So we're still talking about tanking in baseball.
I know, I know. It's a hollow argument, and you're probably pretty tired of it. But some of the national writers, one in particular, continues to bring this up as if it's an actual, real problem in Major League Baseball, so here we go again.
This week, ESPN's Buster Olney wrote not one, but two stories on the "tanking issue." The first said MLB owners were taking a look at issues involved with tanking, the second detailed some ideas that people in baseball were considering to stop the evil practice (Insider access required, h/t to Pat Sullivan for the link).
Buster and I have gone 'round and 'round on this in the past. Shortly before Christmas, I wrote a rebuttal of the first Olney piece on this topic. He responded with a rebuttal to my rebuttal. To which I responded back, on an episode of TGP Radio.
I was hoping we'd be done. But we're not done. And it's infuriating.
The most important part of this new-found controversy is the timing of it. You see, baseball's CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) expires at the end of December, and negotiations, if mostly informal, are already underway.
Teams are staking out positions. They're trying to lay the groundwork and create a swell of public opinion on all issues related to the business of baseball, whatever it is.
In the case of "tanking," the fundamental issue is revenue sharing. That's why teams care about this, it has very little to do with the "integrity of the game." The idea is wealthier teams with great cable deals (like the Phillies) funnel money down the line to help out the clubs with bad cable contracts in small markets (like the Reds), ideally enabling those smaller market teams put a better team on the field.
That's all well and good, and perhaps instituting a payroll basement is something that can be addressed in the new CBA. That's not a terrible idea.
But this isn't about the integrity of the game. It's about money, plain and simple. And it's not a new complaint.
Back when the Houston Astros were losing at least 106 games a year from 2011-2013, this same debate raged. And it's true, Houston went to an extreme that no team in baseball is going to now with regards to rebuilding.
Their payroll on Opening Day 2011 was $70.7 million, 20th in baseball. The following year it fell to $60.6 million, third-cheapest in baseball. In 2013 they had the lowest payroll by far, paying just $22.0 million dollars for a Major League team, averaging less than a million dollars per player. And in '14, it was slightly higher, $44.5 million, still lowest in baseball.
No team in baseball is doing anything like that. There's no doubt the Astros went above and beyond the pale here. And yes, they were rewarded for using all the slot money and the high draft picks to their advantage. But more than that, they made smart trades and invested in analytics and player development.
That fueled their rise as much as anything.
And if a team decides that's the way they want to spend their revenue sharing dollars, then no big market team should have a right to say otherwise. Because while on one side of their mouths some complain that teams aren't spending big money on free agents, on the other side they criticize teams who sign free agents to long deals that will be albatrosses in the future.
For years, people begged the Phillies to move on and begin the rebuilding process. And now that they have, they're accused of tanking? They have six or seven prospects (depending on the publication) in Top 100 lists. The Cincinnati Reds traded Aroldis Chapman, sure, but they still employ Voey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce. So it's not like they're fielding a team full of league minimum players.
The Atlanta Braves have traded many veterans, but they also spent money on guys like Nick Markakis and are holding onto Freddie Freeman, because they expect the many young players they've received in trades to be ready to play sooner rather than later. The Rockies, well, they don't know how to play in their stadium. They're a special case.
The Brewers? They made a very smart deal in the Segura trade, and are a 65-70 win team even with Jonathan Lucroy. It makes all the sense in the world to see what they can get for a player with an injury history, a catcher, who will soon become expensive and aging.
And don't you dare include the Padres in the tanking debate. They went all in just last year, and everyone and their mother, Olney included, criticized San Diego for not doing more to sell their assets at the trade deadline. Now, they're tanking? Stop it.
But the "tanking" truthers out there don't dispute that these teams are doing what's best for them, given the current rules. They just want to change the rules. And in his Insider piece out Monday, Olney noted a few rules changes mentioned by evaluators and agents, some of which are OK, others of which are downright laughable.
1. Prevent teams from picking at or near the top of the draft in successive seasons: One executive spitballed this thought: If a club drafts No. 1 overall in a given year, it shouldn't be allowed to draft any higher than seventh or eighth the following year. "That way," the executive said, "a team wouldn't benefit as much from being really bad."
Teams who are tanking so that they can pick number-one do so more for the slot money than the ability to pick number-one over number-two, three, four or five. Because honestly, unless there is a Bryce Harper or Ken Griffey Jr. sitting there, it's pretty much a toss-up.
And what if a team legitimately tries to compete, but still finishes with the worst record in baseball two years in a row? They get punished?
2. Reduce the difference in draft dollars attached to the highest picks under the current system: According to Baseball America, the Diamondbacks had an $8.62 million draft budget by having the first pick in last year's draft, the Astros $7.4 million for the second pick (after Houston did not sign No. 1 overall pick Brady Aiken in 2014) and Colorado got $6.22 million in cap room for the third pick.
Meanwhile, the Twins were allotted just $3.9 million for the sixth pick. "The difference between choosing first and choosing fifth or sixth is enormous," one evaluator said. "It's massive. So if you reduce the [dollar] gap, you reduce the incentive to pick higher in the draft."
This is not a bad idea. I wouldn't mind reducing the slot money at all. I certainly think this idea makes more sense than the first one. In fact, I'd be up for eliminating slot money altogether, but as a fan of a big market team, I admit I am a bit biased there.
3. Have a draft lottery: This would be along the lines of what the National Basketball Association has, which means that the teams with the worst records aren't assured of picking at the very top of the draft.
Again, the baseball draft itself is a lottery. If baseball implemented this, it wouldn't be the end of the world, but it wouldn't accomplish much. After all, the NBA has a draft lottery, and the team most often used as the prime example of tanking, the Philadelphia 76ers PLAYS IN THE NBA.
And now, for the dumbest suggestion.
4. The E system: Agent Scott Boras presented a multifaceted idea that would allow the worst teams to extract proper value from their picks in the years in which elite talents (like Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper) are available in the draft, but also would push the worst teams to compete to the best of their ability.
First of all, as Olney notes, Boras has a vested interest in teams spending big money on free agents, and the idea that more teams are deciding not to go the free agency route to improve their teams impacts his bottom line.
But let's take this idea on its merits for a second. Boras says every team identifies players in the draft each year that are special talents, guys who could be elite, like Harper, Stephen Strasburg and Griffey. If 15 or more teams select a player to be in this special E Draft, they would not be subject to baseball's slotting system. Teams would be able to pay them as if they were international free agents.
Of course, this means more money in Boras' pockets, as he would no doubt be representing most of the E Draft kids. He also mentioned that no team with less than 68 wins would be allowed to participate in the E Draft, so even though a 67-win team would finish with the worst record in baseball, a 69-win team would have access to these generational talents, not the 67-win team.
All these ideas would at least be worth debating if there actually was tanking in baseball. But all that's going on right now is simple rebuilding. Nothing more.
Sure, there are always ways officials could make the game more fair. Get rid of qualifying offers. Change the way slotting money is paid out, or eliminate slotting money entirely. There are others.
But parity rules in baseball already. The small market Kansas City Royals have made it to two straight World Series and are the defending champs. The Pittsburgh Pirates are a perennial playoff contender. And yet, teams like the Dodgers, Red Sox and Yankees have all had varying degrees of success in recent years.
All this talk about "tanking" has nothing to do with the integrity of the game. It has to do with public posturing and staking out ground ahead of the new CBA. Everyone speaking up has a vested interest in things breaking one way or another.
So take that into consideration the next time someone tries to convince you that baseball has a "tanking" problem.