To be sure, the players on the Cubs right now, as well as the manager and the coaching staff, are absolutely trying to win every game they play. There’s nothing else in their DNA, having played this sport at increasingly high levels for years. It’s part of the reason things get so challenging for a club after a sell-off, because everyone left still wants to win, but doesn’t really have the personnel to do it. So when we talk about “tanking,” at least inasmuch as the Cubs are taking, it’s not a reflection on the current group in any way. They want to win, and I’m sure it’s very frustrating to see – for example – draft positioning being a top talking point right now.
(But, well, that’s the reality from a fan/longer-term perspective, so the Dive For Five is still alive.)
When we talk about tanking in a broader sense, though, and we think about a club like the Orioles, set to finish their third straight full season with an absolutely atrocious and inexcusable record, or even clubs that chart out shorter “rebuilds,” knowing full well in advance that they’ll stink for a year or two. For the overall sport, it’s bad! For the individual teams, it can make sense, given the structures at play in the sport that reward bad teams with not only higher draft picks, but also larger fixed bonus pools. When those fixed bonus pools came in, and teams stopped being able to overspend as much as they like in the draft (i.e., the then-new CBA that accompanied the new front offices in Chicago and Houston a decade ago), that’s when tanking really became a more noticeable problem.
This isn’t the NFL or the NBA, where being high enough in the draft can immediately change your team at the highest level. But the combined power of the higher pick AND the bonus pool dollars definitely makes getting a higher pick much more attractive than you might think.
So, then, with a new CBA coming – or at least that’s what we hope after the current version’s expiration on December 1 – it’s fair to guess that addressing tanking will be on the table. After all, the teams at a league-wide level should have an interest (tanking damages attention and enthusiasm for the sport, which can cost dollars), and the players should definitely have an interest (tanking teams don’t spend as much on free agents or in retaining arbitration-eligible players). And if we know that draft incentives play a significant role in organizational decisions around tanking, you would further guess that draft changes should be looming.
Yet in an ESPN article talking about possible strategies, Jesse Rogers sure doesn’t sound optimistic about significant structural changes to the MLB draft:
The draft format is among the CBA items that MLB and the union are currently discussing, but there is no indication that the draft will move away from the current format that awards the No. 1 overall pick to the team with the worst record the previous year.
Reverse ordering? Lottery system? Anything? Apparently not on the table.
It’s possible that lesser adjustments could nevertheless have a strong impact, if the sides got creative. What if a team’s bonus pool was tied to their draft picks … unless they finish in the bottom ten records in consecutive years? And then that second year, your bonus pool is shrunk by X%? It could definitely work – you could play around with the years, the cut-off, and the percentage – but the problem there is that you’re actually just taking more money out of the hands of amateurs. So maybe you do the opposite? All teams qualify for a more flexible bonus pool (not an effectively hard cap like the current system), unless they finish in the bottom X spots in consecutive years? So overall, amateurs are getting a bump, but repeat tankers are punished?
I’m just thinking out loud, and I’m open to many more suggestions. My main point would only be that the tanking problem – as it relates to draft incentives – is primarily about the COMBINATION of the ordering of draft picks AND the fixed bonus pool. If you want to use the draft to help address the tanking problem, you’re gonna have to play around with either or both of those if you want meaningful changes in tanking. Otherwise, you’re going to have to figure out some other way to get teams to try to compete every year (and relegation isn’t realistic, as wild as it would be).
… oh, but maybe grandfather any of this in after the 2022 MLB draft, since, uh, the Cubs might be picking pretty high with a nice bonus pool. At least trading draft picks is rumored to be on the table.