Monday, July 27, 2009

A Mere Footnote

If you blinked, you missed it.

The Cleveland Indians’ traded relief pitcher Rafael Betancourt to the Colorado Rockies at around the same time general manager Mark Shapiro was telling anyone who’d listen that any trades had to yield “pitching, pitching, pitching” in return.

He got pitching in the form of an unknown commodity buried in the minors via the Mid American Conference. Cue the eye roll. The Indians aren’t about acquiring pitching. If the question is, what did we learn from the Betancourt trade, the answer, stated in the form of a question is “What is the best way to manage a dwindling team budget?”

It’s easy now for Shapiro to say that the Indians were never going to pick up that option anyway so the trade was about getting something for Betancourt rather than let him walk away at the end of the season. Whether it’s true or not or whether it was just Shapiro’s way of rehearsing his speech on Cliff Lee which he’ll either pull out of the drawer later this week or 52 weeks from now is a whole other matter.

In simple economic terms, you can give Shapiro the benefit of the doubt, but just barely. By dumping Betancourt now, the Indians not only saved themselves about $1.5 million off of payroll for the rest of this year, they also “saved” $5 million by not having to pick up his $5 million option for next year. It’s not savings you can bank because Shapiro claims he wasn’t going to pick up the option anyway, but in Indians math it’s still real money.

Frankly, Shapiro’s rationale is just a tad convenient. At $5 million in 2010, Betancourt may not be cheap but it’s not like he would have been wildly overpaid either. That would be Travis Hafner. The average major league salary is around $3.2 million. On the Indians, Betancourt’s salary would be half that of both Jake Westbrook and Kerry Wood and about 42% of Hafner’s salary approximately $12 million salary.

The major case against Betancourt is that he had a career year in 2007 and hasn’t lived up to it since, or in Shapiro-talk, “we don’t see the value proposition in Betancourt tilting toward the Indians in the near term.” But it’s not like Betancourt’s regressed like, say, Jhonny Peralta, who had a career year in 2005 and hasn’t lived up to it since.

Betancourt at least has been a mostly reliable if not quite spectacular reliever for several seasons. He did have 2007, which will put him in the “interesting, we ought to take a chance on him” category for several more seasons. And though he isn’t close to that level right now, he’d easily be considered one of the most viable bullpen arms for next season, particularly when compared to what the Indians received in return.

When a team’s glaring weakness is its bullpen and you trade one of the few mostly reliable arms for a pitcher that’s years away from contributing, then just be straight with the fans. Don’t try to sell them Connor Graham. They can tell the difference between a bald claim of improving your won/loss record and an implied claim of improving your profit/loss margin.

It’s not exactly a revelation that the Indians are a budget first team. It’s not even an indictment. It’s the double-barreled reality of a poor economy and a fundamentally flawed economic structure in baseball. Even with the economic disparities between teams minimized the Betancourt trade might still get made, but the more likely scenario is that a better economic balance between major league teams makes moves like this a far different proposition.

If baseball ever had a commissioner with some wherewithal to actually effect fundamental change on the gaping economic disparities of its member teams, then perhaps teams like Cleveland can being places that players have to leave in order to seek their fame and fortune.

Right now playing for the Indians is like an actor working in summer stock. Think Tom Hanks working for the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival in Cleveland when he was younger. It’s done for the experience, not the money. But you can’t build a career here, in theater or in baseball. The Indians aren’t exactly the minor leagues but at this point to say that they play in the same league as some of the other teams, like the New Yorks and Boston, for example, is only technically true.

That is, perhaps, the fundamental difference between major league baseball and the NFL. In large measure, professional football is run like a game of Monopoly. The banker gives each team the same amount of funny money and success or failure is not just a matter of rolling the dice but a product of the cleverness of your decisions.

The NFL, with its hard salary cap and equitable revenue sharing, puts a premium on the ability to manage the cap. It doesn’t give, say, the Detroit Lions 50% less money than the New York Giants and then tell them to stop whining and go compete. In football, its playing field is actually level.

Baseball, on the other hand, sees no wisdom in such progressive thinking. It runs the league as if some teams have the divine rights of kings and others are perpetually relegated to serf status. From a business standpoint, baseball works about as well as feudalism did.

Still, it’s worth asking whether a salary cap in baseball would make any difference in the trade of Betancort. Probably not, but it certainly would in the case of Lee.

Even with a salary cap, the NFL off-season is like the Hartville flea market. Everyone just goes from one table to the next alternately selling their own crap and buying someone else’s. Football teams dump Betancourt equivalents all the time because their cap value exceeds their on-field contributions, usually for younger and cheaper players in the opposite category. But for teams that need a missing piece or two, a guy like Betancourt may just be the overpriced answer. The Browns signed Willie McGinest.

Still, it mostly works. Baseball does not. With better economic balance n football, it’s far easier to measure the effectiveness of both the front office and the head coach. One can tell, for example, what a dismal failure it was for Phil Savage to sign Donte Stallworth. It’s far harder to tell whether Shapiro’s signing of Mark DeRosa was a mistake.

Another key difference between the leagues is the absence of the late-season salary dump. In baseball, July 31, the trading deadline, becomes as important of a date if not more so than opening day. The yearly ritual of the also-rans dumping assets to offset the on-coming drop in attendance in August and September doesn’t exist in the NFL. Quick, or even not so quick, tell me the last memorable NFL trading deadline deal made? Ok, I’ll make it easier. Tell me the last NFL trading deadline deal you remember. Didn’t think so.

The reason this matters is that football teams can actually build some continuity from year to year. If the Indians turn over their roster by 50% each year, it’s because it has to for economic reasons. When that happens with the Browns it’s only because they made dumb decisions.

Shapiro already runs the team as if it is in a league with a salary cap, but that’s because he has no other choice. Constrained mightily by a budget that seems to shift on a daily basis, this can never take either eye off the bottom line. It may be cynical to say that the team seems focused first on economics and wins and losses second, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.

A salary cap wouldn’t necessarily make the Indians a perennial contender, but they’d have a far better chance, mainly because the high-value players they actually developed would likely have remained with them during the prime of their careers. There would have been no need to dump CC Sabathia, for example, any more than there is a need, or at least a perceived need, to dump Lee or Victor Martinez for much the same reason—salary. This isn’t just wishful thinking, it’s how it would have played out absent some overanalyzing by Shapiro, which is always a possibility. And by the way, it would have obviated the need for anyone to ponder the merits of firing Eric Wedge because he wouldn’t have been hired in the first place. With the kind of talent that would have remained, no one in their right mind would have given the keys to a rookie manager.

Betancourt is going to fall into the deep recesses of most fans’ memories the way Jamie Easterly and Victor Cruz have. But when Shapiro takes to the podium to extol the virtues of the three or four bodies that he got for trading Lee, don’t act surprised. You’d have to be comatose not to see that speech coming.

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