The baseball season ends, and the news conference season begins.
Over the next two months, teams will sign players, fit caps on players, invite you to clap for players, raise expectations around players and then, as often as not, come to be better off without the players. Last year was a bit extreme -- in almost every way -- but consider the 10 best free agents from the winter of 2015-2016. Where are they now?
Jason Heyward: Coming off a career-worst season; benched during the postseason
Zack Greinke: Coming off his worst ERA since he was 21; made his fewest starts since he was 23
David Price: Coming off his worst ERA since he was 23; chased in the fourth inning of his only postseason start
Justin Upton: Coming off his worst OPS since he was 20
Yoenis Cespedes: Coming off a repeat of his excellent 2015 performance, though in his fewest games since his rookie year
Alex Gordon: Coming off his worst season as a regular
Chris Davis: Coming off a pretty good season but with big drop-off from his 2015 walk-year performance
Dexter Fowler: A stud
Johnny Cueto: A stud
Scott Kazmir: Coming off his worst season since he was an Angel
The Hot Stove is a game of failure. Succeed three out of 10 times, and you're a Hall of Famer.
For the most part, it's also necessary for building a good team. Keep that in mind if you find yourself in auto-backlash mode, leading every take with bullet points such as the ones I just laid out. The offseason promises a lot and delivers less. It is your least reliable friend. But like your very least reliable friend, it is still a better last-minute babysitting option than a cat.
Every year, at least one team asks much more of it than that, and this is where the offseason can become toxic. From a team's perspective, accurately assessing where it stands going into the winter is arguably as important as accurately assessing the merits of the players available. In recent history, we've seen:
1. The Diamondbacks, a third-place team in 2015, outspend the Dodgers for Greinke and trade their most valuable prospect, first overall pick Dansby Swanson, for Shelby Miller. This promised to give the Diamondbacks a nice start to a playoff rotation, but the Diamondbacks weren't very good going into the offseason and didn't get good enough by the end. They projected to be around a .500 team going into the 2016 season, things got worse, and they finished fourth.
2. The Padres, a third-place team in 2014, traded for five new starting position players, a new Opening Day starter, a new closer and a new setup man before the 2015 season. But the Padres weren't very good going into the offseason and didn't get good enough by the end. They projected to be around a .500 team, things got worse, and they finished fourth.
3. The White Sox, a fourth-place team in 2014, traded for Jeff Samardzija and signed Melky Cabrera and Adam LaRoche, all two- to four-win players in 2014. The Sox also signed David Robertson and Zach Duke, both coming off outstanding seasons as high-leverage relievers. But the White Sox weren't very good going into the offseason and didn't get good enough by the end. They projected to be around a .500 team, things got worse, and they finished fourth.
It'd be easy to overstate some of these examples -- heck, if all you knew about baseball was these three teams, you'd conclude that the only constants in the game are that things get worse and teams finish fourth. There were other factors in these teams' struggles, from injuries to unforeseeable collapses to the whims of random fluctuation. But pair them with the list at the top, from Heyward to Kazmir, and there's a pretty obvious warning here: Don't let the Hot Stove do all the lifting. If you need five costly players to get where you're trying to go, you probably aren't getting there. You probably just aren't that good.
These are extremely, gratuitously early projections for the 2017 season, published at FanGraphs:
These projections are based on the rosters teams have today, with free agents removed. These are less precise than normal projections, which are already fully outgunned by the unpredictability of actual baseball. But they give us a sense of where teams stand right now. The Brewers are, according to this, ready to field a 69-win team. If they add five good players and give up nothing to do so, they still probably aren't good enough to compete for a title with any reliability.
The Brewers aren't going to try. They aren't even in danger of trying. They know where they are, and they know that the path to where they want to go is the long way: through the regular season, through the draft, through thousands of hours of player development and patiently waiting for the right move to open up. Other teams, though, are in more dangerous positions: close enough to convince themselves. Which teams are in the most danger of being this year's Diamondbacks, this year's Padres and this year's White Sox?
American League entrant: The Angels. This is not intended to be a referendum on each team's GM. There probably isn't a GM employed today whom I wouldn't trust with a team, and I'm comfortable assuming they all have good perspective and a rational set of interests. But traditionally, it has been hard to know where the Angels GM stops and the ownership begins, and the owner -- Arte Moreno -- has a long history of overseeing (even ordering) big splashes for deeply flawed teams. The Angels haven't won a postseason game in seven years, but in that time, they have remained stubbornly oriented toward win-now moves, sacrificing draft picks, prospects, long-term financial flexibility and perhaps even a GM along the way. The Angels are finally free of Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson's contracts, and it'll be tempting to spend that money on, well, the next Jered Weaver or C.J. Wilson contract, especially because the Angels have no prospects on the brink of contributing and no minor league talent to fund trades.
But wait! That projection chart up there has the Angels winning 84 or 85 games, which would make them strong contenders and the perfect customers for one or two final pieces this winter, right? Maybe. That projection assumed nearly 700 good innings from Tyler Skaggs, Garrett Richards, Matt Shoemaker and Alex Meyer, who will be coming back from (respectively) Tommy John surgery, a UCL rehab, a fractured skull and shoulder issues. There's a scenario in which those four are healthy and good and the Angels are healthy and good, in which case a couple of offseason moves to fill in a couple of the dead spots in the lineup would make sense. Trading for Cameron Maybin, for instance? Makes sense. However, any rosy projection for the Angels depends on all four of those pitchers. Add that no team is more at the mercy of a single hamstring tug than the Angels, who would lose two wins of projection simply by Mike Trout slipping on a wet patch of grass and missing six weeks. It arguably makes much more sense for the Angels to use the first half of the season to evaluate where these unknowns take them and load up at the trade deadline if things go right. That they don't have the prospects to actually load up at the trade deadline makes it all the more likely Moreno will want to see it done now.
National League entrant: The Rockies. Last winter, the Rockies traded for a costly veteran closer, Jake McGee, who was two years from free agency. Nobody wants to see their team -- even their bad team -- give wins away in the ninth, so one can appreciate the effort, but it was a particularly win-now sort of trade for a team that was otherwise staying patient. Colorado had an unexpectedly strong first half and went into the trade deadline at around the .500 mark, which had them "looking at buying." They didn't buy, but neither did they sell, which suggests a franchise that sees itself on the cusp of contention.
Whether the Rockies are depends on your definition of cusp. The Rockies look a bit like the Diamondbacks did coming out of 2015: A bona fide superstar had a massive season, a couple of late bloomers -- in the Rockies' case, Charlie Blackmon and DJ LeMahieu -- had star-level career years, and some hints of young starting pitching developed at the major league level. The Rockies have three positions who project to be replacement level and regression most likely coming for those late bloomers. The Rockies are a better team this year than they were a year ago, but they probably were a worse team last year than they looked three months ago.
After the deadline, they went 23-34. Not buying was the right move in July. The offseason is more open-ended, and any team with a chance -- and the Rockies have a chance -- should be open to buying. This just isn't the year to commit.
Here's where the caveat goes: Either of these teams could do exactly what the Diamondbacks, Padres and White Sox tried -- and succeed. If we go back just one year further, we can find near-unanimous consent that the Royals took themselves too seriously too early and traded future star Wil Myers for a doomed bid. Then the Royals made the World Series and won it the year after that. If we go back one year beyond that, we get the Blue Jays, who "won" the offseason by volume yet finished in last the next year -- then won the division two years after that with some of the same core. The counterargument to that is that Noah Syndergaard is a Met, not a Blue Jay, because of it. Team-building is complicated; judging what constitutes success is complicated.
But what makes the Diamondbacks, Padres and White Sox such lasting examples isn't that they failed to win the season after "winning" the offseason. It's that the cost was so great, as any offseason buyer can anticipate it will be. All three teams are in relatively dire situations today because of those moves, because of the prospects and financial flexibility given up. That's the price of skipping three spaces ahead. Sometimes it's worth it, but if a team is going to mortgage its future, it'd better hope it's right about what the present is worth.