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More mixed messages on tanking from Buster Olney

This is where I throw up my hands.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Is tanking bad or isn't it? Should teams engage in it or shouldn't they? Is it actually tanking or is it rebuilding?

We've been talking a lot about this the last few weeks, I know. And the main reason we keep talking about is because ESPN's Buster Olney has written numerous columns about it, noting how executives throughout baseball are concerned about the number of teams "punting" on 2016.

To this point, Olney has admitted that, under the current system, it's best for teams to engage in "tanking" (or what you and I call "rebuilding"), but by using the word "tanking" has implied that it's an unethical practice.

Teams shouldn't tank. That's been the point of the crusade Olney has been championing.

So you can imagine the confusion when, on Sunday, Olney wrote about the Baltimore Orioles' pursuit of Yovanni Gallardo and Dexter Fowler, and noted the dangers the Orioles would be facing if they went ahead and signed both players (Insider access required).

The Baltimore Orioles must consider their chances for a competitive future as they discuss the possible signings of pitcher Yovani Gallardo and outfielder Dexter Fowler, writes Peter Schmuck. Roch Kubatko digs a little deeper into the Orioles' pursuit...

... As Schmuck wrote in his piece, the Orioles cannot take lightly the idea of forfeiting their first two draft picks at a time when their farm system is considered to be one of baseball's worst. Keith Law ranked Baltimore's collection of prospects 27th in the majors. The Baltimore organization has been greatly sabotaged by injuries to its best young minor league pitchers, Dylan Bundy and Hunter Harvey.

Of course, Schmuck is 100% correct. The O's should think long and hard about whether or not Fowler and Gallardo will do enough for them to win the AL East, or come close to winning the AL wild card, especially if it means giving up two draft picks.

However, this isn't the same advice Olney was giving back in December when Olney was criticizing teams like the Phillies for not spending their payroll on free agents, all in an effort to try and win 75-80 wins in 2016.

From the outside looking in, the Phillies would appear to have the payroll flexibility, in 2016 and beyond, to go after any of these players. Any of these players, or two or three, would represent some sort of upgrade for a team that had the worst record in the majors last year.

Nobody expects the Phillies to contend for the National League East title in 2016, but the team does have the option of signing one or more of the available free agents right now without surrendering prospects or interrupting the restocking of the farm system, for the sake of being more competitive next summer. (Yes, some of the remaining free agents are attached to draft-pick compensation, but the Phillies' first-round pick is protected.) They have the option of building a team that will be closer to 80 wins than 60.

Sure, the Phils have a better farm system than the O's do, and yes, the Phillies would not have to give up a first round draft pick if they had signed a top free agent. But they would have given up the first pick in the second round as well as the slot money that goes with it and, more importantly, sucked up three or four roster spots for veteran players who aren't going to help them make the playoffs this season.

It's mystifying that now, in the case of the Orioles, Olney seems to be arguing the exact opposite, that it would be smarter for Baltimore to consider the wisdom of signing a couple free agents who will not help them enough to win the AL East.

The worst place the Orioles can be is stuck in the middle, not quite good enough to win now, but not terrible enough to finish deep in the standings and pick at or near the top of the draft. They should either move forward or take a step back, and while the signing of Gallardo and/or Fowler may not be enough to get them back into the postseason, the decision to push ahead would be understandable.

"The worst place the Orioles can be is stuck in the middle, not quite good enough to win now, but not terrible enough to finish deep in the standings and pick at or near the top of the draft."

Precisely. That is exactly what the Phillies, Braves, Reds, Rockies, Padres and Brewers are hoping to avoid. That is exactly why these teams are not going through the motions of trying to win an extra 10 games in 2016 when all it will do is turn them from being pretty bad to merely... mediocre.

That is why this is not tanking. And now it appears the tanking argument is collapsing in on itself, and it's taking Olney with it.

Baltimore is talented enough that, even if they don't sign Gallardo and Fowler this off-season, they won't be bad. They'll be an 82-85 win team and, if everything breaks right, they could approach 87-90 wins. So the situations are different.

But the overall point is clear. In Baltimore's case, adding free agents when it won't get you into the playoffs is silly, especially if it is going to hurt your chances of winning in the future.

In other words, there is an argument for the O's to not go all-in in 2016, so that they can remain competitive in 2017 and beyond. Because make no mistake, without Gallardo and Fowler, the Orioles will be worse in '16 than they would be if they had them.

Sounds like a very different tune from December.

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