Let’s start with one of my favorite hypotheticals: your team (any sport) can field two rosters for the coming season:
- Roster A: all the guys you know and love/love to hate. They’re familiar. You know them. They’ll put together a competent year. They won’t win a championship.
- Roster B: a bunch of strangers. Didn’t come up through your minors, even. They’re even more hired guns than either of the two Marlins championship clubs. You have no emotional attachment to these players. With 100 percent certainty, they will win a championship that season. The entire roster will be gone after the season, vanished into the ether.
Which roster would you want to field as a fan of that club?
It’s this scenario that plays out in my head after the trade of Tommy Pham. For me, the trade sucks for a ton of reasons, not least the ones John lays out here. Tommy Pham is one hell of a fun player to watch and to root for. And for me (and me alone; do what you want as a fan!), it’s the final straw: no Pham, no fan. The firing of Mike Matheny was enough to get me to start to lean back in. Then the front office made a very “this is what MLB is like in 2018” move by trading Pham, and it’s enough to put me off entirely.
What do I mean by this? Simply that the Pham trade is a great example of a significant shift in MLB (it’s not just the Cardinals; they’re just the team I was born into) front office behavior–one that makes it tough on fans. The move wasn’t made to address an immediate need: none of the players acquired are MLB-ready, and while you can argue that the trade affords more time to Tyler O’Neill or Harrison Bader, that goal would’ve been more readily achieved by parting ways with Dexter Fowler. As I wrote a few weeks ago, my problem with the Fowler situation wasn’t that he wasn’t playing, but rather that the Cardinals were engaging in character assassination.
Instead they traded Pham, a guy who even with his struggles this season, is still putting up league average numbers and probably isn’t appreciably worse than O’Neill or Bader for the balance of a lost 2018 campaign.
The biggest upside for the Cardinals in this deal? They moved a guy on the wrong side of 30 with a few more years of team control for three guys on the right side of 30, for cumulatively 18 years of team control. I’ve little doubt that was the calculus, too. Trying to project guys in the low minors (and indeed, that’s where two of the three acquired players are) is a fool’s errand; trying to project guys in the high minors ain’t much easier. Trying to project Pham’s future is complicated not only by his age, but also his eye condition–Pham has to contend with far more than the average ballplayer does even aside from the age curve.
I didn’t think there was any chance the club would trade Pham. Part of that was likely my own blindness (“there’s no way they’d sell low on a guy who was an MVP candidate last season, this guy who obviously hated the very bad Mike Matheny that the club finally got rid of,” etc.). Part of it was just that there were so many more obvious candidates to move in a sell-high-and-build-for-2019 mode. (Hi, impending free agent and good-campaign-thus-far-haver Bud Norris; I see you there and I don’t know why.)
And yet they did. And the principal explanation I keep coming back to is that the team gained a bunch of years of control on some long-shot prospects. That feels really gross to me, and gross in a way that’s different from my usual revulsion at how MLB abuses service time in the first place. It strikes me as GMs looking purely at the numbers as if they were running Baseball Mogul simulations rather than considering any externalities. (Namely in this case, the team is less fun to watch for the not insignificant portion of the fanbase who loves Pham on- and off the field.)
In all likelihood, someone in the analytics department calculated that the three guys coming back had more to offer than three more years of Pham, holding salary as a factor. I’m also sure, given the special difficulty in projecting performance in this case, that the error bars on that analysis were really wide, and that even the most likely outcome made future versions of the Cardinals incrementally better at best. A 2020 team with Genesis Cabrera instead of Tommy Pham might win a few more “great name” contests, but it’s probably not going to be multiple wins better than the Pham version.
On paper, the move is absolutely defensible. I’m sure someone can, and did, come up with a model that has the team marginally more successful without Pham and with the guys from Tampa Bay. And heck, maybe the move was a bit easier to swallow because even sans-Matheny, the front office and Pham weren’t exactly on great terms. But as the club proved with Bud Norris, it’s willing to deal with its share of headaches if they think the player will help on paper.
The “on paper” defense is also one that seems to be more prominent now that front offices are increasingly (you can fill in the previous 10 years from where that analysis stops) run by MBAs rather than baseball lifers. And, from an analytics standpoint, their approach is sound: in general, baseball’s best players are below 30, and also players below 30 tend to be cost-controlled. So locking up as many years of cost control as you can, at the (literal) expense of older players, makes all the sense in the world to a front office.
It’s also an approach that keeps fans from being able to form lasting attachments to players, though. I’m fine watching a guy reach the sunset of his career in a Cardinals uniform. At its most extreme, I would have been very happy had the Cardinals signed Albert Pujols after 2011, and he limped his way to “average, at best” performances while hitting milestones as a Cardinal. Mathematically, I know the club was better off with short-term deals to Carlos Beltran, drafting Michael Wacha, and so on.
Perhaps I have this approach because I’m spoiled: I’ve seen two World Championships in my lifetime (technically 3, but I don’t remember much from when I was still in diapers). Maybe I’d be happier at a largely meaningless move that makes the Cardinals incrementally more likely to win in the future if I didn’t have my memories of 2011 to fall back on.
But I do. And my personal answer to the hypothetical I led this article off with is “I’d rather lose with the players I like than win with a bunch of strangers.” The current iteration of the front office, like so many others in MLB, take the opposite approach. Maybe they’re right to do so. For my own personal fandom, though, it’s too much–especially when we’re barely a year removed from “let’s threaten a local cat charity with legal action because we can squeeze capital out of Rally Cat.”
So I’m done with this club. On paper, their move is defensible. Fan loyalty is more complex than that, I guess. I hope Pham sets the league on fire in Tampa Bay, and I’ll go root for…<checks notes>…oh jeez they’re all like this?