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Defining two big leagues via two big deals

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It’s not often that the events of a single weekend give you a chance to explore the current state of affairs in not one, but two professional sports leagues.

The past few days have seen a pair of significant trades – one in the NFL, the other in MLB – that illustrate beautifully the current divide in those leagues with regard to those who are looking to win now and those who aren’t (and more specifically – those looking to maximize on-field performance and those looking to maximize off-field profit).

First up, in MLB, we have the Colorado Rockies trading All-Star third baseman Nolan Arenado to the St. Louis Cardinals. Five players – first baseman Luken Baker, outfielder Jhon Torres and pitchers Austin Gomber, Jake Woodford and Angel Rondon – are heading back to the Rockies. In addition, Colorado will be picking up approximately $50 million of the $199 million still remaining on the eight-year extension Arenado signed just a couple of years ago.

(Note: As of press time, this deal was not officially concluded – Arenado has a no-trade clause and an opt-out that need to be addressed. In addition, because of the amount of money changing hands, MLB and the MLBPA must sign off on the deal. Still, it seems more than likely that the deal will go through.)

Next, we have the NFL’s Detroit Lions trading disgruntled quarterback Matthew Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams. In exchange for Stafford, the Lions will receive Rams QB Jared Goff and a slew of draft picks – a third-rounder in this spring’s draft and first-round picks in both 2022 and 2023.

(Note: As per usual, no NFL deals can be made official until the start of the league year in mid-March, but again – this deal will almost certainly go through.)

These trades are both illustrative of the bifurcated attitudes regarding competitiveness in their respective leagues, each featuring an exchange in which one team is aiming for immediate victory and the other is content to push their competitive window into the future. Not to mention the flawed logic that often enters into team building and organizational management in an all-or-nothing era.

Let’s talk the Arenado deal. In no way can this trade be viewed as an effort by the Rockies to improve their on-field product. It’s clearly a case of a star player who, after signing a lucrative long-term extension, felt like he was sold a bill of goods by management regarding the team’s efforts toward competitiveness.

However, the current state of affairs in MLB is one where only a handful of teams at any given time are actively trying to, you know – win. Thus, you have a situation where Arenado – a spectacular player and five-time All-Star who has won three NL home run titles and a pair of RBI crowns to go with his eight Gold Gloves (one for every year of his career) – is shipped out of town for a handful of middling players while the Rockies pay $50 million for the privilege.

It sure seems like an obvious Rockies rebuild, but it wasn’t so long ago that you only saw superstars being traded for superstars. In today’s wonky McKinsey-flavored game of asset accumulation and cost-benefit analysis, that doesn’t happen. Basically, it’s worth the $50 million to Colorado to be off the hook for the other $149 million, regardless of how badly (and it is badly) it undercuts the team’s actual performance. The Cardinals are trying to win, the Rockies are hoping to turn a profit – a microcosm of MLB’s current situation as a whole.

As for the Stafford trade, that one illustrates a differently shifting attitude in the NFL. Basically, the Lions knew that Stafford no longer wanted to be part of the organization following the coaching and front office churn of this offseason; it was all a matter of what they could recoup in the swap.

Luckily for new Detroit GM Brad Holmes, he found a willing partner in the Rams, an organization that has convinced itself that it is just a quarterback away from serious contention; this despite having gifted Jared Goff with a staggering extension following L.A.’s trip to Super Bowl LIII, where they fell to the Patriots.

(As for the money – always a factor in a salary cap league – the Lions take on Goff’s remaining four years and $106ish million, while the Rams get Stafford’s two years and $43 million. Both teams wind up with significant dead money on their caps: the Lions around $18 million, the Rams around $22 million.)

So in exchange for Stafford – the 2009 first-overall draft pick who has put up admittedly impressive numbers in his decade-plus in the league, with over 45,000 yards and over 280 TDs passing – the Lions get not only Goff, who is six years younger and just two years removed from the aforementioned Super Bowl, but one good and two excellent draft picks.

The Rams haven’t had much use for their first-round picks in recent years, and so they have chosen to throw in their lot with Stafford, who at just 32 might well have another decade of strong play in today’s QB-friendly NFL. It is as blatant a win-now move as you’re likely to see in a cautious league like this one. And the Lions get the opportunity to rebuild behind a quarterback who might have just needed a change in scenery.

The way that pro sports leagues do business has a lot more to do with well … business than it used to. Watching bean counters and efficiency wonks run organizations as profit engines rather than sports teams isn’t ideal, leaving us longing for the days when teams made trades because they wanted to make their teams better instead of their bottom lines. And yes, I know it’s naïve to pretend like money hasn’t always been the defining factor. Still – give me an old-fashioned blockbuster trade – one that can get both sides excited – any day of the week.

Last modified on Wednesday, 03 February 2021 08:42

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