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There is no tanking problem in baseball

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An argument for why one of the biggest issues in baseball isn’t an issue at all.

St Louis Cardinals v Los Angeles Dodgers
This is my best attempt at a photo connecting to my topic
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

There are a lot of problems in the MLB. The free agent system is essentially broken beyond repair, so much so that a system designed to pay players when they are younger is necessary. Minor leaguers do not get a living wage. Pace of play could be perceived as an issue, though you will get no complaints from me. The rising age of the average baseball fan is a genuine issue, just not one I think can be “solved.” Rules that punish weed smokers more than domestic abusers sure are screwed up and need to be fixed. And yet, the issue I have seen the most is tanking.

It must be said that, as Cardinals fans, this is not an issue that actually applies to the Cardinals. The Cardinals haven’t had a season that could be called tanking since probably when their manager quit on them midseason in 1990. So perhaps, I am coming at this from a biased place, a place where I can’t recognize what a problem it would be to root for a team that is “tanking.”

The problem, though, is that tanking has lost all meaning. Every bad team is tanking. Any team that won’t spend money on free agents is tanking. There was a Baseball America article about how tanking is bad because it was seeing unprecedented losses from a couple teams (written in August). Which I found funny because the two worst teams as of that writing, were the Baltimore Orioles and Kansas City Royals, two teams that were not tanking. They were just poorly run. There’s a difference and it’s not just a matter of semantics.

The Orioles went 75-87 in 2017, a year removed from an 89 win team. They had a few years of outperforming their Pythagorean record by a lot and people thought maybe it was for real. They signed Alex Cobb during the late stages of Spring Training, which is not a sign that they were tanking. They didn’t trade Kevin Gausman, Manny Machado, or Jonathan Schoop until the middle of the season when they had the actual worst record in the MLB. When Cobb was signed, Jeff Sullivan wrote this:

Just in terms of personnel, the Orioles’ rotation overhaul has been impressive. At the start of the offseason, they had only Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman. Now their rotation is rounded out by Cobb, Andrew Cashner, and Chris Tillman. There are reasons to be skeptical about all of them, but it’s at least much better than nothing. It no longer feels quite like a fantasy to envision the Orioles in the hunt. One can assume the bullpen will hold. The lineup is at least going to mash its dingers. While the Orioles are going to be nobody’s favorite, they can play on the fringes. Provided they can forget about the Yankees and the Red Sox, they might only have to keep up with, say, the Blue Jays or the Twins or the Angels.

Does that sound like a team who planned on winning 47 games? Again, they won 75 games in 2017 and Manny Machado had 2.6 fWAR, which sounds fine, but he was a 6 fWAR player the previous two years. Chris Davis was a replacement level player coming off a 2.8 and 5.4 fWAR seasons the previous two years. Right off the bat, there’s roughly 7 or so wins from Davis, Machado, and Cobb in theory. Now we’re at 82 and a few breaks and it’s the Wild Card. This is what the Orioles were thinking, not “let’s blow this baseball team up.”

I think saying the Royals were tanking is a little more up for debate. They weren’t expected to be good, they didn’t try to improve their team meaningfully, and having a losing record was probably a part of the plan. But...I think saying the Royals were “tanking” is why I have an issue with the word in the first place. They signed Mike Moustakas, Jon Jay, and Lucas Duda. They were very public about wanting to resign Eric Hosmer. They resigned Alcides Escobar, who Dayton Moore legitimately thinks is good. Escobar had playing time incentives and he kept playing and earning playing time bonuses while being awful. This is usual bad team, don’t have enough money or resources to do much, but hoping these cheap, patchwork improvements help the team.

So who is tanking if I don’t think the Royals are? (While I think there’s at least an argument with the Royals, I am unwilling to concede on the Orioles) . Let’s run through the list of teams.

White Sox (62 wins) - This is a tricky one. I’m willing to concede, but the White Sox were not in an all too different spot than the Braves, in that them arriving to the scene in 2018 was not all that implausible. Pretty much all of their hotshot prospects disappointed in 2018, unlike the Braves.

Marlins (63 wins) - They were definitely tanking. Here’s one.

Tigers (64 wins) - Definitely tanking.

Padres (66 wins) - No, they signed Eric Hosmer. While it was not a smart signing, I think signing $100+ million contract should remove you from discussion.

Reds (67 wins) - It is probably fair to say the 2018 Reds were assembled from a tanking strategy, but I don’t think the 2018 team itself was tanking. If we’re arguing for going into the 2018 season, which I am, I would not count them.

Rangers (67 wins) - I’ll quote Lone Star Ball here: “That’s the 2018 Texas Rangers — stuck in the middle. Not willing to spend big or deal prospects to widen the window of contention which they’ve kept open since 2009, but with enough young talent in place that a full-on tear down and rebuild doesn’t make sense either.” - Not tanking

Blue Jays (73 wins) - Their biggest crime is playing in the AL East, but not trading Donaldson before the season is a very clear sign they were not tanking.

Giants (73 wins) - Definitely no tanking. They had a limited budget and traded for Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen. Projection systems kind of believed in them for some reason.

And the rest of the teams have 78 wins or more, which is a couple breaks away from being a .500 team. So I count three teams that definitely tanked. This is an epidemic? Really? This just kind of seems normal to me? You’re going to have a few teams that are just hopeless, that need to completely focus on the future. When you have 100 wins teams, it stands to reason there will be 60 win teams.

For the second year in a row, free agency is not going how it went for the previous 20 or so years. I think people are confusing the issue as to why. The bad teams weren’t really the ones paying all the big bucks anyway. No, the problem is that the free agent system is broken. The Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, and Cubs are all not spending money, and those are the teams that would have spent money in the past.

Draft penalties is not solving this issue. No team is going to be deterred because they lose 10 or 20 spots in the draft. Here’s why. Say you are a team that would be penalized if they had another losing season. Say you also have Chris Sale. Even with Sale, you’re looking at a 75ish win team. You know you can’t keep him past this year. Well your options are to keep Sale, hope he doesn’t get injured and you get punished anyway, and Chris Sale leaves and you get a top 10 draft pick plus a compensation pick for losing Sale. The other option is to trade Chris Sale for a haul of prospects. The latter is way more valuable than two draft picks. You choose trade Sale even with the penalties.

This isn’t the NBA. Draft picks are only a part of a rebuilding team. You don’t just trade all your valuable players for prospects so you can lose and get a high draft pick. That is a very minor part of why rebuilding is a valuable process. Anyway, I’m getting away from my point. Just wanted to address the people in favor of that, because I think they are missing the point of tanking and rebuilding.

In essence, tanking isn’t a problem and please pass it along if you agree, because I am oh so tired of hearing about it.

*Maybe the 2019 season will have more tanking teams, but there are far too many unsigned free agents to determine that at the moment. So that’s why I didn’t theorize on 2019. Cause I would have had to preface every team with “if they made no more moves.”