There was a spirited discussion on social media last week on the idea of tanking, of major-league teams positioning themselves to lose intentionally in the short term to benefit from an influx of first-round draft talent and scouting money in the long term. It’s a phantom issue.
First of all, there are no guarantees of rapid improvement coming out of the June draft of high-school and college players. Major League Baseball is unlike the NHL and unlike the NBA in that the major advantage of purposely losing in hockey and basketball is that a No. 1 overall pick can often be a franchise player. Not so in baseball. Many top picks are busts. There is no tanking in baseball.
If an organization is going to go to the trouble of tanking, the goal is to finish with one of the two worst records in your league. That would at least give you a top-four selection in the June draft.
So how much of a crapshoot is MLB’s draft. Since baseball began the process in 1965, with teams selecting in reverse order of finish, there have been just six future Hall of Famers — Reggie Jackson (1966, A’s), Robin Yount (1973, Brewers), Dave Winfield (1973, Padres), Paul Molitor (1977, Brewers), Barry Larkin (1985, Reds) and Ken Griffey, Jr. (1987, Mariners) — taken in the top four picks. Griffey is the only first overall selection to gain entry to Cooperstown.
At the same time, there have been eight Hall of Fame players selected in the draft’s second round, including Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Tom Glavine, Cal Ripken and Johnny Bench. In 1971, young shortstops George Brett and Mike Schmidt went back-to-back in the second round, 29th and 30th overall. The Montreal Expos, picking 28th, chose Omaha lefthander Dan Warthen, now the pitching coach of the Mets. Talk about a roll of the dice coming up snake eyes. (The Expos used the fourth pick of that draft on Condredge Holloway, who opted for football instead.)
So if systematic losing can’t be labelled tanking, how to explain that in the 16 drafts of the 21st century, including the upcoming one, the top teams in terms of top-four selections are the Pirates and Rays with seven each, the Royals with five and the Astros, Cubs, Mariners and Rockies with four apiece — a total of 35 of the 64 top picks.
The nine teams in baseball that have not had a top-four pick since 2001 are the Blue Jays, Red Sox, Yankees, Indians, Angels, Dodgers, Cardinals, Giants and A’s. No tanks.
Oakland is a perfect example of a team that has every excuse to finish in the bottom two of its league each year. Billy Beane runs the franchise like an NCAA college program. The A’s are good at scouting and developing solid major-league talent. Then after four or five seasons, the equivalent of a college senior, when players are in their second or third year of arbitration, the A’s trade them for younger players, mixing in their own youngsters and keeping the payroll consistently in the bottom third of major-league teams. Yet still they find ways to win. No, tanking is just bad management.
The Astros are the Edmonton Oilers of baseball. They hired a GM Jeff Luhnow and nabbed the No. 1 overall pick three years in a row, from 2012 to 2014, including shortstop Carlos Correa, the top rookie in the American League last season. The Nationals finished last in 2009 and 2010 and grabbed what they saw as two cornerstone players, right-hander Stephen Strasburg and outfielder Bryce Harper. The Rays had back-to-back No. 1 picks in 2007 and 2008 and selected lefty David Price and shortstop Tim Beckham.
Short-term losing may sometimes be anticipated, but it’s not to move up in the draft. There are basically five reasons why an organization will put up with a couple of years of losing baseball in an attempt to field a winning team down the road. Here’s a summary:
• The club hires a president/general manager that has a successful history as a winning GM and is secure in his rebuilding position. Examples of that are Dave Dombrowski when he went from the Marlins to the Tigers in 2002 and Theo Epstein when he moved from Boston to the Cubs in 2012.
• The club has a new stadium on the way and uses that as a target year to build a winner. Such a scenario existed for the Indians in the early ’90s and now becomes the goal of the rebuilding Braves as they await their new multi-million dollar suburban digs. The Padres built a competitive roster in the late ’90s as they fought for a downtown stadium and the Marlins did the same in the early 2000s.
• The club has a fan base that loves its team, win or lose, and ownership can thus afford to explain there will be some pain before there will be gain. The Cubs head that list.
• The payroll has become bloated after a series of winning years, usually involving at least one post-season appearance, and the roster gets old, with no influx of prospects from a depleted farm. That is what has happened to the Phillies and also happened to the Reds, White Sox and Tigers.
• Bumbling ownership doesn’t stick to a plan. A prime example of that is the Marlins. Under Jeffrey Loria they won a World Series in 2003, then broke the roster down and built it up when a new stadium was promised. After one year of the stadium, they traded their high-priced veterans away. The Fish seemed headed in the right direction — youngsters and solid pitching — but went and signed one superstar, their own Giancarlo Stanton to a 13-year, $325 million contract. The Marlins owe Stanton $318.5M through 2027. They still lose.
It’s not tanking, it’s just mismanagement.