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MLB teams play to win and to lose

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Nearly every team cycles between periods of success and failure.

MLB: Texas Rangers at Seattle Mariners Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Wouldn’t it be nice if every team could win all the time? This is a mathematical impossibility, but it would be cool if every team was at least trying to win all the time. No one wants to root for a rebuild.

Unfortunately, that’s just not the way baseball works. A handful of upper crust teams are almost always competitive, such as the Yankees, Red Sox, and Dodgers. The rest go through a competition cycle. Their competitiveness ebbs and flows every few years like waves. The length and amplitude of each team’s waves can vary, but the basic shape is similar.

These waves are intentional. Most teams actually choose when to try and win and when to lose. The purpose of this article is not to examine why. There are lots of reasons teams build themselves to lose, even though many of them are flimsy. Rather, let’s focus on the when.

What makes a team decide to go into or pull out of a rebuild? We’ll take a look at three possible reasons.

Talent

This should be the most obvious reason for why a team is successful.

Do they have good players? How long will they retain them?

Here are the teams that have lost the most fWAR in free agency this winter:

Biggest Free Agency Losers (so far)

Team fWAR Lost fWAR Added Difference
Team fWAR Lost fWAR Added Difference
ARI 16.9 3.5 -13.4
OAK 11.6 2.4 -9.2
LAD 13.0 5.3 -7.7
CLE 7.4 1.1 -6.4
SEA 5.8 0.0 -5.8

These teams averaged 90.2 wins in 2018, yet they let 54.7 fWAR walk away while only signing back 12.2. This indicates most of these teams are plunging into a rebuild.

It’s not fair to call the Dodgers a rebuilding team. 6.2 of the fWAR they lost came from Many Machado (some of which he accumulated in Baltimore). They never intended to keep him with Corey Seager expected back healthy. Not counting Machado, the Dodgers have only lost 1.5 fWAR, so they get a pass.

There are other caveats as well. Cleveland is still projected to win the AL Central next year (more on this below). On the other hand, Seattle has lost even more talent when considering the trades of James Paxton, Robinson Cano, Edwin Diaz, and others.

Given how many impact free agents said goodbye to Arizona, Oakland, Cleveland, and Seattle, it’s likely they don’t have the talent to replace them and stay competitive. Even more players were either getting too old, such as Edwin Encarnacion, too close to free agency, such as Paul Goldschmidt, or too expensive, such as Cano. Cleveland even floated the idea of trading Corey Kluber.

There’s more than one kind of on-field talent though. Lots of prospect sites are publishing their Top 100 lists and around now. Their organizational rankings aren’t out yet, but MLB Pipeline hands out “prospect points” based on how many players each franchise has on their Top 100.

The teams with the most prospects are, in order, the Padres, Braves, White Sox, and Rays. Here’s how they’ve fared in free agency this winter:

Free Agency by fWAR (so far)

Team fWAR Lost fWAR Added Difference
Team fWAR Lost fWAR Added Difference
TBR 0.4 3.1 2.7
ATL 7.6 4.3 -3.3
SDP 1.2 3.3 2.1
CHW 1.0 1.2 0.2

Three of the four have positive gains in free agency. The fourth is Atlanta, who can be forgiven because Josh Donaldson is their big acquisition. Donaldson was injured last year, and should exceed his 1.3 fWAR from 2018. He surpassed 5.0 fWAR in each of the previous five seasons.

Apparently, the teams with the best up-and-coming prospects are spending like they want to compete right now. Furthermore, the White Sox and Padres have both been linked to Manny Machado, so they might not be finished shopping in the free agency market.

As for the Braves and Rays, they were among baseball’s surprisingly competent teams last year. Both teams won 90 games and Atlanta made the playoffs. Apparently, they pulled out of their rebuilds a year ago, and they’re still looking to rise.

Competition

The goal of playing baseball in the regular season is to win enough games to reach the playoffs. There are two ways to do this: win the division and earn a wild card spot. Division championships are preferable of course. Therefore, teams should factor the strength of their division into their rebuild/compete decision...

...except sometimes they don’t. Going back to our four biggest fWAR losers of the offseason, two play in the AL West (Oakland and Seattle). That makes sense, given how good the Astros are. Looking at the AL Central though, Cleveland has no business on this list. They were the only team in the division to finish over .500. Given how easy their competition is, they should be adding players in free agency— not subtracting them.

This cuts both ways. Let’s take a look at the teams that added the most fWAR in free agency so far.

Biggest Free Agency Winners (so far)

Team fWAR Lost fWAR Added Difference
Team fWAR Lost fWAR Added Difference
NYM 0.3 9.7 9.4
WSN 6.6 12.3 5.7
LAA -0.7 4.0 4.7
MIN -0.4 2.5 3.0

The Mets appear to be the biggest winners of the offseason by far, especially considering they also traded for Cano and Diaz. It’s hard to fault a team for trying to right the ship, but the timing is a little curious. The Braves won the division, have a great farm system, and added talent (adjusting for Donaldson’s injury). The Nationals are the second biggest winner of free agency, even if they lose Bryce Harper, and they will contend for the division. The Phillies are nothing to sneeze at either. The Mets might still just be a fourth place team.

It’s really unscientific to judge this anecdotally on a case-by-case basis, so let’s use some data. Using the FanGraphs standings projections, we can compare how many games behind each team finished in 2018 to how far behind they’re expected to finish in 2019. Here’s a chart of their expected games behind improvement compared to their fWAR added through free agency.

If that looks like a mess, it’s because it is one. There is a -0.0 correlation between free agents added and expected change in games behind.

There are a few reasons why no connection exists here. Baltimore is expected to improve because it’s almost impossible to be as bad as 47-115 two years in a row, while it’s just as difficult for Boston to go 108-54 again. Cincinnati’s improvement is for real, but it mostly comes from trades.

Either way, if division strength was a factor, there should be some kind of correlation between free agent spending and standings improvement. Using the FanGraphs projections, that doesn’t appear to be the case.

Money

Perhaps the biggest factor is also the most unknowable. Each team sets its budget based on its own internal calculations, including projected operating costs and projected profitability. Oakland and Cleveland are two playoff teams from a year ago who have tried to shed payroll this winter. We can’t really know what their bottom line looks like, but this is the path they decided to pursue.

It’s worth noting that MLB boasted record revenue last year ($10.3 billion), while the average player salary dropped. Given the bull market for teams and bear market for players, perhaps the budget of each team is determined more by whimsy (if not outright greed), than by actual financial constraint.

Talent, competition, and money are only three of probably a dozen factors that influence the competition cycle. Teams win and lose with intent, and we can’t really know the complete reasons why without working in a front office.


Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983