Getting to the Bottom of MLB’s Tanking Trend

Tanking. Tearing down. Rebuilding. Call it what you will, it all amounts to basically the same thing: a frank acknowledgment that your team is going to drop out of contention for anything from three to five years in order to start again from the bottom up. By my count there are currently around a third of MLB teams involved in the process to varying degrees, meaning that each division has at least one whipping boy who will likely expect to lose in the region of 90 games this year.

Deliberate, Open, and Aggressive

There is a historical precedent for teams carefully trimming the fat and gradually building a club using home-made talent. Indeed, for smaller market teams, it has always been the only way to compete with the bigger kids in the playground. Realistically, there are only a handful of organizations who have the support base or market share to be able to afford to compete without perpetually cycling through periods of booms and bust. Perhaps it is recency bias, but there is a sense that it is happening more deliberately, more openly, and more aggressively of late.

The current trend is thanks in large part to the huge success of the Astros’ and the Cubs’ recent rebuilds. But it could have a lot to do with increasingly sabermetrically-minded front offices, mainstream media, and everyman fans who are all more aware of the dollar value assigned to on-field performance. The lukewarm free agent market this offseason perhaps reflects an unwillingness to commit budget to older, bigger names who have their best years behind, not ahead, of them.

Owners can arguably be accused of exploiting the new acceptance of rebuilding projects to extract more profit from clubs instead of continuing to plow back money into the on-field staff. The draft system has always indirectly incentivized teams to win fewer games, with fanbases voting with their feet to provide necessary checks and balances so that a team would destroy themselves if they failed to compete, or were failing to be seen to compete for long periods. But now that fans are seemingly aware of the benefits of taking a few years out from competition to build and nurture a core of young, cheap, hungry prospects. Now, there is less kickback from fanbases, and therefore less need for ownership to appease them.

Cubs and Astros: Unique Circumstances

It is easy in hindsight to cite the Astros and Cubs projects as the benchmarks because ultimately they won the biggest prize in the sport. Both rebuilds were spearheaded by effective communicators with a track record in player development, in Theo Epstein and Jeff Luhnow; and, in AJ Hinch and Joe Maddon, managers who were considered more receptive to sabermetric ideas than the rest of the managerial pack. But unique circumstances gave ownership and management of those teams the opportunity to sell a few years of flying under the competitive radar. The promise of a first title in 108 years was such a prize carrot for the Cubs, whilst for the Astros, gradually in decline since 2006, ownership changes and moving leagues organically brought to a close one chapter and started a new one.

The Pirates, Rays, Tigers, Royals, and Marlins have all seen significant talent drains this offseason, as players have either been traded away or not been replaced, leaving all of those teams with diminished win projections relative to seasons past. Fans of each of those teams are reluctantly coming to terms with the knowledge that 90-100 loss seasons in the near future look possible if not extremely likely.

Conflicting Priorities

But rebuilding can be done delicately, it doesn’t have to be done with a  sledgehammer. The key to rebuilding seems to be balance. Take the recent arrival of Eric Hosmer in San Diego, which was met with murmurs of derision in some quarters, and not only because of his questionable value, but because it is still considered by some to be too soon in the Padres rebuild to justify the spend on his salary. It is folly to commit the $20m per year now when they are still two to three seasons away from competing, they say. But the Padres were $50m under budget, and where else would the Hosmer money go at the end of the year if unspent on players salaries? Right back in the back pocket of ownership. At least this way the Padres fans get to see a team who are more likely to win a few games. The difference between losing 90 games and losing 85 might not matter to ownership, but if you’re paying to see those five games you’d sure as hell prefer your team to win them than not.

However it is done, the proof is in the pudding. While the Cubs fanbase is unlikely to embrace another 108 years of hurt were it to happen, they will always appreciate the achievements of this team and, in years to come, will look back with happiness on this era even if they fail to add to their 2016 World Series win in this competitive cycle. Will fans of the Pirates or the Padres be happy if their team averages 90 wins from 2019-2021 and goes deep into the playoffs, or even makes the big show, but fails to snatch the biggest prize in the sport? Will their rebuilding projects be seen as successful? Flags fly forever and all that, but for me, there is inherent value in seeing a solid core of homegrown talent emerge, thrive and challenge for your team over a period of three to five years even if they ultimately fall short of winning the final, and most important game of the postseason.

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