Over and out: Some MLB teams open with little playoff shot
Spring training is a time for optimism, when players bask under the warm sun of Florida and Arizona while fans dream about their team reaching the bright lights of October.
For Atlanta, Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Philadelphia, there's little hope of getting to the 2016 postseason following decisions to jettison veterans and rebuild for the future. Colorado and San Diego also have retooled and figure to finish far behind.
If you're not all in, 21st-century baseball demands you drop all out in the sport's version of "Extreme Makeover."
"With respect to doing a `rebuild' that involves giving up for a period of time, I think the rules we have currently promote that," said New York Mets general manager Sandy Alderson, whose team won the NL pennant last year following six straight losing seasons. "I definitely think it's something that needs to be addressed."
While Boston signed David Price and acquired Craig Kimbrel, Arizona added Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller, and the Chicago Cubs reeled in Jason Heyward, the Braves, Reds and Brewers got rid of veterans.
"I just think you have to be realistic about what you got," said Tony La Russa, the Hall of Fame manager who as Arizona's chief baseball officer has directed what the Diamondbacks hope is a quick turnaround. "If you've got an older group that's got a chance, you fill in the pieces. If you've got a young group, you want to be patient. You got prospects, you think about developing them rather than going out and getting free agents."
Ahead of pitchers and catchers starting workouts Thursday, teams have committed $2.3 billion to free agents, $600 million more than any previous offseason, according to calculations by Major League Baseball. Seven free agents received $100 million-plus contracts — Price, Greinke, Heyward, Chris Davis, Justin Upton, Johnny Cueto and Jordan Zimmermann — more than free agents in the three prior offseasons combined.
Yet for some clubs, 2016 is basically over before it starts when it comes to contending.
"I believe we need to take a step back and build more intensively from within," Brewers principal owner Mark Attanasio wrote in a December letter to fans. "We do not have a rigid timetable because we believe it is vital to build a proper foundation for sustained success."
Clubs want to emulate the Kansas City Royals, who won their first World Series title since 1985 with a young, athletic roster. Houston is another model — after finishing a big league-worst 51-111 in 2013, the Astros were within six outs of reaching last year's AL Championship Series and had a three-run lead before the Royals rallied.
"To have a core group of players that has come through the minor leagues together, that has graduated to the big leagues together, that has developed at the major league level together and ultimately to win at the major league level together, that is a great position to be in," new Phillies GM Matt Klentak said.
Since last August, Boston, Detroit, the Los Angeles Angels, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Seattle and Toronto have replaced their top baseball operations executive. In the previous year, Arizona, Atlanta, Colorado, the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Diego and Tampa Bay appointed new baseball heads.
"They're not coming in and saying: `Oh, you know what, you're going to raise my payroll, and I'm going to go out and sign the most expensive free agent,"' MLB Chief Legal Officer Dan Halem said. "They come in and they pitch: `We're going to start over. We're going to rebuild. We're going to grow our talent. We're going to improve our minor league system.' They always come in with a five-year plan."
Some owners and GMs think the collective bargaining agreement covering 2012-16 has encouraged rebuilding. Teams that draft high in the first round get large amounts of draft slot money in their signing bonus pools, which can be used to pay prospects over slot later in the draft. Teams with the top 10 picks can't lose them if they sign top free agents.
Alderson thinks the top 15 selections should be protected, taking away incentive for teams to tear down their rosters ahead of the July 31 trade deadline.
"The team on the margin, they have a greater incentive to tank than they do to compete because they want to get within the 10," he said.
Alderson's Mets were heavily criticized during their losing years, when payroll dropped to the low-$90 million range. But now that he has a young core, Alderson was willing to give Yoenis Cepedes a $75 million, three-year deal to stay.
Large market teams can turn around more quickly if prospects develop and extra pieces need to be added.
"There clearly does appear to be perhaps more external or media pressure in larger markets," new Brewers GM David Stearns said. "There are also more financial resources available in larger markets that allow them to more easily access talent via free agency."
But in the dugouts and on the field, players, managers and coaches on rebuilding teams try to focus on what they have, not the departed veterans.
"I just want to manage each day to win that game," Philadelphia's Pete Mackanin said. "I think the way the players play will convince the fans that these guys are really trying and for real."
Tony Clark, the former All-Star first baseman who now is the first former player to head their union, reached the playoffs with the Yankees and Diamondbacks, but also was with Detroit when the Tigers lost 109 games in 1996. Players, he said, always think they can get to October, even when almost everyone else views them as losers.
"You can't convince me that I don't have a shot until I'm mathematically eliminated," he said. "But you do hope that your passion for being the last team standing is reflected in the decisions that any one particular organization is making."