Let’s Get Tanked.

Have you heard? Baseball’s hottest topic this spring is tanking. For those who remain blissfully unaware, allow me to give you a headache: tanking involves a franchise deciding its current on-field talent base is not competitive enough, so in an effort to re-build on the cheap, they undertake a systematic stripping of all viable major league assets in an effort to accrue funds, high draft picks, and cheap young talent which is cost-controllable for up to six full professional seasons.

As you can probably guess, their on-field product will in all likelihood suck, but it will be cheap. Another byproduct of “cheap sucking” (great band name, by the way) is advantageous draft position. A higher draft position not only means better access to talent, but also a larger salary cap for signing draft picks.

While the Houston Astros have received the greatest amount of attention for tanking, they are hardly the first team to take this route, planned or unplanned. The 2008-13 Tampa Bay run was built off of a decade of inadvertent tanking that was excruciating, yet effective. Theo Epstein could offer a Master’s class in tanking: the 2015 Cubs comprised a complete re-build buttressed by years of dumping Alfonso Sorianos and losing tons of games in exchange for the likes of Kris Bryant and Addison Russell.

What scares most folks about tanking is not that it happens, but that if it’s so damn effective, eventually everyone will do it. Critics also argue tanking is killing the integrity of the game: when teams don’t prioritize giving fans the best on-field product they can, they aren’t trying to win. Ergo, why should anyone care?

But this view is shortsighted. First off, how do you measure trying to win? Peter Angelos, Jeff Loria and Arte Moreno have spent billions trying win but they are really bad at it. George Steinbrenner was so bad at trying to win he eventually was kicked out of baseball. Then, without his help, his team did win.

Operating a baseball franchise is the exact same as running a business: executives look for strategies designed to ensure success while spending as little money as possible. Remember the premise of Moneyball? Acquiring players with high on-base percentages was all the rage until even the Phillies started doing it (sort of), and then the cost of these players became too high, so teams moved on to defensive wizards, then players who never struck out. Shortly thereafter, Tampa Bay began taking low-leverage risks on signing prospects to long-term contracts after their first or second seasons. A few of those blew up and now teams are mostly avoiding these types of deals (to be fair, so are players).

Tanking is today’s hot lick, but with countless franchises taking this approach, it’ll eventually become old and stale. After the cost-effective success of the Cubs and Astros in 2015, the Phillies, Reds, Brewers, Braves, and Rockies are all embarking on a similar path. If things don’t go as planned in 2016, perhaps so will Toronto, Baltimore, Oakland, Miami, San Diego, and the Angels. At some point, a team with 99 losses will end up picking 10th in the draft and/or run out of trading partners in which they can dump major league assets. That will be bad. So long, tanking.

As for the argument tanking damages the integrity of what happens on the field… well, duh, sure it does. But fans aren’t that stupid: if their team stinks, they’re free to watch Shark Tank re-runs at home (if there was ever a conclusive piece of evidence demonstrating you don’t have to be smart to be rich, this show is it ) or get loaded at minor league games (so much fun… until you have to drive home). Franchise owners are entitled to weigh the risks and define what constitutes a “major league product” and fans (consumers) are similarly entitled to say, “Yeah, I don’t think so.” Odds are if the team is winning 95 games three years from now, they’ll be back.

Tanking has gone on for as long as baseball’s been around; it’s just never been this obvious or purposeful. The Yankees were a shell of themselves in the early 90’s; they spent tens of millions of dollars on over-priced free agents and still lost tons of games. They picked first overall in the 1991 draft, and while a bar fight ended phenom Brien Taylor’s career (another example of why tanking is no sure thing), the next year they drafted Derek Jeter with the sixth pick. Everybody got rich off that one (well, except for poor Brien Taylor).

At least now when teams lose it’s with a stated purpose or long-term plan in mind, instead of just signing a bunch of mid-range players and hoping for the best. As a fan, this makes the pain of losing a little easier to take. Just ask the Cubs.

 

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