Offseason Moves Signal That “Playoff Pinching” Is Underway

The NFL’s salary cap has made it difficult for teams to spend money on free-agents, so the off season for MLB is pretty much a non-starter. But that doesn’t mean that teams can’t get better or worse.

All it takes is a small handful of moves. For example, several teams have traded away low level minor leaguers for big league talent. The “pinching” of the players who will be at the end of the bench next year in favor of those who will be starting is underway.

Here are some examples:

Columbus traded 1B Chris Carter to Toronto for OF Steve Tolleson and cash;

San Francisco traded RHP Josh Lindblom to Philadelphia for LHP Ryan Madson;

Texas traded OF Robbie Grossman to Houston for C Robinson Chirinos;

Arizona traded RHP Tyler Skaggs to Los Angeles Dodgers for OF Jarrod Dyson; and

Colorado acquired 3B Nolan Arenado from Colorado Rockies and sent him to Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange of RHP Braden Shipley.

MLB Offseason Moves

Marty Lurie, a professor of applied economics at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, has done extensive research on this topic. He has identified several buying and selling signals that are believed to occur in the MLB off season. He identifies these as “playoff pinch-hitting” and he has been able to quantify the value of these signals.

Lurie’s work is for a non-sports audience, but it applies equally well to baseball. For example, it can be used to evaluate how much money an owner should pay to sign a free agent or whether to trade a player. By using the same techniques as Lurie did, it would be possible to determine whether various off season moves were good value or not.

The MLB Free Agent period begins when the World Series ends and lasts through November 30. In the five years that I’ve been following baseball, there has been a staggering amount of offseason activity. And in each of those five years, most of it has been about the last thing: who’s going to get paid more than who, who’s being traded, etc.

Each year there is an early round of “playoff” moves that take place between October and November as teams try to lock up their playoff position with free agents and trading for players who are too expensive for their current team. Those are the moves that are important, because they signal which teams are serious contenders and which teams must go into panic mode if they want to make noise in the playoffs.

But the other moves—the non-playoff trades—are just as important, because they signal where the competition is headed. The August/September period is always one of speculation, but this year it seems like speculation reached new heights.

The number of trades is up, but fewer of them are big. The biggest deals so far have been the one-for-one swaps between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Boston Red Sox, which cost each team $40 million or so in prospect penalties. Some of the smaller deals have been baseball’s equivalent of a deal on a house: you get a guy who can help you win a game now and take a little money up front. The difference is that in baseball, you can’t sit him down in front of your kids and explain what he does.

There are probably 30 teams that want to make the playoffs, and no more than five that can do it. So for every team with a shot at making it, there are two or three that aren’t even close. That leaves teams with short-term needs to scramble for the best available players, and minor league players trying to impress enough to make it on some other team’s playoff roster next year.

A lot of people think this is good for baseball; a lot don’t. But it does mean the offseason moves start early, and they tend to be small ones; there may be no reason to get rid of a player if you’ve got another one just like him in the minors ready to step

The off-season is a time of transition, an opportunity to make decisions that will affect the next season. The moves made by players in the off season are as important to an organization as any decision made by management.

A team’s success depends on how many players it can keep, but it also depends on how many players it can acquire from other teams. What makes a move successful is not just the money involved, but which players get traded for each other and whether the team gets more than what it gives up.

The question “Who is better: to trade a player for $5 million or $5 million for a player?” doesn’t have a nice answer. A team can “pinch” its own position in order to improve itself in another area, such as adding pitching depth, and improve its overall ability to compete simply by trading one player for another.

It’s hard to blame teams that try to maximize their chances of winning the World Series. However, if they are able to trade one player for another without losing position in their division or league, they should do so without hesitation.

One of the things that makes baseball such a fun sport, and one of the reasons that it is so popular, is that there are so many different ways to win. The all-time record for pitchers with at least 1000 career wins is held by Randy Johnson, who has a total of 1557. On his way to 1086 victories, he pitched in 1184 games, won 1,831 of them, lost 234, and pitched for two different teams.

But there are two statistics that are more important to baseball than wins or losses: runs and RBIs. (Or possibly BABIP.) They both tell you whether your team got more or less out of its players than any other team. In fact they tell you which players were more productive than any other players.

Winning the World Series is like winning the game of “Hearts”: you have to have the most points — all other people have to get zero points, and each person can only earn one point per turn — but if you’ve played enough turns you have a good chance of winning.

RBIs are like “Spades”: if you’ve played enough turns then each turn can only give you one point — but if everyone else has played fewer turns than you, then everyone else

This is a blog about the off season. I’m writing it to explain why I’ve decided to write it.

I’ve decided to write this blog because, for the first time in my life, I am (1) a very good baseball writer, and (2) working for money.

For the first time in my life, I have a book contract and an advance at my disposal.

This is not a “comeback after 20 years of not writing.” This is a new job I got at age 42. This is what happens when you’re really good at your job and get lucky enough to get paid for it.

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