The Kremlinology of the Winter Meetings

krem·lin·ol·o·gy, noun
Trying to guess or infer what things people say and do really mean, as opposed to what they seem to mean; after the Kremlin, the seat of Soviet power, the actions of whose leaders western powers struggled to interpret during the Cold War
Macmillan Open Dictionary

When asked if he had met with Hamilton, who is believed to be in the Nashville area this week, Amaro said, “No. But I wouldn’t tell you if I did.” When asked if he had met with Hamilton’s agent, Michael Moye, Amaro again said, “No. But I wouldn’t tell you if I did.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer, Dec. 5

During hot stove season, it’s easy to get excited about a team’s possible acquisitions, especially during Winter Meetings week. But it’s hard to know what to believe. If an executive says that he is interested in a particular player, or that he is not interested in trading a particular prospect, does that mean anything? How do we read between the lines?

It’s worth taking a moment to think deductively about why executives say what they say. There are essentially four possibilities for any given statement that may be reported in the press, either openly or as a leak:

  1. 1. To provide political cover and build momentum for an action about which some factions within the team may be skeptical. These statements are likely true.
  2. 2. To mislead other teams into misjudging the team’s priorities. These statements are likely false.
  3. 3. To reassure fans that the team is doing something. These statements can be either true or false.
  4. 4. To respond without responding (like Amaro above). These statements are neither true nor false.

This isn’t the first time I’ve tried to logically parse baseball statements, so forgive me if this isn’t your cup of tea. I used the word “kremlinology” because it’s fairly apropos to Major League Baseball, a monopoly organization that has complete discretionary control over all information regarding its personnel and product. Unlike the government or a publicly traded corporation, there is no compulsory disclosure.

So the only information that reaches public ears was either a) meant to be heard, for one of the four reasons I just gave, or b) the subject of extraordinarily dogged investigation. In practice, b) almost never happens. That means that virtually everything that you hear is something that someone wanted you to hear.

So what does it mean when Royals beat reporter Bob Dutton tweets, “[I] Believe #Royals won’t hesitate to trade Myers for Shields”? Dutton has been speculating about the Royals trading Wil Myers for James Shields for at least a week, which would suggest that Dutton heard something from the team rather than just making up an idea off the top of his head.

Dutton’s trade proposal has driven Rany Jazayerli into apoplexy, but that apoplexy is only warranted if the possibility of a Myers-for-Shields trade fits the first of the four options, and Dayton Moore is trying to lay the groundwork (and send up a trial balloon) for a trade along those lines. Otherwise, it’s either a smokescreen or a non sequitur.

Often, fans are not the primary audience of hot stove reporting. Much like political horse race journalism, it’s for the junkies and the insiders. Actors talking to each other through the press at the same time that they’re talking to each other by phone, SMS, and email. It’s the equivalent of writing an open letter at the same time as a private note, and the fans are brought along for the ride as a potential pressure group.

Executives do this to each other all the time without our participation. One year ago, Businessweek memorably published an oral history of the Braves-Astros Michael Bourn trade, in which the Braves’ Frank Wren obtained Michael Bourn from the Astros in part by successfully feigning interest in Hunter Pence, who eventually went to the Phillies.

Braves: 1:30 p.m. Wren text message – We see Bourn valued down a level from Pence for our club. We like the run production and power of Pence, and Bourn is a run creator. That doesn’t do as much for us. That is too rich for us. Thanks, Frank.

Astros: Wade text message If you want to pursue him, feel free to make a proposal that makes sense for you. Thanks.

So the media machinations are nothing new. Like ships in the Napoleonic era, which often flew under a false flag until the moment before engaging in battle, executives rarely show their true colors until the moment before a deal is struck. (At least, this is my understanding from the Aubrey/Maturin novels.) And if this behavior is universal, then it isn’t necessarily ethically problematic.

But that does mean that there ain’t much percentage in paying attention to what they say when they try to lie to each other through the press. It’s all just glorified wishcasting until the ink is on the contract.

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Alex is a writer for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times, and is a product manager for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @alexremington.

24 Responses to “The Kremlinology of the Winter Meetings”

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  1. O's Fan says:

    In an article about parsing language, it’s disappointing to see “apropos” misused. It means “regarding” or “concerning,” not “appropriate” or “relevant.”

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    • Persona non grata says:

      Apropos, the usage of “apropos” in this piece was very much apropos, apropos the adjective form of “apropos”.

      +8 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Well-Beered Englishman says:

      On the other hand, I have a sudden compulsion to read Aubrey/Maturin novels whilst listening to eighteenth-century string quartets.

      +6 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • swainzy says:

      Fresh off of
      ap·ro·pos [ap-ruh-poh]
      3. opportune; pertinent: apropos remarks.

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    • B N says:

      I don’t think that’s right. I’m almost certain that Apropos one of the stage bosses in Double Dragon. Big guy, very strong, use kicks and move vertically to avoid his powerful attacks. :)

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    • Well-Beered Englishman says:

      Here, from Garner’s Modern American Usage, Third Edition, from the OUP. Apologies for typos, I typed this out for your edification.

      “Apropos (of). Both the long form (apropos of) and the short form (apropos) are generally unnecessary, though they might prove serviceable in informal letters. Apropos of (suggested by the French phrase a propos de) – meaning “with respect to” – is well established in English. Yet the Gallicism apropos may be used as a preposition to mean “concerning.”

      “The word is sometimes misused for appropriate, adj., a mistake usually signaled by the use of to. Apropos for appropriate is a rejected use.”

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  2. Tim Dierkes says:


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    • You play an important role in the process, Tim. (I realize that it is possible that you are not Tim Dierkes, because this is an internet comment thread, but I will respond to you either way.) You gather the whole conversation into a single, easy-to-follow place, and when a deal is consummated, it is very easy to go back and see the entire narrative as you’ve tracked it.

      However, in the middle of the process, it’s very hard to determine which of the bids are bogus and which are legit. And that is by the design of the players.

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  3. Oscar says:

    But guys, don’t you know? Long words and unnecessary modifiers equal good writing!

    I will let Fire Joe Morgan say it as only they can:

    “If I ever seriously wrote something like [this article], my next move would be to throw on my favorite Sunny Day Real Estate B-Side (I don’t know, maybe “Spade and Parade”) and promptly blow my brains out.”

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  4. Paul says:

    This notion brings up an interesting question for me. If we’re thinking about the Bolsheviks and their stark break from traditional foreign policy approaches, we should add a fifth possibility for all statements, which is to keep peers in your own organization off balance. They were of course notorious backstabbers. The rhetorical trickery that they took to another level was really a defense mechanism as conducting actual foreign policy that would protect the lives of millions of people was often a logical contradiction from ideology.

    So maybe not to quite the same extreme, but I wonder if some execs talk nonsense in the press also to protect their rear flank. Surely there are people within every org who grab the attention of ownership or those responsible for hiring the GM. I really hope palace intrigue is part of all the rubbish flowing from Dayton Moore’s mouth, meaning he is likely gone very soon.

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    • That’s a great point, Paul. I think most baseball organizations are more strictly hierarchical than the Central Committee of the Communist Party, where factions constantly dueled. But there have certainly been baseball putsches and palace intrigues in the past, particularly with the Yankees, where there have always been Steinbrenner people (like Randy Levine) and front office people (like Brian Cashman).

      Of course, it’s obviously easier to intrigue through leaks than through on-the-record quotes. And it’s very likely that many leaks are meant to undercut other people within a given organization. It’s just that undercutting leaks don’t usually concern player acquisition. They’re more likely to be about existing personnel — like the Red Sox chicken and beer story.

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  5. Bookbook says:

    I’ve noticed that the whole point of comment sections on Internet articles is to give an opportunity, for folks who haven’t worked hard to provide free content, to feel good about themselves by tearing down whatever’s offered. Picking at grammar and word choice is an excellent way to do this!

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    • Zack says:

      You can’t criticize it because it free! And you obviously don’t work hard if all you do is sit around commenting on articles. You probably live in your mom’s basement like all those other internet nerds! Quite simply, no one has any right to have a problem with this piece, no matter how overly verbiose or uninteresting it is. The things managers say to the press aren’t always true? I don’t believe you.

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  6. Average_Casey says:

    The one thing I don’t see written in the article that I believe would be relevant would be player’s agents trying to muster up interest in their client. For example, the Mariners were linked to Mike Napoli but it was believed that this was to put pressure on Boston to increase their offer.

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  7. ACM says:

    Great piece. Beautifully written, too.

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  8. J A B says:

    An article which mentions my two obsessions, baseball and Napoleonic fiction.
    There is most certainly a greater power… and his name is Stephen Maturin.

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  9. j6takish says:

    What about GM’s like AA and Dombrowski who literally say nothing yet also don’t acknowledge rumors? They don’t confirm or deny them, they just let them swirl

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    • rea says:

      Oh, Dombrowski denies stuff all the time, to the point at which his denials are usually regarded by Tiger fans as a sign of interest. If he ever wants to amuse himself by panicing Tiger fans, let him deny planning to trade Verlander and M. Cabrera to the Yankees for a backup catcher . . .

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