Luke Erickson: Why the Syracuse Chiefs struggle

The Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs won 61 games in 2016, surpassed by everyone in the International League but Omaha (58). The 2017 edition of the Chiefs is on pace to win just 53 games.

In nine seasons of affiliation with the Nationals, the fans in Syracuse, as I’ve been reminded me on more than one occasion, have seen just two winning seasons - 2012 and 2014.

One thing that needs to be made clear is that while Triple-A is the highest classification of the minors, it’s no longer where you’ll find the best prospects. Since I’m already bursting some bubbles here, there’s also no Santa Claus, Easter Bunny or Great Pumpkin.

Major league teams use Triple-A these days as a taxi squad for the 40-man roster, a place to keep marginal players active who can serve as emergency stopgaps.

Granted, there’s been a 40-man roster for nearly 50 years. So what’s changed?

Three things come to mind.

One, expansion in 1969, 1977, 1993, and 1998 has added 10 teams to Major League Baseball. Even Sean Spicer has to concede that means 250 more major league players, and perhaps 250 less in Triple-A.

Two, the freezing of the number of affiliates at 160 in the 1990s coupled with the rebirth of independent baseball. One way of looking at it is more opportunities, the other is a lot more competition for talent.

Three, the arbitration system has changed and created some peculiar incentives. This is a gross oversimplification, but the advent of a three-man panel has made it somewhat easier for players to win in arbitration, and the visibility has made major league teams less willing to enter into it.

Put another way, there’s now a financial incentive to have fungible players who can be easily outrighted instead of burning the options of younger (read: cheaper) players. Every spring now, the last few cuts come down to options and Super Two status because, if nothing else, “Moneyball” did make it clear how the gap between the talent and the cost of these players can be exploited.

This is another, perhaps more painful, example of where winning comes second to development in the minors. The Nationals aren’t looking to build contender for Syracuse; they just need a place for players they might need to play.

Luke Erickson blogs about the Nationals’ minor league affiliates for NationalsProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter: @nats_prospects. His thoughts on the Nationals’ farm system will appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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