With the season about to start, one thing that struck me about this upcoming year when previewing it (and especially following the long, strange postseason that followed it) is how many teams are tanking. This especially became apparent when I was writing my most recent article and looking over last year’s last place teams. By my count, at least seven different teams (the White Sox, Tigers, Braves, Marlins, Phillies, Reds, and Padres) who are in various stages of a complete tear-down.
Some of them are further along in the process than others, to the point where several of them even made big signings this winter. But overall, these teams all stripped down their rosters recently in the hopes of rebuilding into a superteam in the near future, and almost all of them make no expectations about being able to compete for the playoffs in 2018.
In some ways, it’s not hard to see why they would decide to do that, with the last two World Series winners having gone through the process themselves. But for as good as that track record looks, I’m a little skeptical that it’ll work for all of these teams. Obviously, they won’t all win the World Series like the Cubs and Astros; that’s the absolute best case scenario, and since only one team a year does that well, it’s likely most of those teams won’t win a World Series. But I’m even not sure all or even most of those teams will see notable turnarounds, because I think the number of teams tanking has an adverse effect on the teams doing said tanking.
Basically, it comes down to the concepts behind Moneyball. While the term was for a long time understood to mean “using advanced statistics, looking for players that take a walk, and drafting safer, college pitchers”, that’s not really accurate. As many before me have noted, Moneyball is actually about looking for undervalued attributes in baseball; in layman’s terms, zigging when others are zagging. At the time, for the early-to-mid-2000s A’s and Red Sox, it was those things. For the late 2000s Rays, it was stockpiling young draft picks through the old draft system and locking up young players, among other things. For the recent Royals, it was a focus on defense and the bullpen when others had moved away from those things. And for the Cubs and Astros, it was tanking.
The Astros and Cubs made their plans at more or less the perfect time, as there were two major shifts in 2012 that drastically shaped team-building strategy (although you may not have caught how big those changes were in the moment): the extra Wild Card, and the revamped draft system. Both teams had been bad before that year, and more or less went all-in on trading away any remaining assets. But they also understood the impact of the new systems, and maximized the advantages they brought.
The second wild card meant that a lot more teams were suddenly in contention, which in turn meant that more teams were just a piece or two away from competing, especially around the trade deadline. That made it much more of a sellers’ market; there was more demand for those pieces, even the most questionable ones, thanks to fewer teams than ever being out of contention before August.
I covered this a little bit last July in regards to the Astros, but a good scouting* department and a willingness to part with absolutely anyone led to a lot of the key players last season. The Cubs look pretty similar, getting guys like Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, Anthony Rizzo, and Addison Russell in trades.
*Having good scouts is clearly important (for instance, Dallas Keuchel being a 7th round pick or Jake Arrieta being a seemingly-washed-out Orioles prospect). But saying “just hire better scouts” is boring, ex post facto stuff from a fan’s perspective and doesn’t really help set a team’s strategy.
Getting rid of a lot of good players did help those two get high draft picks, but those picks were still kind of hit or miss. Just look at the Astros’ three straight #1 overall picks: Carlos Correa helped a ton, but Mark Appel is out of baseball at the moment without making the Majors, and they didn’t even sign Brady Aiken. A lot of the youth came in stockpiling other team’s prospects, who are just a little more certain than draft picks.
Conversely, we saw a lot of teams getting lower returns this offseason than we expected. People regularly remarked on how light the returns looked for stars like Gerrit Cole or Marcell Ozuna. A lot of the teams that are good and acquiring stars now know just how important holding on to players is, and more teams trying to tank mean there are way too many options to get that last piece you need. Back in the early 2010s, it was easier to absolutely stockpile a minor league system, rather than just relying on your own, limited number of draft picks.
Of course, on that subject, the Astros system for drafting was a lot more extreme, acquiring as much draft bonus money as they could (under the new system’s bonus cap) and splitting their risk on multiple high-level talents (like when they took Carlos Correa, who most didn’t think was the top player in the draft that year, so they could redirect some bonus money to Lance McCullers). No team today has gone as far as the Astros has, and given the number of teams all vying for that money, and baseball’s (rather confusing, in my opinion) inability to trade draft picks means that doing that will be a lot harder.
Basically, I think tanking as a strategy is not the “one-size-fits-all” rebuilding strategy that many are treating it as, and I’m a little uncertain about the number of teams trying it now. There are other viable strategies to being good, as many other teams have shown, and I even think some of these teams (such as the Braves and Marlins) maybe gave up a little too soon (part of why the Astros and Cubs turned to these plans was a severe lack of talent in the majors and minors, and neither quite had that). Acquiring stars like they had is never easy, and tanking for high draft picks does not at all guarantee that you’ll get some to replace the ones you sent away. In fact, a lot of the key players on both the Astros and Cubs were readily available to the rest of the league; recognizing those opportunities is a huge part of what made Houston and Chicago work, and several of these tanking teams are still being led by some of the people that led them into their talent ruts in the first place, which would give me pause for concern as a fan (remember, both champions saw massive reorganizations at the top before moving on). I’m also a little concerned about what the effects of nearly a quarter of the league trying to lose could be, both in the short term and long term, although I am willing to wait for a little more data on that end. I’m glad some long-suffering teams saw success under some creative planning like this, but I think the number of teams trying to copy that framework is a clear sign that teams truly trying to get ahead should be looking elsewhere for their ideas.