Pretending to Pursue Free Agents


The job of a General Manager is not simply to build a winning roster. There, I said it. The job of a General Manager is to help the franchise to turn a profit – and a major portion of that responsibility is to build the best possible team that their budget can buy. But as you all know, there can be conflicts. It’s typically impossible for any franchise to be able to make all the moves necessary and be able to afford to make all the moves necessary to make them shoo-ins for the postseason. Expectations of drudgery do not sell tickets. If your fans have high expectations, expectations of contending for a playoff spot aren’t even enough. The General Manager has to manipulate fan enthusiasm in order to convert an imperfect product into something that sells season tickets and boxes, in essence most GMs are going to have to spend a lot of their effort on (to use a colloquialism) “turd-polishing”.

Dec 12, 2013; Settle, WA, USA; Seattle Mariners second baseman Robinson Cano answers a question during a press conference at Safeco Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 12, 2013; Settle, WA, USA; Seattle Mariners second baseman Robinson Cano answers a question during a press conference at Safeco Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports /

We usually associate this sort of front office activity with guys like Randy Smith, who kept telling us how close our awful Tigers were to contention (or, today, maybe Jack Zduriencik and Dayton Moore). But… the fact is, the big-budget GMs have to polish their turds two – largely because their fans demand more. The sense that Dave Dombrowski could have the best roster in the league if only he had given Shin-Soo Choo $20 million per year is aggravating to a Tigers fan in a way that it would not be to an Astros fan at the moment. What a GM has to do is to spin whatever it is that they are actually doing in such a way that a fan can deceive him or herself into believing that the GM is trying hard to make the team better and that the team is making noticeable changes in the right direction. The Tigers, for example, are becoming a faster (better…?) team. Great! Never mind that they’re going to get on base less and hit fewer homers. The Tigers can’t apparently afford a top-to-bottom bullpen rebuild and sadly are likely to field a 2014 bullpen worse than the 2013 model – but look at that closer! Think of all the saves he’ll record!

Is this going to be a bitter diatribe about the Tigers offseason? NO! It’s going to be a bitter diatribe about the Yankees offseason!

The question for the moment (as I mentioned a day ago) is “who will wind up with Masahiro Tanaka?” Everything else in the MLB offseason is on hold while that key issue is resolved. Pundits and especially Yankees fans seem to believe that the Yankees are the frontrunners and that if and only if the Yankees sign Tanaka their offseason will be a success. I don’t think that the Yankees are even going to try. I could be wrong here – I have been wrong plenty of times before – but my sense is that Brian Cashman is doing his own expert job of turd polishing this offseason. Everyone has known for two years what Cashman’s mission has been: to get the team under the luxury tax threshold for 2014. Now that he has started making noises about signing Tanaka everyone immediately assumes that this has changed.

The Yankees are a big market team, they have financial resources that most other teams do not, but they also have to win in order to keep the whole edifice from crumbling. Yankees fans have been less than thrilled about the Baby Steins’ stated desire to spend less on the team even if that means missing a few postseasons. If they don’t care to spend on the team, why should their fans? They have a point… but the main complaint isn’t that the team isn’t any good – most teams will go into 2014 with less of a chance at the playoffs than the Yankees and with less talented rosters (and lower payrolls). The main complaint is that it’s plain to see what Cashman needs to do to push the team over the top – the same kind of thing that the Yankees always used to do – and that they aren’t even trying. Cashman has to polish that sub-$189 million turd with a dollop of “desire to win” and that means making it look like they’re willing to sign Robinson Cano or Shin-Soo Choo even after signing Jacoby Ellsbury and now it especially means displaying a strong desire to sign Masahiro Tanaka. I do not think that the Yankees had a significant desire to sign Robinson Cano for close to what he ultimately got from the Mariners…. I DO think that the Yankees wanted Cano to sign for such an excessive sum that the Yankees appeared to have good cause not to resign Cano.

In my opinion, the same scenario is likely to play out regarding Tanaka. Cashman wants very much for it to look like the Yankees are doing their level best to move onward and upward, fans want Tanaka hence Yankees want Tanaka. I also don’t think anything has fundamentally changed in the goals of ownership and management except for a realization of the caustic effect that penny pinching can have on fan morale. The Yankees want someone else to pay a ridiculous sum for Tanaka, so they can maintain that they would have been perfectly willing to pay him a fair salary despite the luxury tax and yet not pay that luxury tax. If you’re worried that the Yankees will outbid all comers for Masahiro Tanaka, I’d say “don’t be” (and that calculation includes the Detroit Tigers, who could use him to replace Scherzer or Porcello) – what the Yankees are going to do is to pretend to pursue Tanaka then actually sign one of the domestic starters left on the market for a bargain rate that enables them to stay below 189 (provided Alex Rodriguez stays suspended).