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Revisiting the issue of tanking

I wrote last spring that MLB would certainly address the tanking issue, but did they?

MLB: Texas Rangers at Houston Astros Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

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

Those are the words that I wrote last April, while MLB fan attendance took an “enormous attendance drop” to begin the 2018 season. Forbes noted that MLB attendance registered under 70 million for the first time since 2003 in an article by Maury Brown. 17 MLB teams saw a decline in attendance between 2017 and 2018. Teams were tanking like never before, yet people still watched games on TV more in 2018 than they did in 2017.

Here’s my take from all of this: people want to watch baseball. People want to like baseball, they want to support their local teams, and they still love the game. What people are not willing to do, however, is spend hundreds of dollars on any given night to go out and support a team that is losing on purpose.

The Miami Marlins did not even draw 1 million fans in 2018. They were the only MLB team to not accomplish that feat on the season. Even the Tampa Bay Rays brought in 1.15 million fans for the year. The Miami Marlins were unapologetic when it came to tanking as they traded all three members of what was the best outfield in all of baseball in 2017. They traded their starting second baseman, their closer, and didn’t eat any money to gain a better prospect return in the process.

The Miami Marlins flat out tanked in 2018. They traded four players that were worth a combined 20.6 fWAR in 2017, an average of 5.15 fWAR per player. That’s 20 wins that they gave away for, well, no immediate positive returns. As I noted in my article last April, this is, in a way, not the fault of the Miami Marlins. No, this is the fault of Major League Baseball.

Tanking is the most proven way for smaller market teams to succeed. Feel free to reference three consecutive World Series champions from 2015-2017 (though Chicago and Houston are by no means smaller markets, both teams executed the tanking strategy perfectly). Major League Baseball has made tanking advantageous for teams that aren’t quite ready to compete. The goal is World Series, or bust. Win 100 games, or lose 100.

Here is the tanking blue print that I gave last April:

  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.

I am of the opinion that the Kansas City Royals should have been rewarded for not following the tanking blue print in 2018. The Kansas City Royals could’ve allowed themselves to be even worse than they were in 2018. Instead, they signed Blaine Boyer, Justin Grimm, Lucas Duda, Jon Jay, and Alcides Escobar to fill holes on the roster that easily could’ve been filled with their own minor league players. Those signings ought to be rewarded. Being competitive ought to be rewarded.

The plan completely backfired. Boyer, Grimm, Duda, and Escobar were downright awful. Jon Jay was pretty good and helped the Royals net Elvis Luciano, who was a top 30 prospect for KC before being selected by Toronto in the Rule 5 Draft this winter. However, given the unmitigated failures of the other four free agents, do you think other GMs will feel inspired to take on seven-figure fliers in the future? Probably not.

Teams should be rewarded for trying to be competitive. In my article last April I detailed a few ways to reward teams for signing veteran free agents, including some form of bonus for free agent signings, changing the draft order, or installing some form of a salary floor. None of these solutions are perfect, but MLB needs to do something about their tanking problem. It’s bad for baseball and it’s bad for ratings.

So far this off-season, Major League Baseball has done nothing to address these issues and it doesn’t appear like they will any time soon. Do you agree with MLB, or do you think more should be done about tanking?