MLB: Tanking sounds good in theory, but has some serious flaws

Jun 14, 2016; San Diego, CA, USA; San Diego Padres general manager A.J. Preller looks on prior to the game against the Miami Marlins at Petco Park. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 14, 2016; San Diego, CA, USA; San Diego Padres general manager A.J. Preller looks on prior to the game against the Miami Marlins at Petco Park. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports /

It seems like tanking has transferred from the NBA to MLB. But just because it’s becoming more popular doesn’t mean that teams should be all-in on the tactic.

Professional basketball brought tanking to the forefront when teams would sell their productive players in order to lose more games and thus have a better chance of getting top draft picks. The Philadelphia 76ers made it famous with their “Trust the Process” slogan. However, while tanking has worked for some in the NBA on occasion, it’s still a highly risky proposition, and this is proving true in MLB as well.

In theory, tanking sounds like a reasonable strategy. If you know that it’s going to be difficult to win with your current roster and money situation, try your best to get as many young assets as possible, despite what it does to your MLB team. But in reality there’s so much you have to get right in order for tanking to work.

Many MLB fans will point to the Houston Astros as an organization that tanked successfully. They traded away cornerstone pieces like of Hunter Pence, Michael Bourn and others that were above average big league players. In return, they got some young pieces and high picks that they have used to their advantage.

Looking at their current roster, it’s filled with guys that were only available because the Astros lost so many games over the course of three years. Carlos Correa was the first overall pick in 2012, and Alex Bregman was the number-two selection in 2015. Lance McCullers Jr. and Joe Musgrove are young and talented pitchers that should contribute for years to come. This list doesn’t include the minor leaguers that were dealt to acquire some good players in Ken Giles and Evan Gattis and youngsters Houston still has in its farm system (i.e. Francis Martes, Kyle Tucker, Derek Fisher, Forrest Whitley and Franklin Perez.)

So while yes, the Astros have already made the playoffs and look to have a World Series-contending ball club in 2017, that doesn’t mean that tanking is the end-all, be-all when you want to build a contender in a small or mid market area.

To see what tanking can do to a franchise, just observe the most obvious tanking job in MLB right now… the San Diego Padres. We aren’t far removed from A.J. Preller making a few huge signings during his first winter at the helm of the franchise. Now he has a starting rotation that consists of an almost completely derailed Jered Weaver, Jhoulys Chacin, Luis Perdomo and Jarred Cosart.

Couple this with winning only 72 games in the past two seasons and them being well on their way to finishing worse than that after the 2017 regular season comes to a close. This type of losing can have horrifying effects on the culture of an organization. Plus, when you look at their roster, you barely see any players that should be on the next great Padres team.

Wil Myers, Hunter Renfroe, Manuel Margot and Austin Hedges all have talent, but none of them are transformative players like a Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman. Now, that doesn’t mean that San Diego does not have talented players coming through the minor leagues – they do, in fact. But they can’t be relied on to contribute and reach that potential right away.

This leaves the Padres thinking of a five-year window when the talent that they drafted become quality MLB players and eventually will lead them to a playoff berth. But that is a lot of faith that you’re projecting into your young players, and Preller expecting that he’s going to keep his job after probably going through a few more drastic losing seasons.

It seems simple to say that general managers should trust the scouts they hire to find players that they expect to contribute in MLB one day. However, we also know that baseball is as volatile of a sport as there is and it’s a lot to ask young players to lead an organization to championship heights.

This brings me back to the AL West-leading Astros. They did lose on purpose for a few years, but they’ve also been aggressive in improving their roster. By bringing in veterans like Josh Reddick, Carlos Beltran, Evan Gattis, Brian McCann and a Cuban superstar in Yulieski Gurriel, they showed MLB that they were willing to commit large amounts of resources when they saw that their team was ready. This is the right way to tank.

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You can’t simply just rely on your young pieces to bring your team a title, especially in baseball, when top prospects take years to even reach the major league level. There needs to be a balance of rebuilding and competing for you to get a small market franchise back on track.

Heck, even the New York Yankees are using these quick retooling methods. They traded Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman to get some sorely need young talent, but indicated that it wasn’t a full-blown rebuild by investing in high-priced veterans in the offseason like Chapman and Matt Holliday.

The Cleveland Indians also never went through a full rebuild. Instead, they trusted their evaluation and kept acquiring talent that was available to them. Now they have a roster that offers a strong mix of old and young quality players and are set to make another run at a World Series title. Never did they just sell, sell, sell like the Padres are doing at the moment.

Some people like that the Padres have a definite direction that they are going toward. However, MLB is not a league where you can lose on purpose and reap the rewards quickly. It takes years usually before the fruits of your labors are fully realized in terms of big league success. Plus, you’re risking your job security and could be missing out on a whole heap of talent that could be part of a winning nucleus because you’re so set on losing as many games as possible.

I’m more of a fan of retooling for a year or two rather than making a full-blown five-year tanking job. Sometimes you need to trade quality major leaguers at the deadline or you need higher picks and more pool money to beef up the farm system. However, putting all your chips into a pot of a group of unproven prospects to one day draw great free agents to a losing organization is a very risky move. If done to perfection like the Astros, it could work very well, but I’m going to bet that teams that try to replicate the success in Houston will end up disappointed in the result.

Next: Could the Brewers be buyers?

Are you a fan of tanking in MLB? Let us know in the comment section below.