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Bad teams aren’t trying to get worse, and that’s good

The Braves and the Twins are two teams that will probably not make the 2017 playoffs, yet have been active in free agency. This is good.

MLB: General Managers Meetings
Minnesota Twins general manager Thad Levine during the MLB general managers meeting at the Omni Scottsdale Resort.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The stove: It’s hot. Or at least heating up. It’s an electric range stove, there’s a long time between turning it on and getting actual heat. But it’s getting there! The first few free agent signings have started to trickle in, most recently with Jason Castro signing with the Twins on the 22nd, and Sean Rodriguez with the Braves on the 24th.

Those are still relatively minor deals, with a combined five years and $36 million between the two of them, so it’s not like they’ve busted the offseason wide open. But they are a little striking, if only because of the teams that signed them. Neither the Twins nor the Braves look like they’re going to be good. The concept of the win curve is seemingly omnipresent in offseason analysis, but the baseline notion is that teams that are bad don’t gain much by being slightly less bad, since neither 66 wins nor 76 wins is going to get you to the playoffs. As a result, these signings might seem a little odd, given that Minnesota and Atlanta are projected by FanGraphs’ early numbers for 76 and 74 wins, respectively.

If you set aside the teams doing the signing, the contracts themselves aren’t bad, and they have the potential to be quite good. Castro, a light-hitting catcher who nonetheless adds significant value via framing and defense, signed for three years and $24.5 million. He’s coming off a 2.5-WAR season (by Baseball Prospectus’s version of the metric, which accounts for his aforementioned framing value), and with the going rate of wins on the open market between $7 and $9 million, he can fall off substantially over the next few years and this contract can still look good for the Twins. Similarly, Sean Rodriguez might have turned himself into a new player in 2016, adding a leg kick that (possibly) led to an offensive breakout. In only 342 plate appearances, he was worth roughly 2 wins, and given his two-year, $11.5 million contract, anything even resembling that level of production will make the Braves come out ahead.

David Richard – USA TODAY Sports

When a team wins the World Series, the instinct among the rest of the league is to copy whatever made them successful. There are lots of on-field aspects of the Cubs that other teams could emulate, but their real defining feature under Theo Epstein was their philosophy and trajectory: an intense period of badness leading to an incredible youthful core and a roster that looks set to dominate the NL for half a decade at least. The Cubs lead FanGraphs’ projected standings; the highest team in the AL is the Astros, who are emerging from their own drastic teardown and rebuilding process. It’s easy to look at those two teams and think that they’ve found the blueprint for success. But with these signings, the Braves and Twins are trying to get better before they’re good enough for the playoffs, and departing from the Cubs/Astros blueprint in a very real way.

And I think that’s great! There is undeniably something smart about what Theo Epstein and Jeff Luhnow did; they took bad teams and made them good, and did it without spending tons of owner money. But smart is not the same as good, or socially desirable. The Cubs/Astros blueprint can be, and is, both smart and awful. Houston went 51–111 in 2013, barely clearing a .300 winning percentage, and 55–107 the year before. In the same seasons, Chicago was 66–96 and 61–101, respectively. Bad baseball, the kind of baseball the Astros and Cubs front offices intentionally exposed their fans to for several consecutive seasons, is boring, sloppy, and disruptive to MLB’s structure. The reasons that full teardowns and rebuilds are smart have nothing to do with what fans want, and everything to do with what ownership wants.

I’m not sure that it’s practical to outlaw that kind of deliberate losing, but I think MLB as a whole would be a much better league if everyone agreed not to do it. At the very least, it shouldn’t be celebrated, and when a team that’s not going to make the playoffs takes the opposite approach and actually tries to improve the on-field product, they should be applauded.

Neither the Braves nor the Twins damaged their long-term prospects at all with either of these deals. If this money didn’t go to Sean Rodriguez and Jason Castro, it would’ve just stayed in the pockets of the owners. Both deals are short enough and small enough that even the worst-case scenarios can’t be that bad. If they aren’t smart, it’s only because the owners of each team could’ve bought a few yachts with this money instead, not because either contract is bad. And while both deals probably moved these teams’ odds of making the playoffs only slightly, from 0.6 percent to 0.8 percent or so, they’ve improved each club. The Braves and the Twins are trying to play better baseball, not to make the playoffs, but for its own sake.

I suspect they’re not doing this entirely out of a belief in the purity of America’s pastime, however. Fanbases really, really dislike aggressive Cubs/Astros-style teardowns, as well they should. The Braves are moving into their new stadium for the 2017 season, and the Twins are just generally trying to seem something other than hapless for the first time in about a decade. Both teams have reasons to be concerned about the perceptions of their fans, and reasons to try to keep people engaged and at least only mildly disgruntled rather than completely disgusted.

I think this is another piece of evidence that fans can shape the way teams approach the game, and it’s an example of that shaping leading to a good result. Neither Minnesota nor Atlanta needed to sign these players. They weren’t going to make the playoffs before these contracts; they aren’t going to after. But they signed good players, at good prices, and will be better next year as a result.

It is of course far too early to say this is the end of full rebuilds. Most obviously, this is just a pair of signings, and even if they did represent a nascent trend, there will still be teams in the future for whom a drastic teardown will be the best option, perhaps not just for their owner but for all of baseball. Nonetheless, I’m hopeful that these contracts might indicate a move away from that model, and toward a framework where teams are conscious of their position on the win curve without feeling free to exploit it to their owner’s benefit at every possible opportunity. They don’t need to be the start of something new, however, for me to like them. Even if these signings are nothing more than what they appear to be — two small but smart signings by teams that won’t be competitive in 2017 — they’re a good thing for the sport of baseball.

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Henry Druschel is a Managing Editor of Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.