The MLB Tanking Phenomenon

Pictured above is the 2014 Sports Illustrated cover of George Springer that famously predicted the Houston Astros 2017 World Series Title. Pretty cool, huh? Well, also pictured above is the cover story and article that reshaped Major League Baseball.

The Washington Nationals started the tanking phenomenon across Major League Baseball. They were bad in 2008 and 2009 because they wanted to be. The Nationals wanted Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, so they ensured they got them. But the Nationals haven’t won anything, so it hasn’t been a big deal.

Then the 2012-2015 Chicago Cubs happened. They were intentionally bad because new president of baseball ops Theo Epstein had a master plan. It worked. the Cubs won the World Series in 2016. Tanking was gaining steam as a credible plan to eventually field a championship caliber team. But still, this was the first time a team had won a title using this method. It couldn’t happen again, right?

Wrong. The Houston Astros, the original bad boys of tank, struck gold in 2017 after winning the World Series that had been predicted 3 years earlier. The Astros made tanking cool. It was very public what was going on in Houston, and no one cared. The funny thing is that the Astros actually screwed up their tank twice. Once in 2013 when they selected Mark Appel first overall (BUST) and then again in 2014 when the selected Brady Aiken first overall but failed to sign him.

Houston lost so much over a four year period (416 times to be exact) that they picked in the top 2 of the draft each year from 2012-2015 (including twice in the top 5 in 2015). SI cover boy George Springer went 11th overall in 2011. When you have 6 picks in the top 11 over a 5 year span, you’ll wind up being good eventually. The Astros also hit a homerun on Jose Altuve who was a Venezuelan free agent.

So in recap, Houston has won a title, the Cubs have won a title, and the Nationals have never won a playoff series. Considering these factors, is tanking worth it?

The answer is a very definitive maybe. It truly is. There are a lot of things that could impact a tank job. If Houston selects Kris Bryant in 2013 instead of Mark Appel, maybe the Cubs rebuild never gets off the ground. Maybe Jose Altuve doesn’t become a league MVP, that slows the Astros rebuild. What if the Padres didn’t trade Anthony Rizzo to the Cubs in the sketchiest (Padres GM Jed Hoyer was leaving to work for the Cubs. Before he left he dealt Rizzo to the Cubs for a bucket of balls named Andrew Cashner) deal in Major League history ?

The list goes on and on, and there’s no easy way to say if tanking is a good plan or not. But there are two things I know for sure:

  1. If you’re going to tank, you better trust your front office and their player evaluation abilities
  2. The amount of money a team has matters

I bring up the money because the two recent teams to join the tanking fray, the Tampa Bay Rays and Miami Marlins, are traditionally smaller market teams. they simply don’t have the money to add on to their young guys that they draft and develop. Here’s a look at what a typical Rays transaction/growth pattern looks like:

That’s a lot of good talent being sent out the door. Essentially these moves have all been about amount of controllable years a player has left on their contract (Trea Turner was never really a Ray, he was promised to Washington in a 3 team trade).

Teams can be as bad as they want for as long as they want, but if a team doesn’t have any money to spend, they can’t add to their core and they can’t resign key members of that core.

The Cubs have money, they’re a major market team. They went out and added Jason Heyward to their young roster. Has he been terrible? Yes. Was he a significant contributor to the World Series team? Also yes. Yu Darvish is a Cub now. The Cubs tanked, and then developed, and then spent money.

The Astros are a smaller market than the Cubs and they have less money. But they took on Justin Verlander at the waiver deadline last year. They signed Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran. The Astros also tanked, developed and then spent money.

I’m still not sure if the Nationals really tanked or if they were just plain terrible. Either way, they supplemented their young core of Harper, Strasburg, Trea Turner and Anthony Rendon by spending money. They brought in Max Scherzer, Daniel Murphy and Jayson Werth. The Nationals tanked, developed, and then spent money (notice the theme here?)

Which brings us back to the Rays and Marlins. Management insists neither team is trying to tank. Yeah right.

First of all, don’t lie to your fans. They aren’t stupid. Say you have a plan, but it’s going to involve losing. Secondly, even if both teams draft exceptionally well, does it matter? Historically, Tampa Bay trades their best players before they can risk losing them in free agency. The Miami/Florida Marlins pay their players, then have a fire sale two winters latter. That’s just what happens. So with neither team willing to spend the money to supplement their potential future core, what’s the point?

-Brian Borders (@bborders12)

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