If you've been living under a rock for the last year (or just depending on Time Warner for consistent internet access), I'll forgive you for not having noticed that the Cincinnati Reds have been gutting the bulk of the core that won so many games for them from 2010-2013. That's exactly what they've been up to for some thirteen months now, and it's hardly an industry secret that they're booting payroll and players with little team control in hopes of bringing in the kind of prospects that can make their future rosier than what the last two seasons have provided.
The Reds are hardly alone in that quest, and as ESPN's Jayson Stark noted on Thursday, the baseball world has its watchful eye on a handful of teams that are blatantly punting away the 2016 season. Stark notes that there's a chasm in the National League as big as its ever been, with an upper-echelon of teams poised to chase 100 wins across a wide aisle from teams - like the Reds - that already can't wait for Spring Training '17.
That type of aggressive rebuild is nothing new, though. The Tampa Bay Rays waded through a series of terrible seasons after first becoming joining the AL, but they patiently waiting on many of their top picks to mature concurrently and eventually saw the franchise's fortunes turn once they all hit the big leagues together. The Kansas City Royals, too, are reaping the rewards of pooling traded-for prospects with several high picks in the wake of a bevy of awful seasons, and the Houston Astros appear to be the next great example of how being very bad is the first step in becoming very good. Not to mention the Chicago Cubs, as a patient ownership group watched Theo Epstein compile an uber-talented prospect cache while the big league team suffered through a series of putrid win/loss campaigns.
What is new, though, is the set of rules around how teams can spend money both on MLB Draft picks and on international prospects, with larger allotments given to teams that finish down the standings than are given to teams that win games. Before, finishing with the fifth worst record instead of the worst record in the game meant a difference in draft position, but there were fewer restrictions in play for how much money teams could spend on the players they then picked. With more fixed slot money allocations in play now, there's a massively larger incentive to be terrible instead of just bad, and certain executives are beginning to worry that it's turning into a big problem for baseball as a whole, as Stark relayed.
"I've never seen the game so messed up," grumbled one exec from an NL team on the "win-now" side of the Not So Great Divide.
"I think it's a problem for the sport," said an executive of an American League contender, looking at the state of the NL from afar. "I think the whole system is screwed up, because I think it actually incentivizes not winning. And that's a big issue going forward."
The question then becomes this: if teams not currently rebuilding are both aware of other teardowns and concerned about their impact on the health of the game, how much will they be willing to play along? If actively supporting the quick demise of a rebuilding team helps facilitate them getting benefits to improve quicker than a team that's trying to win, it's not at all outlandish to think there may be a few GMs on good teams who are becoming less and less likely to participate in the process altogether.
It's enough to make me wonder if that's a driving factor behind the light return the Reds received from trading away Todd Frazier, as well as the overall stagnation in the market at the moment. It's hard not to notice that both the Cleveland Indians and Los Angeles Dodgers refused to include their top prospects in deals with an obviously punting Reds front office with high demands. It's hard not to notice that the Colorado Rockies have held on to Carlos Gonzalez because few teams are willing to meet the team's high asking price, much in the same way the Milwaukee Brewers have been holding on to Jonathan Lucroy until someone ponies up a piece significant enough to help them turn the corner. While undoubtedly teams value young, cheap prospects more and more as the post steroid era aging curve gets back to normal, it may be fair to assume that GMs around the league may also be less inclined to meet asking prices on the trade market since they feel they're already being charged an opportunity cost in the upcoming drafts.
(Unless you're Dave Stewart, that is.)
And, perhaps that's what has the free agent market backed up, too. Until there's a more agreed upon detente among teams dumping star players and the contending teams looking to pick up those established pieces, finding landing spots for presumed nine-figure players like Chris Davis, Justin Upton, and Yoenis Cespedes becomes a much more moving target.
It's one more wrinkle in this 'reboot' Reds fans are being asked to slog through, one whose timing couldn't have come in a less opportune offseason. If the product itself becomes bad enough on the field during the 2016 season, it's one that commissioner Rob Manfred and the MLBPA may be forced to rectify sooner rather than later. For the Reds' sake, here's to hoping they get at least one more incentivized season of losing in before anything drastic gets altered; otherwise, the timeline on the 'reboot' may get kicked further down the road.