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The Pen: Against baseball’s transactional scoop mongering

Hannah Keyser

Several years of snooze-worthy winter meetings finally gave way this offseason to a flurry of activity. Teams spent their time in San Diego snatching up top-tier free agents and discussing trades, leaving members of the media scrambling to beat each other to scoops that were about to be rendered moot either by each other or the teams themselves. And I wish that wasn’t how this all worked.

The frenzy around who-plays-where rumors and the people who tweet them has become one of the foundational features of the sports media landscape. And it’s impossible to criticize the reporters who traffic in transactions, even as collateral damage, without warranting accusations of un-self-aware jealousy. I didn’t break the Gerrit Cole news — couldn’t if I tried — but then again, do you remember who did? And even if he (it was a he, wasn’t it?) hadn’t, Cole would still be a New York Yankee. The Yankees themselves would be more than thrilled to tell you about it. Maybe not last week, but certainly this week. Definitely before they play any more baseball games.

What’s so bad about that?

It’s not the baseball calendar we’re used to, but imagine a parallel universe in which no roster moves are reported during the winter and we all count down to The Big Reveal at the beginning of spring training. Entrances would become showpieces and social media fodder. Players would practically be forced to show off their personality, and the whole thing would feel almost NBA-esque in its pomp and circumstance.

(Yahoo illustration/Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo illustration/Amber Matsumoto)

Oh, it sounds maddening in comparison to what we have now — with the trickle of incremental information and misleading speculation that fuels news cycles and keeps us all employed through the offseason — but I don’t believe it would be materially worse from a fan perspective. And in abdicating this particular editorial oversight of the baseball narrative, reporters would free themselves from the hot stove rat race and the front office congeniality it requires.

I’m not complaining because I think the media members who chase free agent signings and trade news are bad reporters. I’m complaining because I think they’re good reporters whose talents are wasted trying to one-up each other in publicizing information that teams want out there anyway. (Either way, a moment of due respect to the originators of the salary scoop who are responsible for our modern expectation of relative financial transparency.)

The increasing value placed on being the first to report something that either doesn’t matter or will soon be public skews the entire baseball media ecosystem in such a way that it’s entirely too easy to suppress more important, less savory stories.

And here’s the thing, it’s not even the announcement of actual done deals that’s a problem — they are, objectively, “news” that people are eager to know — but rather the trickle-down effect of dozens of reporters chasing the chance to tweet that the Dodgers or Angels were “talking to Gerrit Cole.” Or even the postmortems on how they made him an offer, the parade of reports that your favorite team almost did something exciting.

Dec 18, 2019; Bronx, NY, USA;  New York Yankees pitcher Gerrit Cole speaks to the press at Legends Club at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Danielle Parhizkaran-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 18, 2019; Bronx, NY, USA; New York Yankees pitcher Gerrit Cole speaks to the press at Legends Club at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Danielle Parhizkaran-USA TODAY Sports

These are not newsworthy, they don’t matter, their value only exists because of a media economy that so disproportionately rewards transactional news. And imbuing all these non-notable pseudo-scoops with value — regardless of whether they’re even accurate (!) — thereby imbues the gatekeepers of this kind of information with an outsized amount of power. If teams that fail to secure a blockbuster acquisition want to placate fans by broadcasting their unsuccessful efforts, let them do so on their own feeds.

Reporters are always going to rely on the favors or self-serving motivations of front office personnel and agents to a certain extent, but this is one genre of news in which we can fully eradicate those shackles without any disservice to fans.

We can make teams report their own roster moves.

It’s honestly an incredible coup by teams and agents and the league that they’ve convinced the baseball-consuming universe that reporters should remain indebted to them for the sake of tweeting anonymously sourced intentional misinformation, at worst, and something the team was about to announce anyway at best. Everyone who leaks anything does so to manipulate the market or make themselves look better to their fanbases. Reporters don’t have to be a party to that by serving as mouthpieces for GMs who want to assure their ticket buyers that they really tried to add a meaningful piece this offseason.

Notes from the baseball internet

‘We’d heard whispers of some of the shady stuff’: Alex Wood opens up about pitching in Minute Maid Park in 2017, Andy McCullough at The Athletic

Sign-stealing dominates the storylines this offseason, as it should. Unfortunately it’s tough to top the cinematic drama of the initial reports of the Astros’ wrongdoing. There is plenty of content to be mined from parsing the particular evolution of rules regarding game-time technology, but breaking out of that narrow view to talk to the one pitcher who beat the Astros at home in the 2017 postseason delivers a much more emphatic and human story that helps to explain the stakes of what the Astros did.

Red Sox, Yanks, Cubs sent 2019 luxury tax bills, Ronald Blum at the Associated Press

This is an incredibly dense, numbers-filled breakdown of the 2019 payroll information obtained by the AP, which includes the specific (relatively insignificant) ramifications for the three teams that were over the competitive balance tax threshold as well as this commentary on the league’s salary disparity (which is often masked by how much time and attention is spent on the record-breaking deals): “The top 50 players averaged $24.1 million while the listed major league salary of the roughly other 1,500 players who spent at least one day on a big league roster this year averaged $2.4 million.”

The Giants viewed Madison Bumgarner through a lens of cost-benefit analysis; it’s tougher to account for nostalgia, Grant Brisbee at The Athletic

Madison Bumgarner is no longer a Giant and this piece attempts to grapple with both the analytics and nostalgia without casting aspersions on either, and while also holding the front office accountable for the fact they could have paid him if they really wanted to.

Astros re-sign Joe Smith on 2-year deal, Alyson Footer at

Going into the winter meetings I wondered whether geography ever actually played a role in where a player chooses to sign or stay. And this relatively routine roster update includes a particularly poignant example of when location really does matter. Smith and his wife Allie LaForce are staying in Houston because that’s where the team of doctors who are helping them get pregnant despite Smith’s family history of Huntington’s disease are. The way that baseball as a career intersects with the other realities of life is fascinating and frankly under-explored.

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