It was 2014 when Sports Illustrated ran this cover:
It was a bold move, to say the least. The Astros were in the midst of a 70 win season, which would be the best record they would muster since 2010, and had just made the leap to the American League, where they continued to flounder against opponents they were meeting for the first time. SI saw something in that team, however, that wasn’t visible if you looked simply at the standings. They were building a foundation, and an incredibly strong one at that. While the price of top tier free agents seemed to be exploding, and long term “backloaded” contracts were becoming a trend in front offices across the league, the Astros took a different tact:
Burn it to the ground….. and they did.
They took aspects of what Billy Beane had done in Oakland a decade before and then took it a step further. They preached patience with their young stars, used the draft to grab talent that was often overlooked or undervalued, all the while using an intensely data-driven approach. It was a deal with the fans, however implied it may have been: Give us a few years of torture, and we’ll give you a title.
and they did.
Now here we are, just months removed from the Astros delivering on their deal to their fans, and just like any great idea, they have copycats. Lots of them, and there’s a buzzword for it now: Tanking. There are consequences to this approach, and it takes discipline to achieve them. Jump the gun, or try to force your hand, and it can set you back years. The system seems to go like this…
STEP 1: Sell off “Name Brand” Players for Prospects
This was probably most notably done in Atlanta, when the team cleansed itself of Justin Upton, Craig Kimbrel, Jason Heyward, BJ Upton, Andrelton Simmons, Evan Gattis, and Hector Olivera seemingly one after the other, all in exchange for minor league players, bad contracts, and cash considerations. Basically nothing that Atlanta could realistically put on a Major League field that season. The Miami Marlins are the latest to enter this painful step, selling off their entire outfield, Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, and Marcell Ozuna, all to contending clubs, mostly for salary relief and some prospects. This drew the ire of Marlins fans, just as it did for Braves and White Sox fans, although more understandably in Miami, given the clandestine nature of the recent change in ownership.
STEP 2: Decide HOW to stock your farm system
“We’re at war, pick a side!”… Prospects are exactly that: a prospective Major League contributor. It’s (nearly) impossible to predict their track, and so quantity can be a good thing for an organization that is “on the clock” to field a contender. In Chicago, the Cubs decided to put emphasis on the positional players, conceding that pitching would be acquired eventually at the MLB level, rather than being grown from the minor leagues. The Padres took the opposite approach, with 7 of their top 10 prospects being pitchers.
STEP 3: Watch, Wait, and Pounce
This is the most difficult phase. While Phillies fans were watching the Nationals run away with the NL East title, they were building a team around low cost players, and setting aside enough money to make a major splash in a loaded upcoming free agency class. By all accounts, the Phillies are expected to make significant runs at the likes of Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, and others as the 2019 free agent class looms. The opportunity is ripe as well, given the slow state of this offseason, and the collection of “tanking” clubs, they may only be up against a few bidders. On the other end, the Atlanta Braves are standing pat, hoping their collection of young starters will develop enough where they can focus on a couple of holes in their roster as opposed to having to make a major splash in the free agency market.
STEP 4: WIN
Now it’s time to put the pedal to the metal. The homegrown talent is starting to show its value, you’ve dispensed of the placeholder players, and the fans are starting to buzz about the “New Look” of the hometown team. By this point, you’ve probably found your new “face of the franchise” (Think Dansby Swanson in Atlanta, Yoan Moncada in Chicago) and you’ve been plugging holes in your roster either via trade or free agency. You’ve selected the manager that’s going to take you the rest of the way. Now it’s time to win. The attention has shifted from your “loaded” farm system to your contending Major League team. A postseason appearance is a must, but a World Series appearance is not required. Enough to give the fans a taste. Think Houston losing to the Royals in the ALDS in 2015, or the Cubs being swept from the NLCS that same year by the Mets. The next two years saw those two teams take home titles (Cubs in ’16, Astros in ’17) which saw their hometown players take on major roles.
In Part II: I discuss how this process has impacted todays free agent market, and why we should slow our roll before we panic.