Where were you when the game embraced the new bad? Not the old bad, mind you -- depending on which generation you’re in, that could mean the Major League Indians in the ’80s, or it might be the Kansas City A’s. Those were teams so hapless and hopeless they became legendary for it.
No, what did you think about the state of the game a decade ago, when we got to see four different teams lose 100 games in the same season for the first and only time? In 2002, the Brewers, Tigers, Devil Rays and Royals all managed the dubious feat.
What will you think if that happens again -- say, what if it happens again in 2012?
This might seem surprising to bring up now, because competitive balance in baseball is doing really well. To borrow from the immortal Chico Escuela, baseball has been very, very good to us lately -- most of us, at any rate. Go back to 2001, when the Diamondbacks upset the Yankees and overthrew the game’s last dynasty, and you’ll find that 25 of baseball’s 30 teams have made the postseason over the past 11 years since. Nine different teams have won the World Series. For competitive balance, it might seem like it’s hard to do much better than that.
And at the outset of this new age that spread Bud Selig’s well-worn mantra of teams and fans having hope and faith, you’ve also got that quartet of hundred-loss teams. You’ve also got the 119-loss Tigers of 2003, the worst modern-era team since the 1962 Mets. You’ve also got the 2004 Diamondbacks and their 111 losses, the worst mark in National League history in the era of divisional play.
If you refer to the chart generated by Dan Szymborski of ESPN Insider after simulating the 2012 season repeatedly to test the likelihood of the outcome, you can see that there are five teams with a one-in-five shot or worse at suffering their own 100-loss season. How in the new era of competitive balance could that come to pass?
We know that the Mets have had to shed a record amount of payroll, and we know why: The Wilpons are pinched for pennies. As David Schoenfield noted on Thursday, what sort of hope can Orioles fans really work up about their current crew when they simply don’t have the talent to really run with the big dogs?
In the case of these two teams, it’s worth remembering that the Orioles and Mets are each marooned in the two hypercompetitive Eastern divisions. However, with the initiative to add a fifth playoff team to each league, suddenly finishing third in either division no longer seems such an impossible goal for the Nationals, Marlins or Blue Jays.
The Athletics and Mariners have a similar problem. While the Angels and Rangers embark on a multiyear duel fueled by star power and a ton of expense in their race to claim the AL West for themselves, the unbalanced schedule means that the luckless squads in Seattle and Oakland have to look forward to playing almost a quarter of their schedules -- 38 of 162 games -- against their two now-even-more-powerful division rivals. Indeed, in the face of that kind of competition, the A’s leadership has seemingly chucked any ambition for their near-term future while they wait to see how their latest bid to move to San Jose works out.
At the bottom of the barrel, at least the Houston Astros might be able to look forward to the benefits of regime change in the front office. That goes for the Cubs, as well, and the presence of Theo Epstein in Wrigleyville or former Cardinals exec Jeff Luhnow in Houston, but both franchises are bogged down in long-term rebuilds. More importantly, they advertise the fact, and it’s that very hopelessness that suggests how much things have changed over the past decade.
It’s this seeming immediate hopelessness of so many teams that seems particularly strange, because who’s running these organizations? Jack Zduriencik came to Seattle from the Brewers organization with an exceptional track record in player development. The Mets’ Sandy Alderson was the architect of the A’s late-’80s mini-dynasty. The Orioles’ Dan Duquette was once one of the game’s top-rated executives for his work in Montreal and later Boston. Luhnow comes to Houston highly recommended and worthy of generating high long-term expectations. And while the Cubs’ shot at losing 100 games in 2012 might only clock in at 5 percent, the team’s grim near-term future hasn’t dimmed Chicago’s enthusiasm for the Cubs’ new team president, Epstein of Red Sox fame.
Which brings us back to Oakland. Billy Beane completes this set of franchise honchos, who might be the perfect pitchmen for the team’s immediate lack of hope and faith. Beane completes this set of franchise honchos, who might be the perfect pitchmen for their teams’ immediate lack of hope and faith. The A’s dealt away Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill and Andrew Bailey, none of whom were on the verge of leaving as free agents, merely as a matter of paring payroll to the bone and abdicating any intention to run with their division’s now even bigger big dogs.
This can be seen as interesting because these days we’re now far into the post-"Moneyball" world. You might have heard the movie is up for a few Oscars, but you can certainly mark the occasion by getting the DVD, the book and the T-shirt. Wait around long enough, and you might even get the action figure -- the Scott Hatteberg bobblehead will be released on August 18 to commemorate “the Streak.” But now it’s 10 years later, and these are still about as high as the highlights for "Moneyball" get.
In all the hype about the “new” mindset "Moneyball" gave us, if there’s one catchphrase you’ve had to listen get beaten to death by baseball smarties, inside the game or out, it may well be “market inefficiency.” Whether that market inefficiency has been OBP or defense or performance analysts or adequate fifth starters or high school pitchers in the draft, wait around long enough and you can bet that there’s going to be some new dynamic in which some fraction of a win might be gained on the cheap side of the Hot Stove league. Those who reap those gains are sure to harvest hosannas.
This was neat to think about 10 years ago, especially when there might have been more variety between management mindsets. But perhaps in today’s game, we don’t have that variety that created those market inefficiencies -- instead, you have a generation of GMs hunting for market inefficiencies, trying to stretch their dollars as far as they can go, and only too aware of what everyone else is up to.
In the face of that kind of competition, it’s understandably harder to change a franchise’s fortunes entirely, no matter how smart Billy Beane is, or Jeff Luhnow. Even the smartest GMs have to buckle in for long-term rebuilds, and that means accepting patches as rough as 100-loss seasons might represent. And maybe that’s the paradigm change that "Moneyball" really heralded a decade ago: that even the smartest GMs have to ride out a team hitting bottom as it rebuilds -- and being able to package that message to fans waiting to see progress. In the meantime, the message isn’t “Wait til next year,” it’s “Trust me, I’ve got a track record.”
If we see some or all of the Astros and A’s, the Mariners and Mets, or the Orioles lose 100 games in 2012, that may not mean the game’s competitive balance is broken. Instead, it might reflect the penalties of rebuilding in the hypercompetitive present, especially as the number of teams with a shot at postseason play expands. Opt out of being in one season’s race, and your team might just risk getting run over.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.