In an era of MLB tanking and limited spending, here's an appreciation of the teams trying to win now
At least some teams are trying to put a watchable product on the field
The Baltimore Orioles are tanking this season. They lost 115 games in 2018, their worst mark since the old St. Louis Browns days, 80 years ago. After years of no-show international spending and hollow scouting and player development results, they're just going to bottom out for a while and hope that new management gets them somewhere.
The Kansas City Royals are tanking this season. They lost 104 games in 2018, a far cry from their back-to-back AL pennant runs in 2014 and 2015. They're hoping they can reload through homegrown talent as they did during those glory years, but they're going to keep payroll at rock-bottom levels and make fans wait years for results in the meantime. But hey, at least they're stockpiling cheap speed, and plan to lose entertainingly.
The Miami Marlins are tanking this season. They lost 98 games in 2018, after trading away a best-in-baseball outfield in Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna, and Christian Yelich for a batch of iffy prospects and mostly for the freedom to avoid spending tens of millions of dollars on very good players. And Yelich won the MVP, leading his new team to within a whisper of the World Series.
The Detroit Tigers are tanking this season. They too lost 98 games in 2018, as a team built around aging veterans finally cracked under the weight of injuries, diminishing performance, and an inability to surround that veteran core with quality younger players. After years of watching owner Mike Ilitch spare no expense in his all-out quest to win it all for the city of Detroit, his son Chris took the reins after his father's death, and is now slashing expenses to the bone.
The Texas Rangers are tanking this season. They lost 95 games in 2018, as multiple highly touted homegrown players failed to deliver the results the team wanted. They haven't dumped talent anywhere near as egregiously as some of last season's other most frequent losers, and have even taken some low-risk, low-cost steps to try and address their many pitching holes. But so far, they seem content to leave other holes at third base, catcher, and other positions unaddressed, setting up a second straight year of sharply lower spending on major league talent.
The San Francisco Giants are probably tanking this season. They lost 89 games in 2018, then hired shrewd operator and post-Moneyball A's disciple and budget-conscious Dodgers veteran Farhan Zaidi to change the way they do business. This after the Buster Posey-led core that bagged three World Series got old, and after attempts to leap back into contention by acquiring 30-somethings Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria failed to bear fruit. We don't know yet if it's a full-on tank, but bringing in Zaidi, and sort-of-but-not-quite-entirely-denying that staff ace Madison Bumgarner can be had in a trade gives clues as to what's next.
The Arizona Diamondbacks are tanking this season. They actually won more games than they lost in 2018, going 82-80. But rather than try to retain their four best players, they've been content to let them scatter to the wind. Franchise player Paul Goldschmidt got shipped to St. Louis one year before free agency. Ace left-hander Patrick Corbin had already hit the open market, and he bolted for the Nationals' $140 million offer. All-Star outfielder A.J. Pollock will likely find a new employer too in the next couple weeks. Meanwhile co-staff-ace Zack Greinke makes more money per year than any other player in the majors, and the Diamondbacks would gladly flip him too.
And yes, even the Seattle Mariners are tanking this season. They won 89 games last season, yet chose to blow it all up anyway. They traded away James Paxton, Robinson Cano, Edwin Diaz, and Jean Segura among others, and also let Nelson Cruz, the top home-run hitter in the majors over the past five years, walk via free agency. Sure, the M's could have reasonably scrutinized their record and noticed a negative run differential, while also noting that Cano and Cruz were getting old, that the pitching staff had holes, and that the competition at the top of the AL West figured to be formidable. But going straight from a franchise's best record in 15 years to a total teardown is anything but standard operating procedure in baseball.
That's eight different teams that have entered or are likely to enter tank mode, by dumping veteran talent, leaving big holes unfilled, and generally not doing anything close to what it takes to field a winning product.
For most of these teams, this strategy is going to fail miserably. Yes, the Cubs and Astros both stripped their big-league rosters to the bone, patiently rebuilt through top-notch scouting and player development (along with multiple well-executed trades), and finally surged all the way to a World Series title. But only one team can win it all every year, which means at least seven of these eight teams will be left holding the bag in each of the next several years, and all eight could ultimately, easily fall short of the promised land.
It's time to reassess the practice of tanking, though, and recognize it for what it is: cover for profit-hungry owners to line their pockets, at the expense of their own fans' entertainment. As analytics have taken hold over the past couple decades in baseball, a new mantra has emerged, one that argues that it's futile to try and scratch and claw your way to .500; better to be truly awful than mediocre.
Granted, it can certainly make sense to trade contributing 30-somethings for untested younger players, since those younger players stand a better chance of being on the roster (and in or near their prime) the next time your favorite rebuilding team climbs back to relevance. But the combination of rich teams suddenly feigning terror at going over the luxury tax, qualifying offers tamping down players' asking prices, a growing glut of older but still capable players getting ignored, and other factors has made it easier than ever to find useful talent on highly affordable, one-year deals. Moreover, there's higher-level talent to be had at reasonable prices on both the trade and free-agent markets, for similar reasons.
But while we still have a month left until pitchers and catchers report for spring training, plus 10 weeks until opening day, you shouldn't hold your breath waiting for any of these tanking teams (call them "rebuilding" if you wish, same thing) to make a bunch of moves to improve their rosters. With fans and media being far more forgiving of teams not trying to win, that's exactly what many teams are doing. If we're not going to win the World Series, the thinking goes, why even try. Better to dump anybody making more than 10 cents, ignore every free agent making more than five cents, then take your 65-97 record and your tens of millions of dollars of savings on payroll to the bank.
It's shameful and unacceptable that we've reached this point in today's game. Owners owe it to their customers to put the best product possible on the field. Fans likewise should hold owners accountable when teams clearly aren't putting forth their best effort in terms of player retention and acquisition. There might not be any glory in making a run at .500. But for the kid in his Little League uniform going to his first major league game, watching second-tier players take the field is a slap in the face. If you want to court the next generation of paying customers, do better than the scrap-heap fodder that figures to populate many of these eight teams' rosters for the next couple years.
All of this is why we're tipping our caps to the also-ran teams who've decided lately that an endless cycle of losing isn't acceptable, and that entertaining fans with a quality product matters a hell of a lot, even if a World Series isn't in the offing in that given year.
So today we recognize the Philadelphia Phillies, the 96-loss team of two years ago that pushed hard to contend in 2018 and surprised the baseball world and their fans by contending into September. We acknowledge the San Diego Padres, who lost 91 games and followed those losses by breaking the bank for Eric Hosmer (which failed miserably, but at least they tried), then reportedly looked hard for a quality third baseman this winter. We're all in on the Chicago White Sox, losers of 100 games last year who are now, amazingly, potentially the high bidders in the race to lavish gigantic riches on Manny Machado.
And let's save a special place in our hearts for the Cincinnati Reds. When the Dodgers dumped the salaries of three solid veteran players (Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig, and Alex Wood) on the Reds, I was as guilty as anyone of praising the Dodgers for shrewdly opening up room under the luxury tax for a big-ticket signing. This was a lousy take on the situation. The Dodgers deserve zero credit for further enriching their unimaginably rich owners. Until and unless they actually go out and sign Machado, Bryce Harper, or another star player who'd justify ditching three good players in exchange for zero present-day value, the team that's won two straight National League pennants should be viewed no differently than the tanking masses who refuse to spend money.
It's the Reds who should have received positive attention for that deal. They needed quality hitters to complement a middle of the order that included Joey Votto and Eugenio Suarez, so they got Kemp and Puig without giving much in real talent in return, since the Dodgers were simply trying to shimmy under the luxury-tax threshold in making this deal. The Reds also sought quality starting pitching, so they traded for both Wood and former Nationals right-hander Tanner Roark.
Even with those moves under their belt, the Reds still project to finish below .500 and in last place in the NL Central, according to Fangraphs' current projected standings. But the Reds had already been rebuilding for most of the past 23 years, with just three playoff berths in that span, and four straight last-place finishes heading into 2019. Maybe trying hard to get out of the cellar should count for something. Maybe trying to actually attract and entertain fans deserves far more praise than we've offered, given the ugly alternative being added by too many tanking clubs.
Who knows, maybe one of these laggard teams will one day parlay their aggressive moves into an actual winning, playoff season. In the meantime, let's just appreciate the effort not to suck. When it comes to convincing the baseball world that indifference is actually OK, teams are making too many of us drink the rotten, rancid Kool-Aid.
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