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Major League Baseball has a tanking issue that needs to be addressed

With fan attendance in the dumps, how will MLB address its undeniable tanking issue?

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Major League Baseball is the latest sport to fall victim to the tanking epidemic. If you’re just a casual baseball fan, which is perfectly fine, let me explain what exactly tanking is and why it is such a bad thing for sports.

“Tanking” is the act in which professional sports teams intentionally field a team of players that are not as good as the players that the tanking team could afford instead. Sometimes teams may even sell off their own players in order to field a younger, less competitive team in the hopes of losing a few more games and building toward the future. This may not seem like such a bad thing and, let’s be honest, this isn’t even the teams’ fault in most cases. Teams are incentivized to tank. Take a look at the 2016 Chicago Cubs, or the 2017 Houston Astros for proof of that.

No baseball person will blame the 2018 Chicago White Sox for tanking. They currently have one of the very top farm systems in baseball and they will be very good, very soon. It benefits the White Sox to save money, stock pile draft picks, and wait for 1-2 years until their next wave of prospects is ready to roll at the big league level. For the White Sox to go out and give Jake Arrieta, or Lance Lynn, or Mike Moustakas a big contract this offseason would’ve been silly because none of those players would have gotten Chicago to the playoffs this season.

Let’s quickly draw a fine line between tanking and rebuilding.

The Pittsburgh Pirates are rebuilding. They had two players that were coveted by other teams and probably weren’t making the playoffs this season anyways. They traded Gerrit Cole for three players who are currently on their big league roster (Joe Musgrove, Michael Feliz, and Colin Moran) and are planning on being good again sooner rather than later. That’s rebuilding.

The Miami Marlins are straight up tanking. There’s no two ways about it. They had the best outfield in all of baseball in 2017 and they traded ALL OF THEM. Miami had the best outfield in baseball, Dee Gordon at second base, JT Realmuto behind the dish, and Justin Bour at first. The offense was more than ready to compete. Sign a couple of guys like Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn and the Marlins would’ve had a fighting chance in 2018. Instead, they traded everyone who was anyone and still have a middle-of-the-road farm system.

Tanking is not all bad, however. Tanking is actually the best, most proven way to win in Major League Baseball at the moment. For the fans it’s not so much fun, and for MLB it’s not so much fun either, but for the teams themselves, it’s the best way to build a championship ball club. Let’s break down the essential tanking blue print, and then we’ll talk about the problems that come with tanking:

  1. Trade anyone of value on your major league roster for prospects.
  2. Save as much money as possible by using as many players that you can that are still on their first contacts. Sign cheap free agents only when absolutely necessary.
  3. Stockpile high draft picks after your team loses 100+ games for consecutive seasons and build an elite farm system.
  4. Allow prospects to develop in the minor leagues while you continue to run out fliers and AAAA players buying time.
  5. When prospects are ready, bring them up in waves and win as many games as possible until they become free agents.

Sound familiar? It should. The Kansas City Royals did a great job of tanking from roughly 1990-2011. That’s a bit of an extreme example but you get the point. The Houston Astros did it between 2007-2014. The Chicago Cubs have been doing it since 1908 (kidding).

Here are the issues with tanking, issues that you can be 100% sure MLB will discuss during the offseason.

The first issue with tanking is pretty straight forward: fans are driven away from the game of baseball for years at a time. Think about what The K looked like on any given night in 2008 and in 2015. Huge difference, right? Baseball fans want to see winning teams. Going to a baseball game can take 4-5 hours and $75-250 out of your pocket on any given night. Between the time and the cost to attend, fans will obviously be much more willing to come support a team that is winning than they are a tanking team.

The second issue with tanking is that major league caliber free agents suddenly become limited when it comes to their suitors. Take Lance Lynn for example. Lynn became a free agent this past offseason after seven seasons (missed one due to Tommy John surgery) with the St. Louis Cardinals. In the six seasons that he pitched in St. Louis, Lynn made 30 or more appearances five times and never posted an ERA over 3.97. Yet he had a hard time finding a home this offseason because 13 of the league is tanking or, “rebuilding” this season.

Lynn wasn’t the only victim of a weird free agent cycle this offseason. Both the Chicago White Sox and Atlanta Braves (who sit in the same boat as the White Sox aforementioned situation) made all kinds of sense as landing spots for Mike Moustakas this year. But, again, since both teams are in a “rebuilding” mode, they shied away from the Royals third baseman, and rightfully so.

Major League Baseball teams are not incentivized to sign free agents during seasons in which they are not headed for the playoffs. That’s why it didn’t make sense for Atlanta and Chicago to pull the trigger on somebody like Lance Lynn or Mike Moustakas. The problem lies not with the teams, but with the league. You can be sure that the MLB will look into ways to fix the tanking epidemic this offseason, and I think the Royals laid a blueprint for avoiding outright “tanking” and falling into the “staying competitive while rebuilding” category. The Royals ought to be rewarded for their offseason, though they surely will not be. Here’s how the MLB can ensure that teams will be rewarded for offseason like the Royals in the future:

  • Reward teams for signing big league veterans to one year deals as stopgaps for their prospects. The Royals absolutely did not need to sign Lucas Duda, Jon Jay, Alcides Escobar, and Mike Moustakas this offseason. They easily could’ve played Frank Schwindel at first, Hunter Dozier and Cheslor Cuthbert at third, Billy Burns and Paulo Orlando in the outfield, Adalberto Mondesi at short, etc., but they didn’t. Instead of rolling out what they had and finishing the season 32-130, the Royals signed free agents to one year deals that will help them win a few extra games this year and make the team more watchable for the fans. The Royals should have had their draft pool money increased, been given extra international money, or something. These signings should be incentivized. Instead, the Royals will probably get a couple of A-ball bullpen arms in return for these guys at the deadline and pick three or four spots later in next year’s draft than they should have.
  • Change the way that the draft selection order is determined. My personal favorite idea is to flip picks 1-10 in reverse order. So the team that finishes 21st in baseball this season won’t pick 10th next June, they'll actually pick first. The team with the worst record in baseball won’t pick 1st, they’ll now pick 10th. This way you encourage teams at the bottom of the league standings to win as many games as possible throughout the season. It may not be the most fair way to do it, but something has to be done about the current race for last place that is going on in Major League Baseball.
  • Install some form of a salary floor. This is much trickier, because it would require MLB teams to know exactly how much money each of their franchises made on a yearly basis. In the NFL, teams share revenues so they have a hard floor that specifically states what each team must spend in player salaries every year. Since MLB doesn’t revenue share, they can’t make a hard floor, but they could do some sort of revenue percentage. I’d have to defer you to an economist (see our Shaun Newkirk) on how exactly that would work, but I don’t see any reason that the MLB couldn’t enforce a rule stating that each franchise must spend X% of baseball revenues on player salaries. This would help keep the game a bit healthier than it is at the moment, and return player salaries to a more accurate place.

What say you Royals fans? Is the tanking problem in baseball as big as we’re making it? Is it worse than we can even imagine? There’s certainly a difference between rebuilding and tanking, as we discussed with the Pirates and Marlins, but what the Marlins did has no place in baseball. The fine line between tanking and rebuilding is just that, but the MLB needs to do everything in it’s power to make sure that tanking is eliminated from the game, by rewarding teams for staying competitive through their rebuilds.