Saturday, January 2, 2021

Embracing the Pressure

Now that we've left 2020 behind, I hope that some of the players and teams resolve to not let January be as boring as December was, and that the hot stove season can finally live up to its name. The only sparks of excitement so far have been courtesy of the San Diego Padres, who have made themselves into one of the best teams in baseball by building a very deep farm system and being aggressive using it. For all of the deserved credit that the Rays get for making their voodoo work, it's good to see a team in a relatively small market like San Diego making a bold and aggressive push in a much different way to challenge the Dodgers in the NL West. 

I found an article on on baseball markets, and the San Diego market is in a category of 2-3 million people alongside places like Minnesota, Cleveland, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and, interestingly enough, Tampa Bay. Of course, the Padres have a beautiful modern park in a great location and the Rays have an ugly old one in a location that's not ideally situated in their metro area.

The 2019 Padres finished 17th in MLB in attendance in 2019, averaging just over 29,500 per home game despite losing 92 games and finishing last in the NL West. The Rays, in the same size market, finished second to last in baseball behind the Miami Marlins, averaging about 14,700 per game, despite finishing second in the AL East with 96 wins. Clearly there is potential in San Diego that doesn't exist in the current situation in Tampa Bay.

The Padres have conclusively demonstrated to their fans how serious they actually are in trying to win, which can only maximize their potential to draw once fans are allowed back. I wish 2021 could be a normal year to see how that exactly plays out, but it doesn't seem likely at all that the turnstiles will be clicking for some time into the year. In a way, that makes what the Padres are doing even more impressive to me.

When looking over Baseball Almanac's market piece, it occurs to me how much of a difference there is between teams in the same market size as the Padres. The Cardinals draw a ton of fans for the size of their market by earning the trust of their fans and putting a consistently good team on the field and having so much history and tradition behind them. Cleveland has been really good for several years and consistently competes, but winds up in the bottom third of MLB in attendance, anyway. The Indians are a victim of the problems their city is enduring that go way beyond baseball competitiveness.

The Pirates were very successful for a stretch from 2013-2015, but then got pretty bad again. Really, other than that one stretch they've been fairly consistently bad. They play in one of the most beautiful ball parks in all of baseball, but their track record kills them. They went from 1993-2012 without making the playoffs at all, then made it 3 straight years — but the last two were one and done Wild Card game losses, and they haven't been back since. Not even that ballpark can save them from that record of not competing and, if you're a Pirates fan, it's hard to have faith that the team can sustain winning for any substantial length of time — or is even really committed to trying.

I know there are other factors at play here. Old midwestern working class cities like Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit and Milwaukee struggle to remake themselves while losing population to warmer places with more going on. But looking at how aggressive the Padres are being makes me wonder why so many other teams elect to play things so conservatively. A huge part of building a successful sports franchise is making the fans buy into it, and nothing generates more excitement than watching a team really go for it. If I'm a Padres fan right now, I can't wait for 2021 to start.

I think a splash by a team like the Padres is good for baseball, too. It offsets some of the negativity surrounding tanking multiple seasons and the scam that the Marlins ran on baseball for years under their previous ownership. Moreover, I think that what the Padres is doing is even great if you're a Dodgers fan. The NL West has been a little too easy for the Dodgers in recent years, and being pushed will force them to be better and extend themselves a little further, too. When you're in a deeply competitive situation like running a sports franchise, having a younger, hungrier team nipping at your heels is a blessing, not something to regret.

It's why I always chuckle at the things written when another team in the Mets division does something good. Part of what has made the Rays so cutting edge in their operations is the knowledge that they have little margin for error in a division that includes the Yankees, Red Sox and now the ascendant Blue Jays. Meanwhile, the Rays are forcing those other teams to try to do more. If the real, ultimate goal is to win a title, then any team that's serious about that should welcome the pressure.

Speaking of the Yankees, how many times have we heard about how the juggernaut in the Bronx is a massive obstacle to the Mets' chances of rising to the top? Yet look at the market list in the Baseball Almanac piece — there's more than 21 million souls in the market the two teams share. To pretend that there isn't room for a well run Mets franchise to flourish is quite nonsensical. I have a funny feeling that the folks who run the show in Queens now embrace the pressure that coexisting in the New York market with the Yankees brings.

By making high profile moves, A.J. Preller and the Padres have gained a lot of attention and brought plenty of pressure on themselves, flying in the face of a growing conservatism within the sport. I hope that they can maybe start a new trend in the sport, or at least mitigate somewhat the trend of teams choosing to play it safe.

That will do if for today. I'm hoping that soon I can write about something bold the Mets have done. Please stay safe, be well and take care.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos


  1. The Mets fan base is so accustomed to half-efforts (or no efforts) so it's doubly frustrating to them when they finally have an owner with deep pockets who says the right stuff about wanting to win but does almost nothing yet in that regard.

  2. It's been a weirdly boring offseason for everyone except San Diego and Atlanta


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