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Why ‘tanking’ is not bad for Major League Baseball

Even as teams tear their rosters apart, they are not hurting baseball as a whole.

Baltimore Orioles v Detroit Tigers Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

The MLB offseason has been unusually quiet thus far, with fewer free agent signings and trades compared to years past. Many big names are not even reported to be close to signing. This has led to many takes, including the widespread observation that clubs are taking a more restrained approach on spending their payroll and trading their talent compared to the fast and furious offseasons of recent years. Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci recently commented that this could be due to a growing disparity in the current league between teams in contention and teams that are focused on rebuilding.

“It’s become mostly a bifurcated game: Teams are either all-in as far as World Series aspirations or all-out. That’s not ‘tanking.’ That’s smart business sense.”

ESPN’s Buster Onley also recently touched on this disparity between good and bad teams in baseball. He opined that front offices are deliberately building their teams with equal intensity but opposite direction depending on their feeling towards contending in 2018. There are some that are amassing superhero levels of talent in their lineups, rotations, and bullpens.

On the flip side, teams like the Detroit Tigers are relentless in their pursuit to shed payroll and bring in prospects in exchange for what major league talent they have on their books as they look towards the future. This, he argues, is commonly called “rebuilding,” but is actually designed failure and a way to manipulate the game, not unlike what Pete Rose is serving a lifetime ban for. While this is good for individual teams under the current system, Olney argues, it’s bad for baseball. Specifically, he says that it encourages unethical behavior that may lead to front office executives engaging in more and more shady practices in their quest to race to the bottom of the standings.

This seems like making a mountain out of a molehill.

That hill has existed in the game for longer than Tal’s Hill did in Houston. Teams positioning themselves to draft the best talent in down years and trade away quality players while stockpiling younger talent is nothing new in sports. For mid- and small-market teams, it’s often a necessary way of life to obtain enough talent to contend with the large market teams. It is easy to frown on teams that sit on the sidelines of the free agent market and simply pocket their extra revenue in rebuilding periods instead of slashing prices on tickets to appease their fans.

To describe it as deliberate designed failure — and to speculate that it could encourage manipulation of game results — is a big stretch, though. Most teams would probably like to contend every year and field a solid team consistently, but that’s not the way things go in baseball. Nearly every team has periods of ups and downs, and this cycle has been going on for a long time.

Teams are simply following a proven strategy.

Olney does make a good point that teams are doing well given the current system in which they operate, a system that was collectively bargained for. With the current caps on payroll, draft signings, and international spending, there is a limited amount of money teams can invest in bringing in talent without incurring penalties. Combine this with the steady increase in free agent prices and contract lengths, front offices doubling down on analytics and player development as a way to extract and identify maximum value out of the resources they have available.

But the idea that this is bad for baseball as a whole is not a conclusion reflected by what league revenue and payroll say. In terms of competitive balance, there have been 10 different World Series winners in the last 15 seasons (2003 to 2017). The only repeat champions in that span are the Red Sox, Cardinals, and Giants. Both total MLB team payroll, and average player salary continue to increase overall with minor fluctuations in various years. Total team payroll did decrease in 2017 compared to 2016, but the same thing happened between 2003 and 2004, and 2008 and 2009. Meanwhile, the average player salary has not decreased since between 2003 and 2004.

Total team payroll for all 30 MLB teams by year, in billions of dollars.
Statistic: Average player salary in Major League Baseball from 2003 to 2017 (in million U.S. dollars) | Statista
Find more statistics at Statista

In terms of total league revenue, MLB just set an all-time high, posting a whopping $10 billion this past season. Going back to 2001, MLB has not seen a decrease in revenue in on a year-to-year basis.

If MLB wants to discourage teams from rebuilding, it would require a radical change to team spending rules in the next collective bargaining agreement. Implementing a salary floor could be one answer, but it may also lead to teams simply trading for bad contracts to meet quota while still fielding poor quality rosters. In reality, the slow free agency period this year could simply be a natural reaction after several years of growth.

So while the Tigers may not be entertaining any thoughts of challenging for a playoff spot this year, it is difficult to see how their current rebuild is hurting baseball, or why any team entertaining thoughts of following this same path should be discouraged.