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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.