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The Matt Kemp/Yasiel Puig/Alex Wood trade won’t be popular among players

It’s another move made because teams want to avoid luxury tax.

World Series - Boston Red Sox v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Three Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

On Friday, I was taking a nap. My phone had been making a few noises, so I checked Twitter and MLB Trade Rumors without really waking up. “It” had happened. The Dodgers off-loaded three contracts (Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig, and Alex Wood), and received a bad one (Homer Bailey) in return. For accepting Bailey’s contract, the Dodgers were to receive prospect shortstop Jeter Downs, as well. I chuckled, and rolled back to bed. This was going to be a very unpopular exchange.

For a stretch in the salary-cap NBA, these sorts of “expiring contract” trades were all the rage. There was one about five years ago where a former NBA All-Star was flipped with a first round draft selection for a second-rounder. The veteran had demonstrably negative market value. Friday’s trade, which I figure I’ll call the “Jeter Downs deal” was a bit along those lines. The reactions on Cubs social media heading into the weekend was less than positive.

However, the Chicago assessment (“Even the Reds are getting better” among many others) isn’t that what I’m looking for. This is a really unpopular trade. This trade either moves the goalposts, or indicates they’d been moved over a year ago. It’s really difficult to argue against that “cost matters” in a sport that doesn’t have a salary cap.

Baseball fans want to get players added to their team that they are familiar with. That they like. They want to keep their favorites around. Those that are less popular, they want to go away. This is understandable, and has been how things work for since most of us have been following. However, things have changed, and this trade advertises the change.

Cost matters, now. Through the last few Collective Bargaining Agreements, owners from the majority have been trying to chisel away at the advantages held by the so-called “big market teams”.

For changes in the CBA, 23 of 30 owners have to agree, as well as 50 percent plus one of the union. Ignoring the union for a moment, the small market cities have a huge advantage. To an extent, this was displayed in the international arena. It was very “wild west” until Theo Epstein arrived with the Cubs. Then, spending limits were inserted. Teams, often from larger markets, violated the limits, and paid a fine. The tourniquet was tightened. Now, the international cap is very firm.

In the draft, teams used to be able to spend whatever they wanted on signing bonuses. Those, as well, have been curtailed. When teams spend “too much” (I don’t like the term, either) on free agency, they lose international space, draft picks, or position in the draft. That, likely, seems a minimal punishment to you. To which I have two principle responses.

One is, this is why the Jeter Downs trade is so unpopular with fans. People, paying massive amounts annually to watch their team (hopefully) win, have been knee-capped by a majority of owners. It’s as if a sentence has been handed down. You can kick and scream, but, in the morning, the Cubs won’t be able to fully use their spending edge on MLB talent.

The second goes to those who have lawyered up. “The penalties. They aren’t that harsh. It’s just a draft pick or international space. They won’t turn things very often.” That isn’t the point, though. When the new CBA is ratified, the 23 will decide it. The five or six dissenters will get a few things added as a binky, but the Royals and Brewers want to be able to sign elite talent in free agency. If the teams at the top don’t “take the whipping,” the next whipping is going to be harder.

It’s entirely possible a team that violates the spending limits could lose a first round draft pick, to be distributed to a team that didn’t go over any limits. I’m not saying that will, or should, happen. However, if $246 million had become $400 million, that could have been the case.

Teams that go over the spending limit and sign a qualifying free agent could lose their entire international spending space. Which wouldn’t change the beer in the bleachers, but the possibility has chilled the free agent market. And it’s apparently a surprise. Even though the creep in that direction has been clear for at least 16 months.

Needless to say, the players in the league loathe this trade. Free agent deals are in the freezer. The low-eight figure deals will still be there for a potential starting pitcher. However, if teams have to make trades like this to add “generational talent”, the union gave away far more than they had imagined in the last pact.

I was researching an entirely different project on Friday morning. I had reason to look at the fourth round of the 2016 MLB Draft. Obviously a recent draft, and on the second day, it would seem odd to find anything “of note” there. Alas, I did. Four of the 30 selected players from that round have debuted in MLB within 30 months. Three were with playoff teams.

Shane Bieber (122nd in the draft) from UCSB started 19 games for the 2018 Indians. While he didn’t appear in the postseason for Cleveland, he figures to be important for the team’s management. At least, until he gets expensive.

In the NL Central, Corbin Burnes (111th overall in that draft class) was a leverage reliever for the Brewers. He pitched in six post-season games. Needless to say, the St. Mary’s College (CA) arm will be pitching often against the Cubs the next few seasons.

I’m not especially familiar with the Braves Bryse Wilson, but he pitched seven innings over three games for the Braves. Pegged from high school (pick 109), he debuted at age 20 in MLB. He could well become a familiar name soon.

Lastly, Joey Lucchesi (Southeast Missouri State and pick 114) started 26 games in 2018 for the Padres. Since you’re curious, the Cubs selected Tom Hatch a bit before those four came off the board, and Tyson Miller after. Both are doing well in the Cubs middle-minors.

Teams are expecting scouts to find MLB talent into the second and third days of the draft. That isn’t me saying it. It’s three post-season squads locating and developing MLB quality assets in rounds thought of by many as throwaway crapshoot selections. Drafting and development are more important than they used to be when pitchers in a pipeline were almost thought of as kindling wood. Players like Jeter Downs (2017 32nd overall pick) are valued by front offices because they are cost-controlled assets.

This is disconcerting to many. For many reasons. Many of these people write articles about baseball, numerous times a week. Suddenly, Jeter Downs is more important than Matt Kemp, it seems. Contracts, when bad, greatly constrict player movement. This isn’t good for MLB writers or fans.

When players who are unknowns become the key articles in trades, the baseball world changes and cringes. “I remember when” ideas are being formed. We want to see players on television we know and like. When the Dodgers trade three major league players for a player they plan to release as soon as the trade is concluded, it could be perceived as a cheapening of the game. When the trade is to make room for someone like Bryce Harper, it seems off-putting.

I feel your pain. Really, I do. At some points, I realized the Cubs added Theo Epstein at the point when adding Epstein would matter less than had it happened before. I’ve been kicking at this nightmare for seven years. At some point, I recalibrated. I’ve adjusted. Are these changes good for the Cubs? No. Are they good for the players? No. Are they good for the strength and equity of the league? Probably.

Money matters now. Prospects being properly developed, matters more now. International spending efficiency matters more now. You don’t have to like it. You can hate it from now until three decades from now. Which is why the Jeter Downs trade is so unpopular. It’s a nod toward front offices being more important, and the games you watch being less essential to the some of the owners than they might have been before.