April 20, 2024

Kepner: The Diamondbacks learned from their near-miss. So why haven’t others gone all-in?

On the morning of the Arizona Diamondbacks’ first full-squad workout this week, their managing general partner, Ken Kendrick, lamented the fact that he has not secured public funding for ballpark renovations.

“We may run out of time in Phoenix,” Kendrick told reporters. “We hope that won’t happen.”

That’s a discouraging backdrop to begin the defense of a National League championship. But give Kendrick credit for this: the team’s projected opening-day payroll — $135.4 million, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts — would be its highest ever.

The Diamondbacks exemplify the risks and rewards of the expanded playoff system approved by owners and players in the last collective bargaining agreement. Arizona reached the postseason with only 84 wins, then got hot in October and turned that third wild-card spot into an NL pennant.

The good vibes turned sour against the Texas Rangers in the World Series. After splitting the first two games in Texas, the Diamondbacks lost three in a row at home, never even holding a lead. When it was over, general manager Mike Hazen acknowledged that he had “a lot of regrets” about leaving the team with only three viable postseason starters.

Within a few weeks, he’d addressed the problem by signing Eduardo Rodriguez to a four-year, $80 million deal. Hazen also bolstered the offense with a trade for third baseman Eugenio Suarez, one-year deals with outfielders Joc Pederson and Randal Grichuk, and a three-year, $42 million contract extension with outfielder Lourdes Gurriel, Jr.

Too many other teams, though, spent the winter trying to shape a roster that might win 84 regular-season games. That was reflected in Jayson Stark’s annual spring training survey, when folks inside the game gave 21 of 30 teams votes for “least improved.” And it highlights a concern by the players’ union in the last CBA talks.

The owners wanted to expand the playoff field from 10 teams to 14. The players feared that with fewer wins needed to reach the playoffs, teams would have less incentive to spend big on their rosters. The sides settled on a 12-team field – three division winners and three wild cards in each league – and in each of the first two seasons of the format, a sixth seed has reached the World Series. (The well-funded 2022 Phillies were the other.)

This isn’t about all those unsigned Scott Boras clients: Cody Bellinger, Matt Chapman, J.D. Martinez, Jordan Montgomery and Blake Snell. That’s a staredown over perceived value, which always happens in free agency. They’ll find spots soon enough.

If Major League Baseball had a hard deadline for free agents to sign, that could inspire more deals. But the union would likely never agree to that, believing it would give too much leverage to the teams. The ground rules are different, of course, in salary-cap leagues like the NFL and NBA — and a salary cap, as we know, is a non-starter in baseball.

In baseball’s system, with no maximum or minimum payroll, the Tampa Bay Rays are the envy of the industry: They win a lot without spending a lot. But the Rays win because of relentless innovation and consistent messaging at the major-league level — they’re the only team with the same manager, hitting coach and pitching coach since 2018. It’s a tough formula to replicate.

It’s also painful when teams try to be like the Rays without recognizing who they really are. The Rays maximize everything they have; it’s maddening to see a team operate like the Boston Red Sox, who have more but don’t use it.

Chaim Bloom, the former Rays executive who led Boston’s baseball operations from late 2019 through last September, had the unenviable task of trading Mookie Betts to the Los Angeles Dodgers upon arrival. There’s no winning a deal like that, but it’s troubling how thoroughly the Red Sox have receded.

Since the Red Sox fired Dave Dombrowski in late 2019 — a year after winning a title — they have seemed determined to field a team of prospects and buy-low imports. A team that once proudly and boldly chased top talent has finished last in three of the last four seasons, and shown little urgency to do much about it.

Craig Breslow, the new general manager, has made moves that could lead to an 84-win season. But that’s not what the Red Sox used to be about. Third baseman Rafael Devers spoke for everyone when he told reporters on Tuesday that the owners “need to make an adjustment to help us players to be in a better position to win.”

Not all big deals work. The Mets, Yankees and Padres had the three highest payrolls last season, and all missed the playoffs. The Angels, ahem, would love a do-over on their deal with the indifferent Anthony Rendon.

But sometimes you get what you pay for. Shortstop Trevor Story (six years, $140 million) has mostly been injured in his first two years with Boston, and has hit just .227/.287/.398. The same winter the Red Sox signed Story, the Rangers spent $500 million on two middle infielders, Corey Seager and Marcus Semien.

Last season, Seager and Semien were the two best position players in the American League. The front office kept spending around them, and it paid off in the World Series. Jacob deGrom was hurt, of course, but another free-agent starter, Jon Gray, saved the Rangers in relief after Max Scherzer got hurt in Game 3. Yet another, Andrew Heaney, spun five sharp innings in Game 4, when Arizona tried a bullpen day and fell flat.

The Diamondbacks noticed the difference and spent like a team that’s trying to win a championship. If more teams had that same goal, this wouldn’t have been such a listless offseason.

(Top photo of Lourdes Gurriel Jr.: Daniel Shirey / MLB Photos via Getty Images)