Racing to the Bottom Part II: Peeling off the Band-Aid

In Part I of this series on “Tanking”, we discussed the actual steps of a team going through the process.  Now we look at the broader implications, how it affects trade and free agency markets, and how this affects the way the game is played.

Ask any White Sox fan right now, and life isn’t exactly great.  Currently sitting at a pitiful 37-67 record, and sporting an alarming team ERA of 5.02, and their star first baseman batting just a notch above league average.  The same could be said in Kansas City, Miami, and Baltimore, as their painful rebuilds either continue or begin, stretching fans patience and testing the record books for mediocrity on a historical level.  All of these franchises have appeared in the postseason since 2003, and three of the four have actually won the World Series (KC in ’15, MIA in ’03, Chicago in ’05, only Baltimore hasn’t), but it seems as though they’ve willingly lodged themselves into the basement of their divisions for the foreseeable future, in the name of getting better.  Take heart, though, as there is precedent for this approach working.  The easy examples would be the trailblazing Astros, or the Cubs, who both have World Series titles to boast for their “rebuilding” efforts.  Or for more recent history, look at the Braves, Phillies, or the A’s this season.  All teams that are “arriving” as serious contenders, after stretches of time where they paraded out washed up veterans or career minor leaguers in order to allow young, homegrown talent to rise to the Major League roster.

This strategy has precedent, and yet, it’s causing a shockwave of panic among the MLB establishment.  “Nerdy” GM’s are being blamed for driving down free agent salaries, creating a “boring” product on the field (thanks to fielder shifts), and diluting the product of the game, citing the disparity between the good teams, and the bad ones.  This is baseball populism, feeding into the immediate frustrations of fans who feel abandoned by their teams, and furthering an agenda that is simply detrimental to the modern game.

Here’s the good, the bad, and the ugly of this….

The Good:  We are Cultivating “Complete” Position Players

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If you look at the rosters of these “tanking teams”, you wont find much.  Look deeper, though.  Look at the farm systems.  The days of the bulked up sluggers are fading, and these teams are responsible for that.  Scouts are emphasizing defensive skills, plate discipline, and ability to hit to all fields in order to prepare them for the endless parade of relievers and defensive shifts that are so prevalent at the Major League level.  Player development is smarter and more agile than ever before, and the byproduct of that is simply better players.  The results are yet to be seen on a regular basis, but with rookies like Ronald Acuna, Juan Soto, and more coming up every year, and even more exciting talent on the way, it’s hard not to be excited about the quality of position players that could make a serious difference in the game today.  These are the players that will join Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Aaron Judge, and Mookie Betts to create the new incarnation of the ballplayer, helping us to finally shed the remnants of the steroid era, and move on to a more fun and exciting version of the game.  The timing is ideal, because these younger players can be molded to break away from the “three true outcomes” style of play that is drawing so much scrutiny from fans who are routinely seeing an increase in game times and decrease in action during the games.  It’s not unthinkable that a more contact-driven, defensive minded game is on the horizon, thanks to a new generation of players, developed by front offices and coaches that have (hopefully) learned from the mistakes of generations past.

The Bad:  The Game is Isolating Veteran Players in favor of Gambling on Prospects

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This past offseason, it wasn’t just surprising that Mike Moustakas didn’t get a contract offer, it was downright puzzling.  What about Jay Bruce, Todd Frazier?  Power hitting veteran players, they all between 27 and 38 home runs last year, have postseason experience, and would be a great addition for any team.  Instead, both players had to wait until nearly spring training to sign lesser deals just so that they could play that season.  The reason for that was simple:  No market.  It wasn’t that they aren’t good players, it’s simply that a significant portion of MLB teams either couldn’t afford them, or have adopted an analytic philosophy that discourages the sort of contracts that these players have come to expect during their careers.  The days of multi-year mega contracts seem to be fading away (we’ll test that theory this coming offseason, and that is a tough pill to swallow for players that have built their entire careers on the idea that front offices don’t care about strikeouts, just hit the ball hard (or walk to first), don’t look silly in the field, and we’ll pay you… a lot…. for a long time.  These players are brand building names, ones that get fans to buy jerseys and tickets, and give them the validation that ownership is willing to spend the fans money to field a competitive team. Instead, however, some front offices are shunning those players in favor of cheaper talent, hoping they will blossom into those types of players, but at the same time asking fans to wait years, really on a gamble.  This creates a tense situation not just with the fans, but with players who are either reaching the peak of their careers (often thought to be around 30 years old), or just on the other side.  Now players who may be coming up on significant career milestones are just fighting for playing time, or even just a place to play.  Everyone loses here, but the only one seemingly without a silver lining are the fans.

The Ugly:  All this is Happening at Once, with Contentious Labor Talks on the Horizon

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:  Baseball’s players and ownership are not getting along.  I don’t even think this constitutes as news anymore.  It may not be news, but that doesn’t mean it’s not significant.  Strike rumors have surfaced already, years before any agreements expire, and leading the charge are the very veterans that seem to be getting burned in the process.  The players union gives weight to the concerns of veteran players that have more brand name recognition, so it’s understandable that they may not agree with owners who are more interested in playing young, inexpensive talent over their proven track records of success.  Not only that, front offices around the league are adopting these same analytical strategies that seem to almost discriminate against them at the same time, creating a sort of vacuum in the free agent market, forcing them to take shorter, cheaper contracts after being brought up in the game during a time when salaries were supposed to be going up!  For a game that seems to move epically slow to adopt change, this culture seems to have swept in overnight, and it’s creating a difficult situation in the near term.

So…… What Next?

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We wait.  It’s hard, but we wait.  The Free Agent market is facing a reckoning this offseason, with a loaded class of players looking to cash in, and several teams hitting pivotal points in their rebuilding process, where fans are beginning to demand returns on their patience.  The best thing about this shift in culture that we are seeing is that it’s all happening surprisingly quick.  That’s also the worst part, though, because major change in the game requires everyone swimming upstream.  It requires the players to adapt to changes and be the best they can, owners to be loyal to the spirit of the game by fielding a winning team, or at least be working towards that ultimate goal, and fans to be engaged when their team is up, and loyal when their team is down.  Whether you’re in a downward spiral (Baltimore), on top looking down (Houston), or on the way in either direction (Atlanta and Philadelphia on the way up, Washington and New York Mets on the way down), it may not feel like it right now, but it’s an exciting time to be a baseball fan.

The game is “rebuilding”… let’s see where it goes.

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