2017 may go down as the year of triumph of the austerity ideology in sports. Not only did the Astros break through and shockingly satisfy Sports Illustrated’s once-ridiculed (by yours truly among others) prophecy to win the World Series a mere half-decade after entering one of the boldest tanking projects in sports history; Basketball’s Philadelphia 76ers have also entered the second phase of their infamous Process. After their own half-decade of historic losing, the 76ers seem primed to reach their first postseason since Sam Hinkie’s arrival behind the tremendous skill and talent of multiple top-5 draft picks, including potential future MVP Joel Embiid.
As a result, it is becoming harder and harder to argue with tanking as the means for long-suffering franchises to rebuild and return to or, in the case of the Astros, finally arrive at the top. For owners and fanbases frustrated with the cycle of mediocrity that has plagued many small or mid-market teams who have spent and spent in futile attempts at perennial contention, the success of the Astros and dazzling potential of the 76ers will have an undeniable appeal.
The Milwaukee Brewers, undoubtedly, were subscribers to this ideology upon Doug Melvin’s exit in 2015. It should be no surprise considering the new head of their front office, David Stearns, was indeed one of the architects of the champion Astros. The Brewers emptied the cupboards and dealt almost every player of note. The trades of Carlos Gomez and Jonathan Lucroy in particular have refreshed Milwaukee’s farm system, turning it from one of the worst in the league to one of the best in just a few years’ time.
These moves undoubtedly maximized Milwaukee’s return on these assets. This club was going nowhere in 2015 nor 2016, and trading these players on expiring contracts for controllable assets was a no-brainer. But this is not what makes the ideology governing Milwaukee’s plan over Stearns’s first few years one of austerity. These moves were accompanied, however, by a drastic reduction in payroll at the major league level. The Brewers fielded payrolls ranging from $80 million to $105 million from 2008 through 2015, but dipped to just $63 million in 2016 and 2017, both times lowest in the league. And perhaps more notably, the club entered the 2017 offseason carrying just one multi-year contract: Ryan Braun’s. Even this contract is one that likely would have been dealt if not for the stigma surrounding Braun, his history with steroids, and his injury-prone nature since returning from the Biogenesis suspension.
I have no doubt that many aspects of the ideology that brought the Astros to success and have 76ers on the brink of a breakthrough are indeed the keys to breaking the cycle of mediocrity, which has portions of fanbases across the country clamoring for their teams to join the tanking fad. Collecting young talent and purging assets that have value solely in the present moment are both behaviors that put floundering teams in a better position for future success.
But here is where I quibble with The Process and its copycats: Why must payroll be pushed to its lower limits, even when it wouldn’t interfere with the acquisition of young talent or other future-focused assets like draft picks or bonus pool cash?; or, even when it would help to meet those goals?
I think the 2017 Brewers provide a perfect example of this question. No, there was no legitimate way to predict that this Brewers squad would be a winning team, would challenge the mighty Cubs deep into September, and would fall heartbreakingly short of just Milwaukee’s fifth playoff appearance since the Brewers returned baseball to the city in 1970. But I can’t help but wonder, had the Brewers made a few acquisition in the free agent market to bring their payroll back up near the $80 million mark the club hovered around for most of the 2010s, would they have been able to win the National League Central, or at least a spot in the Wild Card Game?
This is especially relevant when considering the way the club’s season went. The Brewers used an early season hot streak to force themselves into the conversation as contenders. Although many of the players who fueled that hot start regressed — Eric Thames, Jett Bandy and Eric Sogard, for instance, never could replicate the brilliance of their first 100 or so plate appearances — the acquisitions of players like Stephen Vogt, Neil Walker, and Anthony Swarzak allowed the club to remain competitive and continue to play well throughout the second half when many expected them to fade, albeit not quite well enough.
What if the club had been willing to spend on these positions of weakness before the season began? What if Milwaukee had acquired a more expensive and reliable reliever than Neftali Feliz, whose incompetence cost the Brewers multiple games early on? What if they had spent on a starting pitcher to support a woefully inexperienced rotation?
The answer from those who support the austerity ideology would be that any such acquisitions would have been a heavy investment in the present at the expense of the future. The fact that Houston resisted such impulses and avoided the free agent market as they incurred historically horrific seasons in 2012 and 2013 only served to set the stage for their 2017 squad, as the draft picks they received as a result of those losses turned into players like Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman.
But I think it’s important we remember that the Astros’ success can’t entirely be credited to the tank. There was the disastrous selection of Mark Appel and the selection of Brady Aiken, who went unsigned. And there were also the players in place before the tanking even began; Jose Altuve, lest we forget, had been in the Astros system well before Jeff Luhnow’s arrival, and key players like Dallas Keuchel and Marwin Gonzalez were major league holdovers from the pre-Luhnow era as well. George Springer was an 11th pick overall, the fruit of a 76-win season, the last year before the big tank.
I believe it is erroneous to credit the success of these tanking teams to the fact that they were austere with their payrolls. Spending on payroll is one of very few ways teams have to acquire talent, and more and more, baseball’s rules are making it harder and harder to go above and beyond to get better. To this point, look at the limits on bonus pools and international free agents. Even if that major league talent isn’t going to carry a team to the postseason immediately, teams always need help at the deadline, and with the right bet, a slick free agent acquisition even in a non-contending season could lead to a big prospect haul in July to aid the rebuilding effort.
I would be more open to the idea that the Brewers would need to save money if not for the fanbase’s consistent support of this club through good times and bad. Wisconsin baseball fans have consistently delivered with attendance figures over two million for a full decade now. The cash was there to make a splash with the reliever or back-end starter the Brewers needed to get over the hump. Even if the Brewers hadn’t turned into surprise contenders, such moves would have given them assets to play with either at the trade deadline or over this offseason.
Hopefully I’ll be proven wrong, but it looks to me like the Brewers may have cost themselves a year of their competitive window because they weren’t ready to open up the checkbook. I believe the same thing happened to the Astros, who won 86 and 84 games in 2015 and 2016 with the 29th and 21st largest payrolls in the game respectively as their front office was slow to spend and surround their first wave of prospects with the supporting cast it needed to take the next step. Obviously, 2017’s pennant and title soothes all for the Astros, but teams looking to follow their model should be aware that you can’t guarantee the window will last long enough to afford missing at the first crack.
What I fear will happen in baseball and across the American sporting landscape is that owners will look at the Astros success and only see the austerity without seeing the rest of the philosophy that backed it up: the aggressive acquisition of undervalued talent, the maximizing of future value by spending in the draft and amateur markets, and the understanding of when to cash in and turn future assets into present assets. But for the owners, tanking is a win-win scenario: If the team gets better, great, but if not, ownership cashes the revenue sharing checks and laughs all the way to the bank.
Last year’s Brewers showed the tanking process is not always going to follow a neat and perfect timeline. A team that looked a couple years away showed it was nearly ready for the big time. The front office has done a tremendous job of turning around what was a decrepit roster and farm system after the 2015 season, and the work that David Stearns and company have done to put this team in this position after just a few years is phenomenal. But after missing out on this shot last year, it now must be time to spend. Austerity isn’t what won the World Series for the Astros, and it won’t win one for the Brewers either.
Photo Credit: Gary A. Vasquez, USAToday Sports Images