SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ. — Given enough time, nearly anything can become routine. Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria both started working out at the Giants’ spring training facility weeks ago. Their side-by-side lockers, separated by an empty one—in deference to veterans—are well stocked, the cardboard moving boxes unpacked. The sneaker companies they endorse have sent them new black-and-orange spikes. After a mentally draining offseason, they say they no longer feel that they should be somewhere else.
But they should be. McCutchen should be in Bradenton, Fla., at Pirates camp, as he has been in each of the last dozen springs. Longoria should be 57 miles southeast, in Port Charlotte, beginning his 12th season with the Rays. McCutchen, 31, and Longoria, 32, have between them an MVP award, a Rookie of the Year selection, eight All-Star nods, four Gold Gloves and five Silver Sluggers. They are idols to legions of children in the Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay areas, who have never known a team without them. McCutchen is the fourth-best Pirate since color photography. Longoria is the best Ray ever. They could still have helped their old teams win … which is, of course, why they were traded.
MLB abhors the term “tank”—at his annual Cactus League media day appearance this week, commissioner Rob Manfred insisted repeatedly that teams are simply at different stages in their cycles of competitiveness, and other staffers referred to the idea as “the T-word”—but it’s like an aquarium out there these days. The Cubs earned top-four draft picks in back-to-back seasons, then won the World Series two years later. The Astros lost 100-plus games three times in a row from 2011-2013, then won it all four months ago. Buoyed by their success, mediocre clubs around the league have begun tearing down and rebuilding. At least eight teams—the Marlins, Royals, White Sox, Tigers, Reds, Braves, Pirates and Rays—are not even pretending they want to win this year. (We pause here to salute the Padres, who will almost certainly finish last in their division this season but still gave Eric Hosmer $144 million over eight years, because sometimes it’s nice to have good players.)
That means franchise cornerstones have to go, even when—as they ignored their agents’ cries of market value—they had signed team-friendly extensions to be there. McCutchen agreed in 2012 to a $51.5 million, six-year contract. In Longoria’s case, he took discounts in ’08 ($17.5 million over six years) and again in ’12 ($100 million over six years, replacing the two club options in his last deal) to stay a Ray through ’23. They expected those contracts would give their teams financial flexibility to build around them. Instead they made them attractive trade targets. San Francisco, even after a 98-loss ’17, is going for it, which both players say they appreciate.
“I believe you’ll see more guys not sign these deals right away,” McCutchen says. “Guys are gonna test the free-agent market because they’re not gonna take this discount and set themselves up to be traded. You’d rather go to free agency than get traded. You sign somewhere because you want to be there. You don’t sign somewhere to get traded.”
The problem is that all the incentives are in place for this to continue. Teams make the bulk of their revenue from TV deals, not gate receipts, so a few years of low attendance are not enough reason not to trot out a Triple A lineup. Strict caps on draft and international amateur spending mean that teams cannot shell out to attract young prospects without high draft position, which comes from a low finish in the standings. But the biggest issue is that, executed correctly, tanking works. Stocking the farm system with cheap, controllable assets, then supplementing them with bigger-ticket players when they get more expensive is one of the most efficient paths to success. And everyone knows it.
“You could argue there is more competition to get the No. 1 pick in the draft than to win the World Series,” Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto told reporters in January.
What a boring fall that will make for a quarter of the league. Maybe we need to reevaluate how we measure success. If Champagne in October is the only acceptable result, it’s hard to fault teams for mortgaging an unlikely today to give themselves a better shot at tomorrow. But if it’s about entertainment—“the best thing for the game,” as Longoria puts it, a string of uncompetitive seasons while your stars play elsewhere might not be worth the potential reward.
And where does this leave veterans who dreamed of spending their whole career in one uniform? If these two can’t do it, do any small-market stars without no-trade clauses have a chance of riding it out?
“That doesn’t happen anymore,” says McCutchen, inches from the new orange-and-black cap hanging in his locker. “That’s just the way it is. Loyalty is out the window. As a player, it sucks.”
It does for fans, too.