Sam Hinkie, formerly of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, made tanking famous by deliberately putting bad teams on the court expressly for the purpose of ending up with high draft picks that could end up as NBA superstars. His teams set records for the number of games lost over multiple years and in the 2015-2016 season the team actually lost 72 of the team’s 82 games. One of those horrendous seasons resulted in the team being able to draft current NBA superstar Joel Embiid and now the team is one of the leading contenders to become the Eastern Conference champions (though Hinkie was forced out a couple seasons ago). The overwhelming belief among NBA observers is that Hinkie’s “Process” worked.
Though they haven’t been as publicly honest as the 76ers were, several major league baseball teams have decided to tank their seasons when they believed they, too, had no chance of winning. Last season alone, the Orioles, the White Sox, the Royals, the Tigers, and the Marlins could legitimately be accused of tanking in an effort to build for the future. It has already become obvious this offseason that the Mariners will, to one degree or another, tank their 2019 season and it seems as though the Diamondbacks may do the same thing.
The NBA, however, is a much different animal than MLB is. In order to win consistently in the NBA, teams need at least 1 superstar and need to support that superstar with complementary players. Because of the NBA’s salary cap and the way in which NBA free agency is rigged in favor of players re-signing with the teams they currently play for, it is extraordinarily difficult for teams to acquire that superstar through free agency. They feel they must, therefore, acquire those superstars through the draft, thus incentivizing tanking to receive those high draft picks.
MLB free agency is different as it is much easier for players to change teams than it is in the NBA. Just this offseason, we’re going to see 2 of the majors’ best players, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, change teams via free agency. Moreover, because draft picks are so far away from becoming major league contributors when they are drafted, and because it is far more common for players who aren’t high draft picks to become superstars in baseball than in basketball, the benefits of having a top 5 draft pick in baseball aren’t nearly as great as they are in basketball. Nevertheless, major league baseball teams insist on tanking in their attempts to build for the future. The problem is, by and large, they’re doing it wrong.
Let’s look at the 2018 Marlins as an example. Last offseason, the Marlins let everyone with ears know that they were determined to get rid of Giancarlo Stanton, the team’s best player in 2017, because they didn’t want to pay his salary anymore. They weren’t very good, wanted to rebuild, and were going to start that process by getting rid of Stanton. Stanton should have had a lot of value because he is such a fantastic player. As it turns out, however, the Yankees actually didn’t have to give up that much in exchange for Stanton, largely because the Yankees also had to take on most of the $300+ million left on Stanton’s contract. Basically, the Marlins let the Yankees have Stanton just so they could get out of paying him.
The Marlins continued last offseason by trading their 2 other great outfielders, Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna, receiving some prospects in return all the while refusing to trade their great, young catcher, J.R. Realmuto, when he, too, could have returned a lot of talent to South Beach. Yelich ended up the NL MVP for the Brewers. Consequently, the Marlins’ payroll dropped to 26th in MLB (and 14th in the NL) at a (relatively) paltry $91 million. This was $45 million below the average MLB payroll.
One of the things that has characterized tanking in the NBA – besides playing terrible players and ending up with high draft picks – is trading for players with bad contracts so that they can also receive good, young talent or draft picks along with them. In other words, teams that are tanking (Team A) will often trade for an older player from Team B who is no longer (or maybe never was) worth his relatively high contract. In order to compensate Team A for giving Team B the payroll relief they need, Team B will also have to give Team A a good, young player or a good draft pick that might become the good, young player Team A needs. To a large degree, major league teams do not do that.
Major league teams that tank often do so largely to reduce payroll. This has the obvious effect of taking money that was going to players and moving it to the pockets of the already ridiculously wealthy owners. These owners line their pockets while their teams lose 95 or 100 games and it’s the teams’ fans who suffer. Last season the Marlins averaged about 10,000 fans per home game, a number that is only slightly greater than the average attendance at for the AAA Indianapolis Indians. In fact, there were numerous reports as the 2018 season ended telling us about the decline in major league attendance. One of the major reasons for this decline has to be the number of teams who made absolutely no effort to field competitive ball clubs.
What could the Marlins have done, then, to not only build for the future, but also field relatively competitive clubs? One obvious move they could have made would have been to eat more of Stanton’s salary when they traded him to the Yankees. Doing so would have forced the Yankees to offer up better prospects (or more of them) in exchange. This would have helped speed up the Marlins rebuilding process but instead the Marlins’ ownership preferred money over the rebuild. They also could have actively sought to acquire other teams’ bad (overpaid) assets as many NBA teams have done over the last several years. This would have had 2 effects. First, though these players wouldn’t have been worth their contracts, they still would have been better than many of the players the Marlins put on the field in 2018. In 2018, the Marlins only had 3 position players worth more than 1 WAR and only 1 pitcher worth more than 1.5 WAR. They were just bad. Acquiring someone else’s overpaid, underperforming player would have actually helped them win more games and give more fans reason to come to the ballpark.
The other benefit the Marlins would have received from this sort of strategy would be that teams would have to give them some sort of pretty good prospect(s) in exchange for them taking on those bad contracts. Those bad contracts would have been unlikely to hurt the Marlins’ long-term plans because they would surely end before the Marlins’ window to win begins. To the Marlins’ owners, the only cost of acquiring those good prospects would be money…money the team had no plans to spend anyway. Still, their owners decided not to take on the extra payroll, thus stalling their team’s long-term development so that they could put a little bit more money in their pockets.
With the Mariners apparently trying to do the same thing this season, what can they do to speed up their rebuild all while treating their fans with the respect they deserve? They’ve already made 2 trades that signal the beginning of their rebuilding process. First, they traded their most expensive (and overpriced) asset, Robinson Cano, to the Mets but had to include closer Edwin Diaz – a guy with tons of value – just to get back a couple of solid prospects. They did take back overpriced vets Jay Bruce and Anthony Swarzak as well but the move on the whole screams as a move primarily designed to reduce payroll.
The Athletic’s Eno Sarris addressed the M’s moves recently by arguing that getting rid of high-salaried players like Cano isn’t necessarily a bad thing as long as the team is restructuring that payroll – i.e. getting rid of 1 high-salaried player in order to take on 2-3 not-quite-as-overpaid players at other positions. That seems to be sort of what they did in getting Bruce and Swarzak in return. However, by packaging Diaz with Cano, the M’s severely reduced the prospect package they could have received for Diaz if they had traded him separately. They did get 2 pretty good prospects from the Mets, but could surely have done much better by just trading Diaz OR by eating a lot more of Cano’s salary.
The M’s followed that Cano trade by sending valuable and underpaid SS Jean Segura to the Phillies. This, by itself, isn’t a terrible move if the M’s can get back a lot of talent in return. They did get young SS prospect J.P. Crawford and 1B Carlos Santana in return. Crawford was once a top prospect whose star has fallen a little but still might turn into a very good player and Santana, though he’s set to receive about $35 million over the next couple of season, is still a pretty good player. But it’s not enough for Segura considering what he’s worth. To top it off, the M’s also threw in Juan Nicasio – a reliever with 1 year on his contract that many teams would like to have – and lefty reliever James Pazos, a good, young reliever with several years of team control. In other words, the M’s paid the Phils to get less than what Segura was worth. This indicates that, again, the primary motivation for the trade was to get rid of Segura’s salary.
It has been reported that the M’s are willing to do “whatever it takes” to move 3B Kyle Seager, a guy whose contract may not be underwater by all that much. If they’re just going to do that for salary relief, what’s the point? Recently, MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand suggested that the M’s should trade Seager to the Cardinals for Dexter Fowler, a guy who’s surely not worth what’s left on his contract and may have worn out his welcome. (Yesterday’s trade of Paul Goldschmidt to the Cardinals surely puts this idea to bed.) The only way a trade similar to this would make some sense is if the M’s use that opportunity to get a good, young prospect in exchange. They give up an asset with some value in exchange for one with negative value and get paid with prospects. If the M’s make that sort of trade, for someone else’s overpriced asset rather than Fowler, they’re making a mistake if they allow that team to give them money rather than prospects.
The M’s first trade of the offseason was to trade their most valuable asset, star starting pitcher James Paxson, to the Yankees for some prospects. Could they have gotten more if they had agreed to also take Yankees OF Jacoby Ellsbury? I have no idea if the Yankees would be willing to do that but they would surely want to get rid of the aging, overpriced outfielder and the M’s could help expedite their rebuild by trading for someone like Ellsbury.
Here’s the bottom line, by emphasizing clearing payroll over acquiring good, young players teams are slowing their rebuilding effort and abusing their fans’ trust. Major league teams aren’t just businesses, but they also provide a valuable service to the communities. As a result, they have an obligation to at least make an effort to be competitive even when they’re preparing for the future. The Orioles won a ridiculous 47 games in 2018. The Marlins won just 63 and they essentially did it on purpose just so they could put more money in their owners’ pockets. It’s a breach of the public trust.
Major league baseball could do something to prevent the extreme tanking that teams engaged in last season. Doing so would help fans remain interested in the sport and their favorite teams all while still allowing teams to do what they need to do to build for the future. The way to do it would be to require teams to carry a minimum payroll. MLB has their version of a team salary cap in the form of a luxury tax. It makes even more sense to require teams to carry a minimum payroll so that they could insure that more of their teams and more games are competitive. As long as MLB cares more about helping its owners make as much money as possible than it does in helping teams remain competitive or in keeping fans engaged in the sport, they’ll continue allowing teams to waste seasons by engaging in the tactics that the Marlins employed in 2018.
Thanks to @nchill17 for the awesome cover art of Kyle Seager.
Thanks to you all for reading.