When athletes and pundits refer to a sports team's "window", they usually use the term to describe a sequential set of seasons during which that team has contended and/or is expected to contend for championships.
There has historically been an ebb and flow to how a team's window has opened and closed. Because teams have, on the whole, been able to retain their top talent, windows have largely coincided with the abilities of tenured elite players to put up career years.
However, free agency and expanded playoff formats have over time disrupted the framework that was responsible for the once-steady rise and fall of teams' championship prospects. The movement of elite players has caused teams' windows to open and shut rapidly and, some would claim, inequitably. Expanded playoff formats have caused teams to strive to keep their windows open just far enough to sneak into a diluted playoff pool, get hot, and steal a championship.
Baseball is the sport wherein the parameters that define a team's window have become the most blurred. A baseball team's ability to retain top talent is extremely compromised by the MLB's free agency system and its lack of a salary cap.
Additionally, an expanded playoff format has allowed wildcard teams to make a mockery of the notion that a stellar regular season record is important to a team's championship prospects. These factors have created a situation in which middling baseball teams must make difficult decisions regarding whether to retain top-level players when those players are likely to leave at the end of a season.
On one hand, it is difficult for any general manager to save face with fans if all that a team gets in return for an elite free agent is a compensatory draft pick, especially if the team failed to make the playoffs despite the free agent's continued presence on the team. Alternatively, the general manager does not want to be seen as giving up on a season that holds even a sliver of hope for a postseason berth; in this scenario, attendance suffers, and the unwillingness to even try to re-sign an elite player gives the impression that a franchise is a second-tier operation.
Thus, the Brewers face a tough decision regarding what to do with Zack Greinke. This point comes with the obvious caveat that, if the Brewers are within striking distance of a playoff spot come mid-July, it is unlikely that they will be sellers in the trade market – indeed, they will likely be buyers. As of press time, the Brewers are 16-21 and are 6 games behind the Cardinals for first place in the division. The season is still very early, and the team could get hot at any time. However, it is just as likely that, given the team's devastating injuries and general profile as a bad club, the Brewers will be out of playoff contention by mid-season. It is most likely that the team will perform somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, muddling along in mediocrity without totally playing themselves off the radar.
It is this last scenario that will be the toughest for Doug Melvin to address. The Brewers under Melvin have often been aggressive buyers at the trade deadline, and one can presume that it is more enjoyable for Melvin to ask Mark Attanasio to open his wallet for a proven talent than it is to try to divine the likelihood of an incoming prospect washing out.
Still, if the Brewers continue to lose, many Brewers' fans will expect Melvin to make the tough choice and trade Zack Greinke. Trading a pitcher with a proven track record who currently has a 2.88 ERA is a tough move to stomach, but if the recent market for top-flight pitchers is any indication, the Brewers will not be able to justify re-signing Greinke at season's end. The Brewers also have a dire need to replenish their farm system, and Greinke is the player most likely to garner a top prospect who could one day contribute to a championship team.
Surrendering is certainly no fun, but Doug Melvin needs to recognize that proclamations of "all in" can't be an every-year occurrence. The "all-in" philosophy has worked wonderfully for the Yankees, but even high-spending teams like the Phillies, whose payroll tops $173 million, have begun to feel the effects of being annual buyers in the trade market.
The exercise takes a sense of timing and conviction, but preemptively closing a teams' window for a year can extend that team's championship prospects in the long run. Despite the team's poor performance thus far, the Brewers still possess adequate pitching and a bona fide franchise player in Ryan Braun; those are two huge parts in keeping the Brewers' window open. Still, the Brewers need more quality players, and an infusion of youth could go a long way in providing them.