It is one of the charms of baseball’s postseason that both good and notably less-good teams take part. Sometimes one of those less-good teams catches the Holy Ghost and tears some or all of the way through the postseason, and it is good. A Colorado Rockies team that looked like a slightly-more-fitness-oriented-than-usual men’s bible study group streaked to the World Series before running out of gas in 2007; Manny Corpas saved five games across the NLDS and NLCS and won another. An 83-win Cardinals team that scored 19 more runs than it allowed during the regular season won the dang World Series the year before that. This is just one of the many ways in which baseball is stupid and unfair, but it’s easily the most endearing of those.
With the expanded playoff format, many of the postseason visitations made by underqualified or overmatched teams tend to be very brief. You would have to be a fan of, say, the 2013 Cincinnati Reds or the 2016 Baltimore Orioles to remember that those teams made the playoffs for a single doomed game. But if you were such a fan, that would indeed be something that you’d remember—Ryan Ludwick’s multi-hit game in a losing effort, maybe, or Zack Britton never making it into a game that could’ve used him. It’s not that much, but it’s not nothing, either.
The question that has hung over this baseball season, from the slow-and-salty offseason through to Wednesday’s busy fizzle of a trade deadline, has been just how much all that is worth to the people making the sport’s big decisions. When it became clear during the offseason that something like a third of the league was either not trying to win or trying not to win, the response from MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred and the owners who stood accused was that they very much wanted to win. It’s just that the people whose wishes and wants directly shape MLB teams wanted their teams to win without putting themselves out too much—without taking some potentially expensive or embarrassing risks, and without doing anything that might even remotely jeopardize profitability and potentially get some executives fired.
They wanted the wanting to be enough, in other words, and because no one can really tell a team owner what to do and because shame doesn’t work anymore, the question of how much teams really want to win and what they’ll risk to do it never really dissipated. It’s a very important question, which makes it even more striking how strange and cynical the answers sound when the decision-makers do deign to give them. After dumping a number of veteran contributors at the deadline, Toronto Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins stood in front of the assembled press and boasted that his team had “turned 14 years of control into 42 years of control,” an uninspiring sentiment that was probably still easier for Atkins to sell than We Kept Our Best Players In The Minors For A Year Longer Than Necessary, For Money which is the message that preceded it.
Most GMs appear to think about their jobs in the same way, and prioritize viability over actual wins, but they know enough to be less overt in expressing as much. “I think we want to do everything we can not to take this season for granted and see if there is a way to help this team in a responsible fashion,” Rays GM Erik Neander told Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times ahead of a deadline in which the team made a few Rays-y but notably “responsible” moves to shore up various platoon situations and maybe, maybe make the team a little bit better. The Rays currently have a slight edge on the Red Sox and A’s for the American League’s second wild card spot; all three seem, at most, perfectly willing to accept the spot should it come that. It might just be one game, after all.
The straightest answers available on a bunch of vital but previously unasked questions—what even being in a playoff race is worth even if it falls short, or if it delivers just nine thwarted October innings, or anything else short of a championship—are the ones teams show, as opposed to tell. From here, after a large number of small trades got done and a great many more bigger ones didn’t and after everything that came before, it is clear that winning doesn’t seem to mean quite as much as it should for the people in charge.
Locking in cost certainty and years of team control is great if you either own a big-league team or can be fired by someone who does, but they necessarily mean a lot less to the people stuck caring about those teams. A decade-plus into an age of reflexive GM-humping, this distinction can be difficult to make. But while fans and sportswriters alike have proven willing and even eager to get on board with long and fulsome teardowns, signing on for An Acceptable Level Of Trying is a different and more complicated thing.
The Arizona Diamondbacks were still in the mix for the National League wild card when they dealt ace Zack Greinke to one of the teams that is indisputably going for it, the Houston Astros. But they also got Mike Leake from the Mariners and made a legitimately bold prospect challenge trade that brought back starter Zac Gallen from the Marlins. The Greinke trade is one a team makes to announce a rebuild; the other two, and the trades the team didn’t make for sought-after players like Robbie Ray and David Peralta, suggest a team that isn’t quite ready to bail. The San Francisco Giants, having broken with tradition to contend for a postseason spot during an odd-numbered year, did something similar, trading about half of an excellent bullpen while keeping a number of vital pieces and adding some short-term help. The Reds made similar moves and the Mets did something like this, too, although the Mets always do that. Of all the strange things about baseball’s new direction, perhaps nothing is stranger than watching a number of MLB teams adopt the longstanding and not notably successful approach of literally the fucking Mets, which boils down to “we’ve got a chance to do something if everything goes right.”
The best teams in baseball are still a lot better than everyone else. The Astros are a lot better than they were, the Yankees and Dodgers notably not, the Braves took some real steps towards fixing a lousy bullpen and still might not matter much more than any of the other teams that will face those powerhouses in the playoffs. Teams have been acting as if they know that—Cleveland, which shamelessly opted out of chasing a World Series during the offseason but seems quite content to chase a wild card now, is the most useful example here—without quite knowing how to do it, yet. For all the busyness at the deadline it’s hard to say that the balance of power has shifted very much since the winter meetings. Now as then, teams seem perhaps too content to accept what they cannot change, and to use that as an excuse for not trying to change it.
Take this deadline out of that context and it would probably not be a lot more satisfying or dramatic, but it would at least look like a bunch of teams trying slightly harder than they had to. In the most abstracted possible sense, there’s something heartening about teams on the cusp of the playoff picture opting to buy and sell at the same time—squint and hope and it’s teams realizing that, in the postseason, simply being there gives them a chance, and that the chance is worth something. But the context that baseball’s most powerful people have created casts a long and heavy shadow. During the two years since MLB’s owners began their slow-roll capital strike, they have sought to make a new normal—one very different and very much more favorable to management than the old—seem inevitable. In the new status quo, owners will do what they can to minimize risk and maximize profits and players and fans and everyone else will get whatever is left on the terms the owners allow. This is a change more in degree than in kind, but it is a change and it has felt strange; when this took the shape of every big league team passing on all-star free agents for months on end, there was something uncanny and unreal about it. Maybe we’re starting to see what that future looks like, now.