The Cubs are projected to be one of the top teams in baseball in 2016 and it’s no secret how they got here: acquiring a lot of good, young talent. And while you may have expected me to use the “T-word” there, I didn’t, and it wasn’t an accident.
I don’t actually take issue with the idea of tanking – even when it’s at its most obvious – but more and more people do.
There are very clear, long-term benefits to “tanking,” but it’s not as though it doesn’t come at a cost (and very serious risk). That said, I especially don’t take issue with what some people call “tanking,” when it’s actually just a byproduct of a more realistic, long-term strategy of talent accumulation.
Some may call trading the expiring, expensive contracts of aging players “tanking,” but I call it organizational planning. If shedding those contracts (for prospects, ideally) leads to better draft picks and more financial flexibility, why should a team be forced to feign competitiveness at their own expense?
And therein lies several key elements of this debate.
The Cubs didn’t head into any season from 2012-2014 trying to lose as many games as possible – it’s just not the reality. What they did do, however, was take a sobering look at their roster and minor league system and make moves to address those shortcomings. Confusing the two – and the subtle distinction between them – is why we get a debate.
It’s kind of like the perception of the Cubs’ approach at the plate. What is often perceived as a desire to draw more walks is actually a byproduct of an otherwise well-reasoned, advanced approach to hitting. Top Cubs prospect Albert Almora recently came to the revelation that by offering at fewer pitches he can make contact with, and focusing instead on the ones he can really drive, more and more balls go by and the walks begin to accumulate. The walks (or losses in this metaphor) aren’t the goal, then, they are just a happy byproduct of doing things the right way.
Moreover, unlike the NBA or NFL, top ten MLB draft picks (let alone later round, over-slot signings) aren’t nearly close to sure things. The simple notion that all you need to do is have a few consecutive top ten picks to put your team back on top is actually pretty ludicrous, given the nature of prospects and their unpredictability. “Even if you have those picks,” Epstein told Wittenmyer, “you have to hit on those picks.”
All of which, goes to prove a larger point: rebuilding and tanking aren’t the same thing.
You can’t guarantee your team will be competitive after a few years of top five picks, so a full rebuild must include a far more conclusive, well-rounded plan. So, then, attributing the Cubs’ or Astros’ current level of success to “tanking” is incredibly short-sighted, or to use Epstein’s words, painting “with too broad a brush.”
However, I can’t help but feel that the “MLB has a tanking problem” narrative is being, at least partially, blown out of proportion. Not only has rebuilding been around as concept for some time, the fact that some teams are better than others is and always will be undeniable.
I just couldn’t, as an MLB executive, step into the Brewers or Reds front office, for a couple examples, and advise them to make significant free agent commitments this offseason. It wouldn’t be wise, and it would almost certainly lead to further anguish at the MLB level in the long-term.
Sometimes, an organization has to “accept where they are in the success cycle,” so to speak.