing a languorous video debrief. It went on for more than half an hour. Which is a long time when everything you’re saying boils down to “Nothing happened.”
(Atkins’s most noteworthy comment in that time: “This virtual world is not a sustainable one for good business.” I’m going to have that line engraved on a plaque and placed over my napping couch.)
By now, you know how this routine goes with the Jays. They’re talking to people. They have had many productive talks. They’ve formed many connections and had many wonderful interactions. Will those connections and interactions result in an actual, pen-on-paper baseball contract? No one knows. But it has all been very positive regardless. In a connecting and interacting sense. Like sexless speed dating.
Take for instance, the summation of where the Jays are at with Ha-Seong Kim, a hot property coming out of South Korea. Multiple reports have linked him to Toronto via the Jays’ current South Korean star, Hyun-Jin Ryu.
“We’ve done our work on Kim and feel prepared,” Atkins said. “If there’s an opportunity and there’s mutual interest, we feel prepared.”
Well, what does that mean? By that logic – and assuming the Jays scouting department does what its name implies – the Jays are in on everyone everywhere who owns a baseball glove. Assuming there is mutual interest, of course.
This sort of bafflegab is old hat in Toronto. The difference this year is that every team in baseball now sounds like the Blue Jays. Everyone’s out there exploring their options. Lots of exploring. A bunch of middle-aged guys in button-down shirts and flat-front khakis looking for their own golden idol.
Would any team in baseball like to trade for Francisco Lindor, the Cleveland superstar whose salary expectations make him a poor fit for the cheapskates in northern Ohio? Yes, they all would. Every single one of them, to hear tell of it. Ten years ago, the Yankees and Red Sox would be mudwrestling at a winter meeting for the right to make Lindor stupidly rich. But these days, lots of interest, and no takers. Even the tire-kicking lacks follow-through.
What about J.T. Realmuto, the Phillies catcher most people have at the top of their free-agent board? Everybody wants him. And yet there Realmuto sits, as yet unable to afford that yacht he has his eye on.
The World Series ended on Oct. 26. The free agency window opened 24 hours later. In the intervening six weeks, nothing’s happened. Tumbleweeds.
There are complicated reasons for this reduced market, all of which boil down to the same one – money. Baseball teams finally clued in to the fact that money spent is not necessarily relative to success. Better to invest your hope (and likely profits) in young, cheap, controllable players. At worst, it puts you in a constant rebuilding spiral. But baseball fans have been sold on the magic of Sabermetrics. Tell them that this is what the algorithm says to do, and they will believe you.
The impression that frugality is the wisest path was reinforced this past season when Tampa Bay, carrying the third-lowest payroll in the game, made the World Series.
This does not mean the process has stopped. The biggest free-agent stars – your Realmutos, Trevor Bauers and George Springers – will be signed. What it means is that it has slowed to a crawl. Even the best talent will wait weeks or months for closure.
In that time, their number is getting whittled down. By the time some of these guys do go, you’d forgotten they were headed anywhere. Which rather takes the oomph out of the whole business.
In any other industry, you would call this prudence on the part of management. In sports, you call it boring. And boring is bad.
Baseball appears to have forgotten that these days, all leagues have two seasons. The actual season and hot-stove season. In order to keep the stove warm, you need to provide some heat. Rumours flying around. Big numbers. Names coming off the board. Fans getting worked up.
This is what primes people for the regular season to come. You can’t allow yourself to be forgotten, even for a few weeks. People forget about you.
The NBA is the master of this dance. That league is making news 365 days of the year. Either things are about to happen, are happening, or, holy crap, look what just happened.
Basketball’s free-agent rush is a frenzy. Baseball’s is a four-month-long nap.
It’s got so MLB executives no longer bother to pretend enthusiasm for what was once the primary way to turn a good team into a great one overnight.
“It would be great if we could acquire [a high-impact star],” Atkins said. “There are rare opportunities to do it. This is one of them. And we want to see if there’s a way. … But if it doesn’t happen, but there will be plenty of avenues to make our team significantly better.”
Try to imagine the GM of the L.A. Lakers saying that. And then imagine him getting pelted with tomatoes.
This isn’t a business problem. It’s an image problem. Baseball has become the sport of the sober second thought, of cautious deliberation, of managed expectations. That’s good if you run an insurance company. I’m not sure how well it works if your primary goal – the one that supersedes even winning – is generating excitement.