So the Rays failed to re-sign Charlie Morton. Despite, allegedly, trying.
The Braves and Rays were the finalists for Morton, per source.— Mark Feinsand (@Feinsand) November 24, 2020
Morton signed with Atlanta for one year, $15 million, which was, you may recall, the team option that the Rays declined. From this we can deduce that the Rays valued Morton as a baseball player worthy of his rotation spot on this World Series team, but not at $15 million.
Call it cheap, or call it disciplined. Ruthless or realistic. This, as much as any other move, is what defines the Erik Neander Rays. Every player has a quantified value in their Rays context based on expected performance, availability of replacements, and opportunity costs. If they have a value, then they have a price. If another team is willing and able to pay that price in a trade or in free agency, then so long, it’s been a pleasure.
Axis vs Allies looks like a fun game, but it’s not.
There’s a cool map, some dice, and all of these fancy units and technologies you can buy. But after you play for a little bit you realize that there is only one viable strategy, only one choice to make if you care about winning: the Infantry Push.
The way to win is to put all of your resources into infantry, the cheapest and most efficient unit, and send them mostly to the Eastern Front. When both players do so, the Allies win most of the time, unless they rolled exceptionally badly in the opening — the part of the game with highest variance. If the Allies player tries to do anything else and the Axis player stays disciplined and sticks to the infantry push, he or she may be able to even the odds.
It’s exciting if you like to roll dice, but the decisions are no fun.
Baseball looks like a fun game, but it’s not.
There are players of all different shapes, sizes, and abilities. Teams can choose between hulking sluggers and fleet defensive whizzes. They can set up their rotation to go long, or their bullpen to come in early. But once they figure out how to value all the disparate on-field contributions and to project future ability, they realize that there is only one viable strategy, only one choice to make if they care about winning: the Uniform Player Contract.
For the first six years of major league service time, players can only play for the team that promoted them, with the first three of those years at league-minimum salary (now about $600,000) and the rest at an escalating arbitrated salary based on past performance. If the team times it right, they can even get a seventh year out of the contract.
Most players reach their peak over their first six years of major league service time, and good baseball players are vastly underpaid by this unbalanced system. And for GMs (or for us fans who engage with the game through the perspective of a GM), it means that the decisions are no fun.
If Josh Fleming is ready to do one third of the job that Charlie Morton does at one twenty-fifth of the price, then the obvious play is to take that $15 million and use it to pay for something else.
Taking the long view of baseball as an economics simulator with a slick reskin and some obfuscation and randomization thrown in, that $15 million doesn’t even have to be put back into the team this year. Baseball’s infantry is the most efficient unit, and there are banks.
And no one can claim that Erik Neander isn’t disciplined.
I know this isn’t a perfect metaphor.
Ten Flemings is not ten times better than one Fleming, and the Rays can’t just take $600K and go acquire another Josh Fleming even if they wanted to. It takes a lot of scouting, teaching, and luck to develop one major league caliber pitcher. Roster size and talent pool limits ensure that free agent spending is still a necessary part of a winning strategy.
But stark differences in market size and revenue streams, and MLB’s persistent unwillingness to level the playing field between the New York’s and the Tampa Bay’s of the world, mean that Erik Neander has to play at a higher efficiency than does Brian Cashman just to bring the game close enough that some good rolls can win.
And, because the Cashman’s of the world understand the game too, Neander’s best hope of playing at higher variance is to make cold, unpopular, disciplined moves that GM’s in cushier seats are unwilling to make. And he has to do what he can to raise the variance.
Dependable, 37-year old pitchers on single year contracts aren’t high-variance upside plays. Even when they were a Cy Yong contender just two years ago. Even when they’ve never lost a decisive game in the playoffs. Even when they’re gracious and open to being a part of cutting edge strategies that a lesser pitcher might bristle at, and even when that veteran leadership was surely part of why the Rays were able to embrace and ride those strategies to the World Series while other teams failed. Even when they give thoughtful answers to every question they’re asked. Even when they sweep up the confetti. Even when their middle initial starts with F when anyone is asked, even though it doesn’t. Even when other teams would be more than happy to pay CFM the salary the Rays had the option to give him.
In Axis and Allies, a tank is something you buy when you’ve already won but your opponent is too naive or stubborn to concede, so you want to speed up the clock because you’re bored. In baseball, a CFM is something you buy when you’ve already won the economics, but need to eliminate some of that pesky variance. The Rays had that luxury in 2019 and 2020, but in this revenue landscape it seems like the Rays haven’t broken through on the Eastern Front.
I trust Erik Neander when he decides that sweeping up the confetti is worth, let’s say, $12 million to the Rays, but not $15 million, and I admire him for it. I too am a person who wins games.
But I am also a fan, and as a fan I am very tired. I am tired of defending my GM’s efficiency as a response to allegations of my owner’s cheapness. I am tired of being called a sucker by my peers on the sabermetric baseball left. Maybe I am a sucker; both statements can be true.
The market size and the revenue streams in Tampa Bay mean that within the pathetically unbalanced baseball economy the Rays must do things differently than do most of their direct competitors if they seriously intend to field contending teams, but market size and revenue streams are not the only factor in how a budget is set. An owner with different priorities would lower the opportunity costs and raise the player valuations.
And while I will always view baseball in part as a regional class narrative, and I feel no shame when I compare the one-story bungalows and fledgling service economy of the Tampa Bay I grew up in to the glittering luxury towers and generational wealth of the NYC I now walk through on my way to work, it’s hard to keep that chip on my shoulder when my owner can’t open his mouth without threatening to move the team; without reminding me that they are not really my Rays, and suggesting that maybe I should be happy my provincial backwater could maintain even half a baseball team.
For two years, when people asked to what end the Rays so consistently cut costs, I have replied “So they could sign Charlie Morton.” He was more than a three-win pitcher who exploded to a six-win career performance in 2019, and he was more than a 2020 ALCS champion. He was a talisman of the Rays good faith efforts to win baseball games.
I understand this game today as well as I did before Morton signed with Atlanta. The revenue imbalance between markets is real. Efficiency is life. There are banks, so maybe that $15 million doesn’t have to be put back into the team this year. But I am very tired, and I could use a talisman.
Defending the Rays Way looks like a fun game, but it’s not.