A Season Preview for the Modern Baseball Fan

Won't someone think of the profit margins?

Baseball isn’t what it once was, or so conventional “wisdom” (mostly pundits on social media) would have you believe. The game is slow and poorly adapted for the modern era of highlight gifs, short attention spans, and highlight gifs.

But those pundits clearly don’t have an appreciation for the game and what we love about it. It’s the “in-between” moments, the “absence of action” as Daniel Okrent put it, that builds anticipation and heightens the drama in an arduous 162-game, 6 month season. 

So it is baseball’s offseason, in which the masses clamor for more action, more teams competing in a way that leads to fan engagement, anxiety, hope, or all of the above. But as there’s an appreciation to be found in a 9-inning, 1-0 pitchers’ duel in which very little “happens” during a game, there is value in being attuned to the modern intricacies the great stewards of the game bestow upon us. The headline-grabbing and national-interest building of other professional sports are merely appealing to the lowest common denominator by making moves that are meant to either improve their teams in the immediate term (impatience) or in the long-term. Yes, there’s an appreciation to be found in the moves that need not build a long-term fanbase, excitement in a city, or hope for the future.

I’m talking of course about the reason we played the game as kids, hopes are pinned to the local nine every spring, and projections (and in an earlier era, boxscores) are poured over each day.

 

Indefinite Franchise Valuation Growth

 

Oh, sure once in a while a team like the Padres will have 24 hours of headlines. They’ll sell more “Slam Diego” t-shirts and become every fan outside of Los Angeles’ first or second-favorite team. Social media will explode, drawing attention to a sport that struggles to compete when it has to go against the other major sports leagues and lags behind in player marketing or national stars. The sophisticated modern fan, however, will simply shake our heads at “AJ being AJ.”

What about the long term outlook for cost-controlled young talent? The Padres just gave up on several highly-touted prospects and actually paid for the privilege to do so? Of course, Yu Darvish adds to the on-field product and has drawn major attention to the sport at a time when the NBA is just starting its season and the NFL is in full playoff gear-up mode. Padres fans may go into a season with their team as favorites for the first time in a generation, if ever. (The last time the Padres had an offseason quite like this might have been 1984 when they signed Goose Gossage and Steve Garvey. They drew a record number of fans that year and all they got for their troubles was a loss in the World Series. Some will never learn, I guess.) 

No, give me the Cubs side of the Darvish trade. What will they do with the tens of millions of dollars they’re saving? Purchasing land for mixed-use development and expanding Wrigleyville? Imagine scanning your ticket into Wrigleyville, stopping for an early, fast, casual lunch at Noodles and Company, and picking up a Yankee Candle before heading into the bleachers for a day game. Talk about a hot stove!

While these updates for the Cubs are exciting, it’s important to note for the upcoming season they’re still projected for $141 million in salaries. So Chicago may be the most “improved” team, but still have a ways to go if they’re to catch up to their NL Central division rival Pirates!

The Pirates traded away slugger Josh Bell, who will make an estimated $6.1 million this season. That’s $6 million closer to owning their own cable network! During the long, cold offseason, it warms me to think that in 2025, the Pirates (who have skillfully negotiated an increase in the carriage fees for the team-owned cable network after a year of cord-cutters in Pennsylvania are unable to watch the team thanks to an assist from MLB’s blackout policy) will have even more financial flexibility to build for their next great team in 2030! In the meantime, this year’s Pirates are close to capturing that elusive championship belt with a projected payroll of just $47 million. MLB gets a lot of grief, but really has its finger on the pulse of its fans by putting effort into that kind of offseason team competition that we all love and carries us through the winter.

Over on the AL side, rumors continue to swirl about Cleveland moving Francisco Lindor, who is projected to make up more than a quarter of the team’s entire payroll this season. (Update: Lindor was traded to the Mets right when this article was published.) Of course, Lindor is in line to become a free agent after this season, so anytime you can get something for a beloved, exciting young player that could be the cornerstone of a winning franchise, you have to do it (provided that something is not drawing baseball interest locally or nationally, nor an improvement to your current on-field product).

If Cleveland is looking for a template for how to go about it, they should consider picking up the phone and calling the Red Sox, who found themselves in the similar unenviable predicament of having a young generational talent who was a bonafide marketable star. The Red Sox caught a lot of flak for moving Mookie Betts to the Dodgers the last offseason, but what choice did they have with him set to become a free agent after the 2020 season? Pay him? Now the Dodgers are on the hook for his $30 million a year for the next decade-plus. I bet they feel foolish and their fans can’t be ecstatic.

No, for us real fans of baseball, it’s the smell of the grass, a hot dog in the stands, and that sweet return on investment that keeps us coming back. Eking out an 85-win season in an expanded playoff field is what every kid dreams of as they pick up their first ball and glove and play catch in the backyard. MLB understands this, and that’s why the current incentive structure in baseball, dramatically expanded playoffs, TV rights, and the antitrust exemption are the perfect tonic for the long-term health and interest in the game we love.

Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)

Sean Roberts

Sean Roberts is a contributor to PitcherList and writes mostly about the Brewers at Sausage Racing Form. His work has been featured on Baseball Prospectus, the Hardball Times, and October. He's still getting used to the DH in the national league.

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