Winner meetings: Growing divide between elite teams and also-rans on display in Orlando

ByBradford Doolittle ESPN logo
Friday, December 15, 2017

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The 2017 edition of baseball's winter meetings weren't a complete dud. Moves trickled in. Conversations were had. Job seekers loitered. Sports writers grumbled.

But let's face it, baseball's grand hierarchy, as it stood on Sunday when the entire industry was en route to Orlando, remained intact on Thursday, as everybody returned from whence they came, Mickey Mouse souvenirs packed away, all wondering how we came out of the meetings with so many dangling threads still in need of clipping.

The general ennui of the gathered media contingent was on full display Wednesday morning, as the time approached for super agent Scott Boras to appear and regale us all with his distinctive brand of media conferencing. The horde grew larger by the minute as the scheduled time came, then went. It was Boras' theatrical flair, like at a rock concert, and you half expected reporters to start chanting his name and holding hand lighters in the air.

Finally, Boras showed up, walking down the corridor as the horde pounced on him, drawn like flies to the electric light, following him to a small podium where he suddenly rose above us as if he were giving a soapbox speech. All of this hullabaloo for a sports agent who had very close to zero hard news to pass along.

Still, it was a good show, and Boras seemed to make a lot of cogent observations about the slow pace of this winter's player movement, though it's sometimes hard to tell since he has chosen to communicate almost exclusively in metaphor. But when you're as successful as Boras, it's probably true you can communicate just about any way you'd like.

In between likening the Miami Marlins to a pawn shop and the New York Yankees to a fine jeweler, Boras talked a lot about what he has taken to calling "Playoffville." It's his word for the neighborhood of the elite, where teams that want to reside there can only do so by paying the premium. Preferably to a Boras client, of course.

Boras delivered some of his oft-repeated takes, such as how baseball's collective bargaining agreement is engineered toward maximum parity, with revenues flowing from the high-revenue locales to those less fortunate, giving all the opportunity to move to "Playoffville" when the time is right to spend.

Mostly, Boras is right. Clearly some markets can spend more than others, but this isn't 2002, the era when teams crying poor left fans in half the markets across baseball feeling like their clubs had no chance of winning at the game's highest level. Those wailings no longer hold water. For one thing, and they aren't close to the only example of a team that won without huge revenues, all poverty-related excuses were laid to rest for good when the Kansas City Royals won the World Series in 2015.

Of course, changes have been made in how much teams can invest in draft picks and international prospects, regulations that, if they had been in place a decade ago, would have sent the Royals down a very different path of rebuilding. But the landscape has changed, baseball's revenues have exploded, and there ought to be enough for all teams to compete, especially as the players' aggregate salary, as a percentage of overall revenue, continues to drop.

And yet, it sure feels like we're reverting to a landscape similar to 15 years ago, a quiet trend that has continued since the offseason began, went on through the winter meetings and, if the leading remaining rumors post-Orlando come to fruition, will only gather momentum as we hit a 2018 season punctuated by a star-studded free-agency class.

Last season's World Series featured two 100-win teams for the first time in nearly a half century, but the Astros and Dodgers weren't the only teams to hit the century mark last season -- the Indians got there as well. And the Yankees had the run differential of a 100-win team. More than ever, it seems there's a group of teams that are really, really trying to win. And if you're not really, really trying to win, then you're really, really trying not to win.

Last season, the standard deviation of each team's Pythagorean record was at its highest level since 2002. Pythagorean record, for the uninitiated, is the record a team "should" have had based on its run differential. We can debate the exactitude of "should" another day. Let's call this measurement Stratification Score, after tweaking it so it's not a bunch of decimals.

Last year's score was 76.2. The last time it was higher was, as mentioned, when it hit 83.0 in 2002. The higher a Stratification Score is, the more disparity there is in team performance across a league. The smaller it is, the more top-to-bottom parity exists. During the divisional era (since 1969), which has featured the draft, free agency and revenue sharing, baseball has seen far more parity than it did before. Here's the breakdown by decade:

1910s -- 89.6

1920s -- 85.4

1930s -- 90.9

1940s -- 93.0

1950s -- 84.6

1960s -- 74.6

1970s -- 72.6

1980s -- 57.7

1990s -- 61.2

2000s -- 66.0

2010s -- 66.3

This decade has seen an uptick in stratification and the trend is gaining steam. In 2014, baseball's Stratification Score was 54.8, which represents one of the most parity-filled seasons we've seen. The three-year change in that score, from 2014 to 2017, is 21.4. If you discount seasons affected by expansion, there hasn't been this kind of three-year shift in stratification since 1954.

And remember: That was the state of things last season. Since then, the major moves of the winter have seen Giancarlo Stanton and Marcell Ozuna go from the losing Marlins to teams already above the .500 mark. The Angels, a .500-ish team, landed one of the most sought-after international players, Shohei Ohtani.

And that's about it for major shifts in high-level production. We'll see what happens with trade candidates such as Josh Donaldson, Manny Machado and Chris Archer, and also with major free agents like Jake Arrieta, J.D. Martinez and Yu Darvish. But most of the rumors you see have those players attached to teams trying to stay in the upper tiers of the majors, not trying to move out of the also-ran group.

Is that wrong? Of course not. An NBA mentality has invaded baseball's front offices in which it's fine to be rebuilding and it's certainly fine to be contending. But you really don't want to be caught in-between. Such a mentality could have Machado, a career-long Oriole, on the move as his team might have finally decided to raise the white flag on 2018 in hopes of competing down the line.

Not only is this approach defensible, it's one Baltimore should have taken last year if it didn't believe Machado would be sticking around for the long term.

As of Thursday morning, the projected Stratification Score in my system for 2018 is 67.3. Projections tend to be engineered to pull teams to the middle, and mine does this as well, even it's calibrated to generate a semirealistic spread of won-lost records. That score -- 67.3 -- is extremely high for this time of the year. There are a lot of wins still sitting out on the free-agent market. Plus stratification will always appear less severe in a forecast model, because around mid-August, we enter a different landscape. (Buyers, sellers and call-ups all account for this.)

That is to say, the way things are going, the trend toward baseball being divided into winners and losers, with little in-between, will accelerate in the coming season.

Why is this happening and how long will it continue? Here, I can only offer a hypothesis, one underscored by watching the proceedings at the winter meetings, or at least who was behind them.

Baseball teams are run collectively by people younger and more analytically inclined than ever before. These execs, attuned to concepts that maximize efficiency, are more willing to go all-in on rebuilds. Non-contending teams proactively shop players to maximize their market value, even if that means they are generating short-term wins for another franchise. And we're in a moment when more teams are in that rebuild cycle than has been typical.

Let's run through the list: The Royals and Tigers are new to the rebuild group, joining their division foe White Sox. The American League West has the A's in that group, but beyond that is more uniformly competitive than most divisions. The National League East has the Braves, Phillies and Marlins. The NL Central has the Reds and, perhaps soon, the Pirates. The NL West has the Padres and, if they keep striking out on big-ticket acquisitions, the Giants.

As for the AL East, none of the five teams entered the winter in clear rebuilding situations. But the Rays, Orioles and Blue Jays might be entering that mode soon. If all of the above teams begin 2018 in a rebuild, that's 13 of the 30 teams in baseball.

The good news is that other than the Marlins, these situations aren't economically motivated. They are motivated by ideology in some cases and the natural cycles of winning, tearing down and building back up in others. Some of those teams are further along in the process and hopefully, in a couple of years, we'll see more teams going full bore in pursuit of a championship.

Until then, expect the top of the standings in 2018 to look a lot like they did in 2017. "Playoffville" may not be very crowded right now, but in a few years, some of those empty lots might be occupied.

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