As you might have heard, the team that we follow around these parts wasn't very good last year. They aren't, in all likelihood, going to be very good this year. The contending window that was built in the late aughts and pushed open with savvy trades was obliterated by injuries, curious free agency decisions, and most of all, Father Time.
But, baseball is cyclical. Things like this happen, from time to time, and bad teams then have the opportunity to get better again by having high selections in the draft. But, there's a feeling in the industry that teams have been exploiting this system, purposefully bottoming out for several years to continuously pick high in the draft. Cut spending, lose a lot of games, acquire a ton of young talent, profit.
The problem with this, you see, is that at the same time, teams sell to their consumer base that they're trying their best to win the games currently being played on the field. No one wants to watch a contest that has already been decided, and no one feels particularly good about supporting a team that continuously tries to lose year after year after year.
At least, that's the problem that a lot of people in the business seem to think there is. Today, Buster Olney reports that along with this particular topic getting a lot of discussion at the GM Meetings, "tanking" got its time in the sun at the owner's meetings as well.
Buster Olney's got the deets on a few of the suggestions being brought up (Insider required for the juiciest parts) by owners, executives, and agents alike, and they're all convinced some sort of "anti-tanking" measure will have to be addressed during the newest round of collective bargaining negotiations.
Said another evaluator: "It can't be a good thing if teams are trying to be bad. There shouldn't be incentives for being bad."
The suggestions deal with the draft, including instituting a draft lottery, much like how the draft functions in the NBA. While I'm sure a draft lottery would work in baseball, it hasn't exactly deterred tanking in basketball, so it's not a foolproof solution by any means.
Some would rather prevent teams from picking at or near the top of the draft in successive seasons. Which, fine, I guess, though it seems arbitrary to me. And as I mentioned before, these things are cyclical, and you run the risk of potentially penalizing teams for simply being bad in the wrong year.
For instance, the Reds select 2nd in the 2016 amateur draft, one that doesn't appear to have a clear number one option. But what if the second coming of Bryce Harper is sitting there in the 2017 class? Why should the Reds miss that simply because they were bad at the wrong time? The Reds could've started their descent into the depths of baseball hell earlier, sure, but you shouldn't have to be a fortune teller to run a baseball organization.
The real interesting suggestion comes from Scott Boras who proposes what he calls "the E System," in which a truly elite player in any class is treated somewhat differently. As I mentioned, not every draft has a Bryce Harper, so Boras suggests that these type of "elite" prospects should be treated a bit differently:
So Boras proposes a special E draft. Ask teams to submit a list of possible E talents, players they deem to be worth more than the dollars allotted to the top slot in the draft. Any player listed by 15 or more teams as being one of those elite talents would become eligible for a special E Draft. "You let the industry decide who those players are in a given year," said Boras.
... Some years, there might be four or five, Boras explained, some years there might be only one or two. As many players that are selected for the E Draft, there would be a matching number of teams eligible to participate, according to which clubs finished at the bottom of the standings.
That doesn't, in and of itself, prevent tanking, obviously, so Boras suggests that the only way to be eligible to participate in the E draft is to have won at least 68 games. The 2015 Reds would not be eligible.
It's an interesting, if not convoluted, way to treat the top of the draft. But you have to ask what, exactly, is tanking? As I mentioned, the Reds would be ineligible for this particular E draft because they failed to win 68 games, but does anyone consider what the Reds did last season "tanking?" If anything, the Reds map to a rebuild would be the league's ideal way for bad teams across the league: keep trying to win as long as possible (even if it's for silly reasons) and don't unload the valuable pieces until the last minute. Sure, the Reds may have punted 2016 during the offseason, but that has no bearing on their final record from 2015. In this system, the Reds would still be penalized.
Of course, it's certainly possible this is much ado about nothing, as Dave Cameron suggested a few weeks ago over at Fangraphs and becomes even more relevant now that there have been some semi-concrete angles to discuss.
For starters, as I've already outlined above withe the Reds, there are less obvious "tankers" in baseball right now; they are just starting a typical type of rebuild, or they are bad teams with questionable management.
I'll allow you decide which is the Reds.
Secondly, it's less obvious just how beneficial "tanking" is in the team building process, at least comparatively to other sports.
The reality is, the spread in talent in MLB is the smallest of any of the big three sports leagues; pretty much every team wins between 30-60% of their games. That's more like 15-85% in the NBA, or 10-90% in the NFL. The NFL is a behemoth even as the same few teams win every year, while other franchises linger as bottom-feeders for decades. The NBA actually has a real tanking problem, with teams actively seeking to get rid of good players for little return to improve their odds of getting a franchise player with the #1 pick, even though they have a draft lottery.
In baseball, unlike football and especially basketball, the number one draft prospect doesn't automatically make your team great. They don't change the game like that; Cameron notes that the best player in baseball is usually worth around 8+ WAR. Generally, that player is typically closer to 20+ WAR in basketball.
The conclusion is: if your team is actively tanking to collect number one picks as the foremost way to build the team, well, it's going to take awhile.
Lastly, Craig Calcaterra finds it amusing that the league is worried about tankers, considering they created the system that rewarded this practice. The owners wanted more firm draft slot allocation rules and, in the last CBA in 2012, they got them. Prior to that, the slots were merely suggestions, and teams could theoretically reject the suggestion and be willing to offer more, meaning drafting 7th instead of 1st wasn't as important if you made it known that you were willing to give Righty McHanderson x amount of dollars more than everyone else.
The firm slot allocations (and the severe penalties that come along with it) make it imperative to be at the top of the draft you plan on getting the top draft talent. Righty McHanderson will take no more than the maximum his slot allows and he'll like it.
The stated purpose for the slots and bonuses: parity and less money wasted on putatively unproven players. The unspoken but more compelling purpose of the slots and bonuses: clubs spending less money on players overall. The unintended result of the system: tanking is incentivized.
Lite on the Reds links today because, well, it's February 2nd and this team isn't particularly exciting in general. The guys from MLB Pipleline chatted about their "prospect man-crushes" before announcing the Top 50 the other night, and Jonathan Mayo announced that his prospect-crush is none other than Reds prospect Jesse Winker. Among all the good things you already know about Winker, Mayo says that he's "a 90-talker" and "a great person," so that's a good thing to know.
Welcome aboard, Jon, we've saved you a seat.
Brisbee has a nice, simple, very scientific chart of where all the teams stand when it comes to whether they're built to win now or if they're being built to win later. Or, as suggested, whatever the hell the Padres are doing. Guess where the Reds are?