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So I see we’re talking about “tanking” once again

A staunch opponent of “tanking” in baseball is now advocating that three AL East teams all do it at the same time.

Baltimore Orioles v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

Yeah, folks. We’re gonna talk about “tanking” again.

In a new piece for ESPN, Buster Olney, a staunch opponent of what he calls “tanking” in baseball, advocated for three American League East teams, the Baltimore Orioles, Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays, to begin that very process.

Yep, I know. And lest I put words into Olney’s mouth, here is a portion of Olney’s piece from the above link.

So Olney is encouraging these three teams to do exactly the thing he’s railed against for the last two years because it’s the best way to rebuild a contender?


For those who aren’t aware, Buster and I have a history on this particular subject. In December of 2015, Olney linked the Phillies and a handful of other teams together, claiming they were “tanking” the 2016 season.

The Houston Astros and the Chicago Cubs both had great seasons in 2015, reaching the playoffs with young and exciting teams built through a tear down to build up approach. After cutting spending and losing a lot of games in successive years and finishing at the bottom of the standings, the Astros and Cubs had picked at or near the top of the draft and had access to players such as Carlos Correa and Kris Bryant.

The impolite phrase for this is much more common in the National Basketball Association: tanking.

Now it appears that the Philadelphia Phillies, Atlanta Braves and Milwaukee Brewers are in the midst of a similar approach, with the possibility that the Reds and other teams could follow. MLB might have a situation in years to come that 10 percent to perhaps a quarter of the teams are designing failure.

I responded with a piece a few days later, noting that teams have gone through “rebuilding” periods throughout the history of Major League Baseball and that what the Phillies and the other teams were doing wasn’t “tanking,” but rebuilding. Olney fired back with a response of his own on ESPN, claiming I “missed the point of the larger issue,” that “under the current rules, it’s a sound approach, and now proven.”

Olney and I have a fundamental disagreement on terminology. When a team sees that it can’t possibly win with the roster it has and decides to sell off veteran pieces in order to acquire young players and give themselves payroll and roster flexibility, I call that process what we’ve called it in baseball for decades - “rebuilding.”

He clearly doesn’t like it when teams do this, believing it’s bad for the sport. That’s certainly a valid opinion, and I admit it creates a number of sub-par teams and can make for some ugly baseball. But there have been sub-par teams every year as long as baseball has been around. Not every team can be really good, and even teams with the ability to spend lots of cash can’t make themselves better with money sometimes.

Which brings us back to Olney’s piece out today. How one can advocate three franchises engage in a practice he thinks is morally wrong for the game? Even if it has proven to be a successful method of getting better, if it’s so bad for the game, how can advocating for it be justified? It seems unfair to tell certain teams that they should “tank” and then rail about how bad it is for the game.

To be fair, Olney seems to have softened about this issue a bit over the last year...

But what kinds of rules could one put in place to prevent teams from, as Olney calls it, “tanking?” Would forcing the Marlins to carry at least a $60 million payroll really change all that much? Would forcing teams to sign a certain number of free agents be good for the game if it prevents a team from playing the young prospects it wants to see so badly?

And if “tanking” has allowed the Cubs and Astros to become MLB powerhouses without destroying the game, can it really be such a bad thing?

Maybe that’s why we should stop assigning a negative connotation to the practice by calling it “tanking.” Call it “rebuilding,” which is what it is.

Rebuilds are no fun. They’re no fun for the team that is going through them, and they’re no fun for the fans that have had to watch years of losing baseball. But ask any Phillies fan which stretch was worse, the 2012-14 seasons or the 2015-17 seasons, and they’ll tell you the ‘12-14 run was far more insufferable. The rebuild hadn’t started, and the Phils were still trying to patch holes with veterans. Sure, the payroll was higher, but that didn’t make them more competitive. Instead, the Phillies were stuck in neutral.

A rebuild allows a team the roster flexibility to advance minor leaguers as they please. It gives young players a real chance to grow. In fact, Aaron Altherr almost didn’t get a chance to play last season because the Phillies brought veterans Michael Saunders and Howie Kendrick on board. A rebuild allows a team to start from ground zero and build on a foundation of their choosing, not on the rotting structure of a previous roster.

Some teams don’t have to go through a dramatic rebuild. The Yankees, bless their souls, magically fell backwards into another juggernaut. The Phils haven’t been as lucky. It’s been a long, hard slog, but there is hope the end of the rebuild is near.

But at no point did it feel like the Phillies were more interested in losing games in order to get as high a draft pick as possible. At no point did it feel as if the Phils were trying to save money just because they could. In fact, this team wants to spend, but recognizes that spending money just because you have it is a dumb idea if it’s not going to make you better.

Here’s the truth. The reason “tanking” works is because it’s not tanking. It’s rebuilding, and it’s the way teams have gotten better for years. Sure, some teams take it to new levels, like the Astros and Cubs did a few years ago, but it worked, and the reason it worked is because it’s sound strategy. Baseball shouldn’t invent new rules to destroy a strategy that has proven to be successful.

So, with all respect, I urge Buster Olney to come on board the “Rebuild Train.” Drop the tanking rhetoric and “trust the process” that has produced two of the most enjoyable teams in baseball the last two seasons.

And, hopefully by 2019, a third, most enjoyable team in the Phillies.