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‘Tanking’ in MLB is not an easy problem to solve

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Losing to win is a problem in baseball, but there doesn’t appear to be a solution anywhere on the horizon.

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

There has been a lot of talk about “tanking” in MLB this winter, as several teams over the past few years have intentionally put inferior teams on the field in order to improve their chances in the future, either through the draft or through young prospects acquired from other teams through trades. The success of the Cubs and Astros, who both went through 100-loss seasons on their way to a World Series title, has been used by many to justify the practice. (Also the Royals, but it is generally assumed that their terribleness before their back-to-back pennant teams was unintentional.)

As Dave Sheinin writes in this piece, tanking is not limited to just baseball. Sheinin also provides a good definition of tanking when he writes that it is “the systematic writing-off of entire seasons by franchises hoping to rebuild for future success through the draft,” although in MLB, more than in other sports, that system also includes the acquisition of cheap minor league ballplayers.

First, let’s get one thing straight. The draft, in any of these sports, is not about helping the bad teams get better. At least that’s not its primary purpose. The primary purpose of a sports draft is to limit the amount of money that teams have to pay new players. Before the draft, MLB tried to limit the amount of money an amateur could sign for with the much-hated “Bonus Baby” rule. When that proved ineffective (and in some ways counterproductive), MLB adopted the draft system that the other three North American leagues had already adopted. The system allowed teams to pick in reverse order of their record the previous season because there had to be some logical order to it and honestly, 19 teams had no desire to make the Yankees any better. So there was a competitive balance aspect to the draft from the beginning, but it really wasn’t the point of it.

The problem with tanking is that it circumvents the spirit of competition. If one team decides to intentionally lose a game, that’s considered a “fix” and would result in everyone involved being banned. (And let’s be clear. No one is accusing any ballplayer on the field of not giving it his all.) But if a team decides to intentionally lose a season, that’s considered a strategic maneuver to improve their chance at winning in a future season. In 1899, the owner of the Cleveland Spiders bought the St. Louis Browns (today’s Cardinals) and then traded all the best players on the Spiders for the worst players on the Browns. This was considered a scandal back then and resulted in the Spiders being contracted and the practice of dual ownership banned. What’s going on today is a different than that, but it holds a lot more in common with that practice than some would like to admit.

The problem, as Sheinin points out, is that teams are working at cross-purposes. Each game is supposed to be a contest where each team is trying its best to win. But in many cases, one team is trying its best while voluntarily blindfolded and with one hand tied behind its back. That’s not a fair contest. But despite that, teams are charging full price for tickets to these games and not giving a discount to their broadcast partners. No one in 1968 would have paid to see a boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Tiny Tim. (Note to self: Bad example. They would have paid to see that.) But that’s what we’re asking of fans today in many cases.

But how can you blame a team for tanking? They are just taking advantage of the rules as written. If the rules are going to give bigger incentives to the teams that lose the most, why shouldn’t they? Currently, the rules give incentives to the very good teams (in terms of titles, increased fan support and lucrative playoff games) and incentives to the very bad teams (good draft picks and, presumably, a small payroll with the same share of national broadcast money). The teams in the middle get a set of steak knives. You cannot blame a team for doing what the system rewards them for doing.

So what is to be done about this? There are no easy answers. One thing is to do nothing and say that a system where only about half of major league teams are actively shooting for a World Series title every year is an acceptable situation. That’s not my position. I think it’s dishonest. But if you think that’s the only way for every team to have a chance to win a World Series title in a person’s lifetime, then maybe you can live with that.

I proposed the radical solution a few weeks ago with a system of promotion and relegation. In that Sheinin article linked to earlier, I’m not the only person who has suggested promotion and relegation.

It wouldn’t have to be a full system as I wrote about. Maybe the farm system could remain as it is and MLB could split into an “A” league and a “B” league. A team couldn’t get relegated out of the “B” league, but they wouldn’t be eligible for the playoffs either until they achieved promotion to the “A” league. But then we’ve really got a dozen teams or so with no chance of winning the World Series. We’re just more honest about it.

Another radical solution would just be to get rid of the draft and give teams a “signing pool” of money that they can divvy up among eligible amateur signings any way they would like. Honestly, I don’t think this is a bad solution, but even if they had less available money, “desirable” teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, Dodgers, Giants and Rangers would have a big advantage. Like in the days before the draft, many of the best players would take less money to play where they want. It might solve the tanking problem. It might make the competitive balance problem worse.

J.J. Cooper of Baseball America last month suggested a “tank tax” where teams that failed to win 70 games two seasons in a row would be penalized 10 spots in the draft. That number would go to 15 for three years in a row and 20 for four. It’s a mild idea that could be implemented easily.

Unfortunately, the article appears to currently be offline after BA’s gawdawful site revamp. At least I can’t find it and the link I had to it in MLB Bullets last month appears to be dead. However, “WMT” from Bucs Dugout had an unhinged rant against the idea last month. Besides my belief that “WMT” (if that is his real name) completely misunderstood Cooper’s point about the Giants and Tigers (I believe, but that’s from my own memory since I can’t check the original), the piece makes a point that teams (like the Pirates, presumably) would be “expected to obediently plunk down $40M or $50M so their fans can enjoy 71 wins instead of 68,” and that “would be to act as an artificial price support for second- and third-tier free agents,”

Umm, yeah. So what?

This system artificially limits how much a dirt-poor kid from the Dominican Republic can sign for. This system tells an American kid to play for an university for three years for free and their high school before that. (And most families of American draftees spend thousands of dollars on traveling teams and all-star showcases before that.) Then the system tells that kids to work several years in the minor leagues for less than the minimum wage. Once they make the major leagues (If they make the major leagues), their salary is artificially lowered by forbidding the player to reach free agency for six years. (And really, it’s seven years as teams have learned to manipulate the system to gain an extra year.) Then finally, only then, they are allowed to market their talents on an open and free market like anyone else in any other profession in America. But that’s not good enough so MLB attaches an artificial weight on what they can earn by attaching draft pick compensation onto several free agents expected to get big contracts.

So you’re saying that even then, Mike Moustakas should not be allowed to earn what the free market believes he is worth in terms of wins he can bring to a ballclub?

Communist.

Only five teams failed to win 70 games last year and of those five, only the Cincinnati Reds would have faced this penalty this season had this rule been in effect. The Cubs famous “tank” only had two seasons in a row below 70 wins and the Astros only had three.

I think the biggest problem with this system is that it probably wouldn’t do much to stop tanking. For all the talk of draft picks, the MLB draft is a much less of a sure thing than it is in other sports. In the NBA, one superstar player can turn around an entire franchise. A bad MLB team with one superstar is the Cincinnati Reds. (Not to pick on the Reds, but that is their current makeup.) And while picking early in the draft is better than picking later, it’s not a guarantee of getting a better player. Sure, the Astros hit the jackpot with Carlos Correa and the first pick in the draft, but don’t you think that now they would have prefered to pick ten spots later the year they took Mark Appel? Would the White Sox have really turned down a deal for Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease because they feared losing Jose Quintana would cost them 10 spots in the draft? Jimenez alone is worth more than 10 spots in the draft.

One more attempt at a solution that could be radical or it could be minor is to end the system of splitting up the share of broadcast rights equally. Instead, teams would receive a sliding share of the pot of money based on how many games they won. Additionally, revenue sharing money to small-market teams could also be similarly divided.

The advantage of this solution is that if a player like Mike Moustakas is really worth two-to-three wins to a team, then a team would have no problem giving him $10 million a year if that meant getting $10 million in more shared revenue. Teams would try to maximize every win if there was a direct connection between wins and money.

The disadvantage of this system is also clear. The rich would get richer and the poor would get poorer. It would be a difficult trick to find the exact amount of money that would incentivize teams to win more games but not cripple them from achieving future success if things don’t work out.

Honestly, I don’t have the answer to the problem of tanking. If I did, I’d be working in a New York skyscraper and Rob Manfred would be sitting on my couch typing out 2,000 words without coming to a conclusion. The problem remains that the current financial system in North American sports sometimes puts the goals of winning games and winning championships at odds with each other. It’s counterintuitive but true. But I do believe that it doesn’t do the league any good when as many as a dozen teams take themselves out of consideration for a title before the season even begins.