Is tanking really becoming an issue in baseball? It appears it may be, and that there is concern in the sport that some teams have set up their rosters to lose games in order to come up with higher draft picks.
ESPN’s Buster Olney reports that the issue of tanking was raised at the recent MLB owners meetings.
“Houston is often cited within the sport as the model of a team that has benefited from losing a lot,” Olney writes. “From 2011 through 2013, the Astros became the first team since the 1962-65 Mets to lose at least 106 games in three consecutive seasons, and as a result, they were positioned at the top of three straight drafts.”
Houston went on to win 70 games in 2014 and then won 86 last year and made the playoffs for the first time since 2005.
In addition to getting high draft picks, teams that pick higher up in the draft get larger bonus pools to sign draft picks. I wrote about this over the weekend, about how having the No. 14 pick impacts the O’s potential draft spending in 2016.
Olney also has written that some suggestions to deter a team from tanking include preventing teams from selecting at the top of the draft in back-to-back years and reducing the difference in dollars attached to the highest picks.
If Major League Baseball wants to make some changes in the draft, an opportunity is there to do it. The sport’s current collective bargaining agreement ends late this year. If MLB seeks changes to the system, now is the time to discuss and implement them.
But I do not see tanking as an issue. A team that is losing may trade higher-paid players for prospects and thus weaken its current roster. But that team is also probably making the best decision for its future and not necessarily looking to lose games. They are just being realistic. It is not like they are telling their players to not try hard or to not try and improve. But they are acquiring future assets for current ones, heading (they hope) toward a day when they have a more realistic shot to win. Winning teams do the opposite - they trade prospects for current proven talent - to beef up their rosters in the present.
I think MLB may be overthinking this one.
When it comes to picking first in the draft, there are no sure things, even with the top selection. Sure, you sometimes get a great talent. The Washington Nationals picked pitcher Stephen Strasburg with the first selection in 2009 and outfielder Bryce Harper No. 1 overall a year later. Did they strategize to get these picks by losing or just have the good fortune to be the worst team at the best time?
The 2009 Nationals lost 103 games, the most in the majors, to get the No. 1 pick in 2010. Pittsburgh lost 99 games to get the No. 2 pick and the Orioles lost 98 to get the No. 3 pick.
Those picks turned out to be Harper, Jameson Taillon and Manny Machado. Kansas City lost 97 games and picked Christian Colon fourth. One loss was the difference between getting Machado and Colon. The Orioles were five losses from getting Harper instead of Machado. But I don’t think those teams were employing any strategies during that 2009 season. They were just bad teams and that is how the draft fell.
Bad teams that get high draft picks are just taking advantage of the rules set to achieve competitive balance. Each sport has a draft to help the losing teams try to get better.
A team taking advantage of the draft to get better is not much different to me than a team taking advantage of a higher payroll by outspending another team. Or the Orioles manipulating the 40-man roster through player options to their best advantage. Or any number of other ways teams stretch and manipulate the rules to best help them.
Do we really need to change the draft rules because the Astros did a good job rebuilding their team? Teams that have little chance to win that point more toward the future than the present may be simply making the best decision for their franchise and its fans.
Turning a losing team into a winner is hard to do. Ask the 1998-2011 Orioles. Because some teams have been able to rebuild their roster is no reason to change draft rules.
I don’t see tanking as a problem that needs addressing.