With sabers rattling and accusations flying, the frozen free agent market still has center stage in the baseball world, even as we’re supposed to be gearing up for Spring Training. Because of the significant volume of teams that are rebuilding right now, the frozen market necessarily brings with it the renewed complaints about tanking – i.e., a number of teams actively trying not to do anything to improve their club. Some do it because they simply want an excuse not to spend money, while others do it because they know winning 75 games in 2018 is no better than winning 65, and may actually be worse when you consider the draft-related impact.
The MLB Draft will never be the same as the NBA or NFL Drafts, where the players make an immediate impact at the highest level, and the difference between a first and second pick could literally be the difference between a five-year competitive window or five more years of awfulness. But when you have nothing else to play for in a given season, and when you know that the draft – together with other elements of organization-building – will eventually have a dramatic impact on your competitiveness, teams are strongly disincentivized to float around the .500 mark and shoot for a surprise run at a Wild Card playoff berth, especially because all that might get you is a one-and-done chance to go home.
We will hear a lot of suggestions to address the tanking issue in the coming years, and I very much hope that the combination of expansion to 32 teams and playoff system changes can be used as a spring board to address tanking. Consider a suggestion Luke has made: the teams losing the Wild Card Games get to pick at the top of the draft.
Instantly, the incentive to tank goes down slightly, since you’re not going to be able to get one of the top picks – and, as importantly, top draft bonus pools – just by losing. Let me add that, if the league is expanded to 32 teams, and you increase to four Wild Card Teams in each league (with either four or two division winners, depending on alignment), you’d have two teams in each league losing a Wild Card Game, and thus heading into the pool of the top four picks. That means, by virtue of tanking alone, the very best pick – and bonus pool slot – you could get yourself is fifth.
And conversely, if you were a team on the fence, with added playoff spots and an added incentive to reach that Wild Card Game, maybe you decide to spend a little more in free agency to see what kind of position you can be in by July.
Teams aren’t going to “go for it” solely to get into the Wild Card Game and lose to get a top pick. But some teams might decide not to tank because if they can hang around until July, maybe they will make that Wild Card Game and either get a top pick or get the chance to move on to a full playoff series (which is kinda the whole point in a given season).
If there were four Wild Card spots in each league, and four division winners in each league, you’d have half of the 32-team league making some form of the playoffs each year. Literally half of the league is going to “get something” at the end of the year by simply being competitive. Even terrible teams would be able to limp their way up to near .500 within a year or two if they simply made good, aggressive investments in trade and free agency.
You want to eradicate tanking? This sure seems like a really good way to do it. What am I missing?