With many teams selling off last year and this offseason, and with teams like the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros breaking out in a big way in 2015, there’s a background issue that may or may not be something Major League Baseball will have to deal with soon.
In theory, tanking – losing on purpose or failing to even try to win – is bad for a sport because, in the collective, we want every team’s fan base to go into a season feeling like there’s a reason to watch, follow, and enjoy that year. Moreover, the more fans’ teams that are “in competition” later in the year, the better it is for the overall visibility of the sport.
Dynasties are fun from a historical perspective, but they’re a lot less interesting when they’re happening because that’s part of the process of excluding huge swaths of fans from meaningful postseason contention. Yes, you want your team to have a dynasty that lasts forever, but, again, the theory here is about the collective health of the league over a very long time horizon (if a small handful of teams were always overwhelmingly good, over time, the league would suffer, and the enjoyment of even the good teams would be reduced).
Increasingly, though, because of financial disparities in the game, because of the hard-slotting imposed by draft bonus pools, and because of savvier front offices that are willing to sacrifice a few seasons for the greater long-term good, you could argue tanking is now an actual problem. Looking at the National League, there are at least four teams that are pretty clearly making no effort whatsoever to compete in 2016 (Phillies, Braves, Reds, Brewers). Indeed, I’d argue that, aside from perhaps the Braves, who are theoretically looking to compete in 2017 when their new ballpark opens, those teams are affirmatively going to try and lose games as the season goes on without regard for how hard it will hit them the next year. And we know that, as the trade deadline approaches, other teams will sink themselves, too.
Buster Olney reports that MLB owners have started talking about the issue of tanking in the sport, and it’s possible it will be addressed in the upcoming collective bargaining negotiations. It’s a thorny issue because, on the one hand, we know that parity and overall competitiveness is good for the sport as a whole. On other hand, it doesn’t seem right to tell a team how it should handle its own business, because we know that – at core – every team wants to win. Furthermore, sometimes what looks like tanking is simply the byproduct of moves made to improve a team for the future. For example, trading veterans for prospects is not always done because the team wants to lose, it just so happens that those kinds of trades lead to more losing. Similarly, not spending big in free agency is as much about re-allocating resources and not creating big league gluts as it is about not winning games.
Putting that last one differently: is it “tanking” when a team decides not to spend an extra $20 million in free agency because they believe doing so is likely to lead to a mere 73 wins instead of 70? And even if that is “tanking,” do we really want the league to legislate that teams are not allowed to make that choice for themselves?
A Chicago Cubs fan writing on a Chicago Cubs blog cannot credibly discuss tanking without acknowledging the obvious: the Cubs kinda did it from 2012 to 2014. And that, too, bleeds into why this is a tricky topic. Whether you describe what the Cubs did as “tanking” or not (I’d argue they pretty clearly tried to set themselves up for a surprise contention run in 2013 – it just didn’t work even a little), we know that what they did was incredibly bright, useful, and positive in the long-run. I’m not so sure the Cubs were trying to lose so much as they were trying to maximize their ability to bring in young, high-upside assets. It happened that many of the steps taken to do that also led to a lot of losing.
One man’s tanking is another man’s rebuilding.
I will say that one area where I do have a beef, and this is pointed out by Olney as well, is when you have small market teams that are accepting revenue-sharing funds from the league (funds which are ultimately generated by the larger-market teams) not spending it on payroll, and using those funds to do other things that may or may not actually impact the competitiveness of the team. Revenue sharing is supposed to be in service of the same thing as “not tanking”: overall competitiveness and parity in the league, for the greater good of the sport. So when shared revenue is not being used for those purposes, it makes you feel like the system isn’t working. Some would say the solution there is a payroll floor, but that then gets into a whole host of unintended consequences.
As you can see, this actually becomes a fairly complicated topic rather quickly, and I’m not sure the owners will have an easy time unwinding it in time for the next CBA. Indeed, it may take some of these aggressive rebuilds – or tanking, if you prefer – not working out over a long horizon for teams to decide the risk is not worth the potential payoff.
That’s the other part of the tanking discussion that often goes undiscussed: it is a strategy that comes with significant risks. Just imagine, for example, if the Cubs hadn’t hit on their draft picks. If Anthony Rizzo hadn’t re-established himself after the Cubs traded for him. If the Cubs hadn’t pulled off an incredible deal for Jake Arrieta.
If those things don’t happen, then the combined impact of the Cubs’ aggressive rebuilding and more failings at the big league level could have been catastrophic, especially when you consider the looming TV deal and the ongoing renovation.