NEW YORK — How desolate would Red Sox life be after Chris Sale or Mookie Betts?
Before Yankees general manager Brian Cashman knew he would have a team this competitive — before he traded for Sonny Gray and Todd Frazier — he was a believer in competitive windows.
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Cashman, a GM whose lowest single-season win total has been 84, thinks only so much time is available to excel before some sort of downturn.
“I think there’s windows of opportunity because it’s very tough to keep everybody together or hungry or healthy,” Cashman said in a spring training interview. “When you have a collection of talent, depending on like how long, how young that talent is, I guess you can keep your window longer. No, I believe in the window stuff.
“You always want to sustain and maintain, but obviously, the way the rules of the game are, the more success — what goes up has to come down, because you’re not getting the high-end draft picks. You’re being penalized for success, which pulls successful teams down, and you’re being rewarded for failure, which is going to catapult people out of the abyss. So, the structure of the game and the rules of the game are designed that make those windows real.”
The collective bargaining agreement has been designed for teams to rise and fall with more frequency. There is no hard salary cap, but some teams look at the luxury tax threshold as something akin to it. Owners who go above and beyond in payroll will see detrimental effects not only in their bank account but in amateur draft picks and international signing bonus money.
On the flip side, though, teams are going to start receiving less compensation for qualifying-offer players who leave via free agency.
“That has a little bit of the opposite effect,” said Jon Daniels, whose Rangers have the most 90-wins seasons of any team from 2010-16, five. “We’re in year one of [the CBA], we'll see how it plays out.”
But what about a team that drafts and develops better than most? Can it find a way to keep those windows from closing?
Maybe that’s not the right phrasing. As one major league executive explained, the problem lies in that image: the windows probably don’t close as dramatically as some folks envision. They just become smaller, at some point — and maybe not as quickly as people think.
From 2010-16, there were 57 teams that won at least 90 games. From 2011-16, on average, teams won 86 games following a 90-plus win season. There were 19 instances of teams following a 90-win season with another the next year.
The simple of act of trading future assets for the present is an endorsement of windows, in a basic way.
"I think when you have a level of conviction behind a chance to win to add to that to conviction, [that] is, in my opinion, believing in windows," Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins said in spring. "So, long answer to your question is, yes.”
All hail Eduardo Nunez, then. The Red Sox are on pace to crack 90 wins for a second straight year.
But the 2019 season looms. It’s the last year Chris Sale, Drew Pomeranz and Rick Porcello are under contract. Xander Bogaerts can become a free agent after ’19 as well, while Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts would enter their expected final years of arbitration in 2020.
Having the money the Sox do to potentially re-sign some players, or just add from the outside, will always help.
“The more resources you have available to you, the easier it is to keep those windows pried open,” Rays senior vice president of baseball operations Chaim Blooms said in the spring. “It’s hard to speak to you generally about this. I don’t think you want to get boxed into thinking, ‘OK, this is our window and then our window’s over.’ And circumstances may evolve, players may come along in a different way than you thought, where I think the way we try to do it is, we try to compete sustainably. And maintain as much of a long-term talent base as we can. And then just have a realistic assessment of where we are.”
Atkins suggested that culture could help minimize the impact of windows too.
“High performance, coaching, strategy, advance reporting,” Atkins said. “Player development input, chemistry and clubhouse, that’s what beats — that’s what overcomes if you are an 85-win team and you need to be a 93-win team.”
Cashman wasn’t widely picked to have the most successful team in New York this season. Mets general manager Sandy Alderson had a potential division winner and seems to have a different view than Cashman.
“I don’t really buy into the notion of windows,” Alderson said in spring. “Think about a window. You got a window, you move two feet, you’re looking at a wall, there’s another window. I don’t view it that way. I think that there needs to be adjustments from time to time. But I don’t see any reason why there should be sort of a finite, definition of competitiveness.
“And you’re right to point out, the good teams, the teams that sustain success are the teams that make good decisions at the major league level, but they make good decisions at the minor league level too. And to the extent that you have a little bit more money than the next team, maybe you get to make a few more mistakes. But you still have to make a lot of good decisions and the way the game is evolving, competitively — the margin for making those errors gets to be smaller and smaller.
“But, if you look at even the big market teams that have had success over the years, by and large, especially over the last five to 10 years, it’s the teams that do well across the board, not just signing free agents. And it can be done.”
Barring a really extraordinary run of player development, though, it can be done probably only to an extent. The CBA seems to have assured that.
It’s easier to back away from a window these days, if it’s started to close — or perceived to.
“I think that the only issue that I have with that cyclical nature right now is that some teams have tapped into the notion that being really bad for a while can lead to being really good for a while,” Alderson said. “And to some extent that’s true, but you still have to do a lot of things right after you’ve really been bad in order to get to be really good.”