* insert corny anecdote about Indiana Jones or some other protagonist that runs, dives, and slides safely underneath a door that almost crushes every bone in their body *
Every good action movie has one of these scenes. Our hero(es) is running to safety but they must first catch their “window” of opportunity. Two seconds too late, and every single bone in their body will be crushed by the huge falling object that is going to close the exit. On one side, certain death. On the other side, victory.
Every good sports franchise goes through this same scenario, only without the certain death. Think back to the 2015 Kansas City Royals with me.
The Royals had a budding young group of stars that were all playing at their career peaks at the same time. The rest of the American League was having a down year relative to their expectations. The Red Sox finished six games below .500. The Yankees and Astros weren’t quite the teams we know them as now. The second best team in the AL consisted of a bunch of players that were sneaking past their primes without much proven playoff success. The Royals had a wide open window to the World Series, and they went for it.
They traded four promising young left-handed pitchers and a right-handed journeyman to acquire the best hitter on the market, and the best pitcher. The Royals mortgaged a significant piece of their future because their window of opportunity was open and they did not hesitate to jump through it. You would think that this would be normal practice, but think about how often this doesn’t happen for teams.
The 2018 Cleveland Indians were swept out of the playoffs by the Houston Astros. The Indians have been to the playoffs in four of the last six seasons, including the past three years in a row. In 2016 they blew a 3-1 lead against the Chicago Cubs in the World Series. In 2017 they had the best record in the AL and blew a 2-0 lead against the Yankees in the ALDS. In 2018 they won the AL Central again and, no luck.
The Washington Nationals have been to the playoffs four times since 2012 and never won a single series. In 2012 they shut down their best pitcher in Stephen Strasburg before the playoffs even started. They signed Max Scherzer in free agency and had the entire prime of Bryce Harper’s career. Adam Eaton came over in a trade. Anthony Rendon has been nearly MVP worthy two years in a row. Juan Soto lit the world on fire after starting the year in Low-A ball. And yet, nothing.
The Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Angels and Dodgers, New York Mets, and Oakland Athletics have all seen similar scenarios end without a World Series Championship (though we should acknowledge the A’s extreme lack of resources). Winning is everything, and putting in the amount of time, resources, and effort that it takes to build a winning ball club without reaching the pinnacle of the sport is demoralizing.
The Royals received the mightiest of all trump cards when they won the World Series in 2015. The moves they made were no longer debatable, because they worked. They achieved the ultimate goal. So why did it work for the Royals, but some of these other seemingly adequate organizations?
Before we break down the specific reasons as to why it worked for the Royals, let’s talk about why the Royals absolutely made the correct call in going “all-in” during their 2015 window:
- Since 1995, five franchises have won 15 of the 23 World Series
- Of the eight other franchises to win only one World Series since 1995, only three had multiple World Series appearances (KC, ATL, PHI)
- The St. Louis Cardinals are the only team since 1995 to win a World Series whose market size is even close to being as small as KC’s, and their TV contract dwarfs the Royals
- Small market teams DO NOT win the World Series in this modern era of baseball, and they especially don’t get two chances to win the World Series in consecutive seasons
The Kansas City Royals were given something of a gift in 2014. I’m not saying they didn’t earn their way to the World Series, but they had EVERYTHING go right for them on their way there. They did not get lucky, they were just really fortunate. I think there’s a significant difference here.
In 2015, the Kansas City Royals were the best team in baseball. Simple as that. There was no luck or fortune that played into their World Series championship campaign. They simply dominated the game from Opening Day to November 1. They didn’t get there without a couple of mid-season moves, though. They saw a window and made sure they covered every single base on their way to a ring.
This is the formula that every team should be using if they aren’t in a major market (NY, LA, HOU, CHI, etc.). The Cleveland Indians are exhibit A, B, and C why it’s so important to identify and capitalize on your window while you have the chance. I don’t necessarily mean in 2018, because they just happened to run in to a buzzsaw in Houston, but the chances that they have missed out on since 2016 are tough to reconcile.
Baseball isn’t the only sport in which teams fail to seize the opportunity while their window is open. In the NFL, where free agency and thus windows can often be much shorter, teams whiff all the time. The Cowboys went 13-3 in 2016 with two young stars in Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott. They did not reach the playoffs in 2017. The Seattle Seahawks appeared to be destined for the next great dynasty but only won one* Super Bowl. The Cleveland Cavaliers only won one championship the entire time LeBron James was in town. It happens all the time. Sometimes, mortgaging a piece of the future to guarantee yourself the best possible shot at a title is worth it.
This is why my advice to teams who appear to be capable of winning a championship would be: SELL OUT. You never know when the next opportunity will arise for your team to win a championship again. Sell out and acquire that closer. Trade your top prospect for that center fielder. Trade draft picks to improve your defense (looking at you guys across the parking lot). Give your team a chance to win a championship while you can, because you never know when your window will come slamming shut.