We often hear the following tired clichés when baseball commentators, front office executives or field managers are talking about the state of given MLB teams:
“If this team wants to compete in the coming season, Jim, they have a window of opportunity right now to get it done. But that window may be closing sooner than they think.”
“That’s right, Bob, and the front office needs to add to their core if they have any hope of contending with [name of any competently-run team here].”
Bob and Jim are repeating phrases they’ve heard other baseball commentators and front office execs say over the years. Bob and Jim believe these phrases are smart, incisive descriptions of 25-man MLB rosters, and they use those phrases frequently.
Bob and Jim also believe their Nokia flip phones are still getting the job done.
I started hearing the word “core” about seven years ago when the San Francisco Giants front office was trying to describe building their team around four or five key players.
All of this brings up several important questions.
If you have a “core”, do you also have an “open” window?
If you don’t have a “core”, is the “window” closed?
Maybe the most important question here is, can your “core” fit through that “open window”?
The answer, of course, is to adopt my personal approach to Major League baseball: “Measure twice and designate for assignment once”.
Another tired (and actually very embarrassing) phrase is one SF Giants Manager Bruce Bochy loved to endlessly use to describe his overall offensive plan: “Keep the line moving”.
Which I guess means hitting a lot of singles and shuffling along the bases.
That phrase always reminded me of that old Bugs Bunny cartoon where Bugs is on the mound and a conga line of opposing ballplayers are continually circling the bases.
Here’s the problem with these worn out baseball clichés: they are passive, and they describe the exact opposite dynamic of what you want to achieve with a winning 25-man MLB roster.
So, if your team currently has an “open window” that means the window was closed before, and that it will likely close again.
And on and on.
Which means your team is in constant flux between being very good, and then inevitably turning very bad.
Relying on a “core” of players means the organization is gambling everything on the success of a small portion of their big league roster.
What actually creates sustained success is true roster depth. Because unlike a “core”, depth can insulate a team from injuries, which predictably impact the majority of players each season.
The reality is that having a dependence on open windows of opportunity and having a set core of talented players are both negative, losing formulas.
There should never be windows, there should never be cores.
Outstanding MLB franchises don’t intermittently build championship teams, they build sustaining championship organizations.
This is the reason that teams like the St. Louis Cardinals, LA Dodgers, and New York Yankees have established reputations as the most professional baseball franchises.
For these organizations, the window for success isn’t continually flapping open and shut; ideally, the window is permanently open.
Which doesn’t mean they win every game, or get to the World Series each season. But they are continually and aggressively competitive.
Success also doesn’t depend on keeping a specific set of “core” players together for any specific time period.
It does, however, depend on building a farm system that continually provides young talent, and also depends on having a super-smart front office that can properly evaluate potential trades and free agent signings.
This is exactly the reason why the San Francisco Giants now find themselves to be an organization in tatters.
And that’s particularly unfortunate, because after the Giants won the World Series in 2010 and 2012 they had the perfect opportunity to build a championship organization. From their farm system right up through the 25-man roster.
But those in charge didn’t believe in organizational excellence. Incredibly, they believed championships happened because of magic and good luck.
Turns out they were wrong.
“Magic” is not a sustainable winning strategy. And as the great Branch Rickey once said, “Luck is the residue of hard work and design.”
The Giants’ President of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi is now tasked with unraveling the mediocre mess that is the San Francisco Giants organization, and the job of building it back from the ground up.
Which is going to take a very long time. (See you in 2021.)
But the big payoff for the Giants’ organization and their fans is they will never again have to depend on open windows, on having core players, or (please god) keeping the line moving.
Because we know those clichés are perfect descriptions of failure.