There has never been more money rolling through major U.S. sports, and there has seldom been more of a reluctance to spend it — or at least spend it freely.
This runs counter to every impulse, right? If you go to Vegas and cash a nice bet, you want to spend that money while it’s hot. Instead, teams across the NBA and MLB, in particular, are stuffing billions into their overflowing socks. What gives?
Well, the short answer is this: We are at a point in sports history where there is not only a crazy amount of money, but also an unholy amount of information. The reluctance to spend and/or the unwillingness to give into unwanted terms can be seen in two major areas right now: MLB free agency and the NBA trade deadline.
Leagues with a salary cap also have a salary floor – the minimum a team must spend on players in a year – so inevitably there are bad contracts and teams looking to swap them out.
What we’re finding in the NBA, though, is that many teams were savvy enough to wait out the trade market. Instead, they’ll hope that useful players who weren’t dealt at the deadline are bought out by teams seeking some financial relief and then available for cheaper contracts that don’t involve giving up gold-standard draft picks or other fixed-cost young players.
Only the powerful and the desperate made trades before Thursday’s 2 p.m. deadline (see: Cleveland with its major overhaul that came at a blinding pace in what very well could be LeBron James’ last run at a title before he hits free agency this summer. The Cavs dealt with teams trying to get better later, not better now).
Even in baseball, with no salary cap, teams don’t want to look foolish. They know that the chance of an otherwise healthy pitcher breaking down — thus diminishing the return on investment — increases as they add more years to a contract.
So high-end guys who might once have commanded eight-year deals signed in November are still sitting on the market a week before pitchers and catchers are set to report to spring training. The Twins are among the group of teams willing to be patient. With analytics-minded leaders at the top of the organizational chart, they’d presumably rather make no deal at all than overextend on a bad contract with lasting implications.
Trades and free agency are supplements. Building from within is the model no matter how much money a team has because, to some extent, every team in every league has studied the value of draft picks and have seen the fruits of cheap, young labor. The NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB all have some form of rookie scale contracts, whereby the early years of a career are accounted for with a fixed cost far lower than what the open market might dictate.
And all of these leagues now are about maximizing the value from those young players while trying to being prudent with big-money deals for stars. If they’re going to go all-in on someone, it needs to be as close to a sure thing as possible.
Flexibility means setting yourself up to win now and win later, a delicate dance to be sure. Deals have to make sense short-term and long-term. Or at least if you’re not getting better now, you’re hoping to get better later.
So the Wolves, a near-lock to make the postseason for the first time in 14 seasons, cruised towards the deadline without a move. They could desperately use a “three-and-D” bench wing and a defensive-minded post player. It makes more sense for them to wait for someone on the discard pile — Joakim Noah has been mentioned as a possibility — instead of making a trade for someone who could clog up their future cap space and rob them of valuable assets.
The Twins, already in need of more starting pitching before Ervin Santana’s surgery meant they’ll be without him to start the year, are staying active but waiting for the market to come to them.
It’s as frustrating in the moment for fans as it is prudent in big-picture for teams, and it’s how sports operate now.