Tuesday, November 04, 2003

In Search of Truculence  

The 2003 Houston Astros had an excellent bullpen and a 50th percentile starting rotation. They announced yesterday they had traded their consistently strong (7-of-8 seasons) closer, Billy "Der Meistersinger" Wagner, top the Phils for a promising but he's-been-ordinary starter, Brandon "Eiderdown" Duckworth and a couple of prospects. Oh yeah, as a side-product, they traded Wagner's $8 MM salary for Duckworth's $325K. Duckworth's 2003 would have fit into the Astros' starting rotation last year, but wouldn't really have improved it by replacing a lesser starter's innings with superior performance.

Wagner believes he was traded because Enron Field's team is in search of "competitiveness", not "excellence", or because he campaigned last season for the team to acquire another proven starter to support their pennant hopes, or both. I've written earlier entries where I talked about teams that aspire to competitiveness at the lowest price possible to achieve that state, where they can sustain a rational argument to the market (season-ticket buying fans, advertisers, acquirers of team logo souvenirs who hail from outside their immediate geographic territory) that they are trying to win it all.

The argument on Wagner's side, and it's a good one in my book is, you don't weaken your strength while not upgrading your weaknesses and expect to compete more effectively. The freed-up money might go towards acquiring better starting pitching or it might go to the owners' bottom line. The argument on management's side is that the benefit/cost ratio of winning, perhaps, 91 games a season could potentially be higher than the benefit/cost ratio of being assured of getting in the playoffs. That is, put a good-not-great product out there, and maybe you'll get lucky.

Wagner popped off to the Houston Chronicle's José de Jesus Ortíz about his perceptions, and it's worth reading. The story leads with a side-story, but a sad one...apparently Astro management never called Wagner to tell him he'd been traded or just to say adios to an employee who'd been with them his whole career. That's surprising on three counts: 1) it's easy to do, 2) The Enrons market themselves as a family-like organization that tries to acquire "character" players and this act, if true, is the opposite and would therefore create a reverse gravitational field that would tend to push players like that away from the team, and 3) A consistently-good closer is the rarest commodity in baseball and it would make re-acquiring him the future if they wanted to highly improbable.

What is Present Is Prologue

Too many organizations do this, choosing one of two extreme models for people who have "left to pursue other opportunities". They either make a big shmaltzfest out of it, or try to pretend the contributor never existed, sort of like sending him to Coventry.

If Wagner's position is right, the Enrons needed to cut payroll while still playing adequately enough. Many organizations market their layoffs as "downsizing" as "doing more with less". And in this Permafrost Economy (nice three-month exception...let's see how long this lasts...Christmas looks set up to be a bloodbath, but anything can happen) many organizations are looking for survival, not accomplishment, underinvesting in planning, strategy, R&D and other perceoved as non-essential efforts.

Sadly, I don't think in a competitive, struggling environment, organizations can't afford to strive for just-getting-by. The adminsitration is not going to achieve its aims in Iraq by trimming coalition deaths to two or three a day or just throwing money at the problem while trying to find an approach that works. Manufacturers are not going to create any long-term impetus for themselves and thrive when the Permafrost finally thaws by staking out a good-enough-to-work position with adequate-not-very-good products at a medium price.

If you strive for excellence you have a chance to achieve it. If you strive for adequacy, you have a chance to acheive it, but not much more (unless you're the 1987 Twins, or a small handful of other rare cases).

Philadelphia, already competitive, just gave up on their weakest link, Joe Table as their closer, and replaced him with Wagner, the most consistently-good closer in the National League. Will the Wagner get to perform in an October Ring Cycle?

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