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Should the draft be reformed to disincentivize tanking?

We could revise the draft order, but is that fair?

2019 Major League Baseball Draft Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB via Getty Images

I spend a lot of time on Twitter. In all honesty, I probably spend too much time on Twitter. While spending too much time on Twitter, I came across a tweet from local guy (well okay, he lives in Chicago) Rany Jazayerli. And while this idea wasn’t created by Rany (it’s been proposed a few different times and variations before by a few different places over the years), he tweeted about it when I was spending too much time on Twitter, so I’ll consider this a catalyst to talk about the idea.

Basically the idea goes like this: disconnect losses from draft order and reward teams that try to win with higher picks. The idea is to eliminate tanking, or a team purposefully losing to obtain a higher draft pick, but there are a lot of problems with that both from a fundamental anti-tanking standpoint and a parity standpoint.

Let’s start with the fundamental issue.

First, such a system would actually punish a team for losing and I’m not sure this is the approach we want to take here. Most importantly, not all bad teams are tanking.

Take for instance the Pittsburgh Pirates. Over the past year they have:

  • Made a huge trade Chris Archer, giving up two of their top prospects
  • Traded for decent young reliever Keone Kela
  • Re-signed Jung Ho Kang
  • Made a five player trade with the Twins, acquiring utility man Erik Gonzalez
  • Signed Lonnie Chisenhall
  • Re-signed Corey Dickerson
  • Signed Jordan Lyles
  • Grabbed two players in the Rule 5 draft
  • Signed Brandon Maurer
  • Signed Francisco Liriano, JB Shuck, Nick Franklin, Tom Koehler, Melky Cabrera, and Rookie Davis to MiLB contracts and invited to spring training

Did they sign Bryce Harper and Manny Machado? No...but they were clearly active and with a goal to be competitive in 2019, highlighted by the trade for Chris Archer. Their record this year? 56-77, good for somewhere between the 15th-17th overall pick. Essentially punished because Chris Archer didn’t work out and the players they did sign/trade in an attempt to compete either weren’t good enough or they were unlucky.

Meanwhile the Rangers who basically just...signed Lance Lynn and Hunter Pence? get rewarded with potentially a top 10 pick because Lance Lynn turned into a Cy Young candidate out of nowhere and Hunter Pence put up his best season since 2014.

Teams sometimes, despite their best efforts, just don’t have things go right for them. Meanwhile a team like the Indians, who did absolutely nothing this winter (except essentially sign Oliver Perez) and received a fair share of slack for it, quite possibly would get the #1 overall pick under the proposed system.

Here is my other issue with this system: it would probably just keep bad teams bad.

For instance, here is how the 2011 draft would have gone:

1st: 90 win Padres

2nd: 89 win Red Sox

3rd: 88 win White Sox

4th: 86 win Cardinals

5th: 85 win Blue Jays


22nd: 57 win Pirates

21st: 61 win Mariners

20th: 65 win Diamondbacks


30th: 97 win Phillies

29th: 96 win Rays

28th: 95 win Yankees

27th: 94 win Twins

26th: 92 win Giants

25th: 91 win Reds

24th: 91 win Braves

23rd: 90 win Rangers

So in this case, the 23rd overall pick happened to win the exact same number of games as the 1st overall pick but because the Braves were one game better and the Red Sox were one game worse, the Padres get the first pick. Obviously the Rangers got rewarded with a playoff spot (and an eventual World Series appearance) but you could imagine a scenario where the only thing they have to show for 90 wins is a Wild Card series loss.

Also under the proposed system, three very good teams that won 88, 89, and 90 games (which in some years is a playoff record) get to make their organization better.

This would just work to make the rich richer. Even looking at this years standings you have a few traditionally wealthy teams that would be up for the #1 pick in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago Cubs, and the Mets. Do we really want a system where because the Red Sox and Yankees play in the toughest division, one of them could perpetually get a top three pick? They are able to sign David Price or Aroldis Chapman and also get possibly the #1 overall pick?

There is even the possibility that such a system would have the “rich” teams spend less, if they could supplement their rosters with cheap, controllable talent. After all, that’s the point of the draft. If the Yankees no longer had to go spend $200M in free agency because they just took the next star pitcher and star hitter in the draft (like the Nationals did with Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg), then that’s $XM less they’d have to spend on star talent (prospect bust rates notwithstanding).

Then we come to the other problem under the parity argument: how do the bad teams get better? How do the 2019 Royals move up 30+ games over the next few years if they are perpetually picking 19th or 20th overall? Sure, there are good picks in that range (Mike Trout for one) but the expected value of that pick is considerably lower than 10-15 picks earlier. Under the proposed system, the Royals don’t get a chance to take Eric Hosmer or Mike Moustakas. They probably don’t have a Zack Greinke to trade or a Luke Hochevar Instead they get Ashe Russell or Nick Pratto annually (though Brady Singer was a mid-round pick).

One more time, how do the 2019 Royals move up 30+ games? By signing a dozen Jon Jays and Homer Baileys? Low to mid-tier free agents won’t take a bad team up to a good team. Instead they would have to go for superstars in free agency, and despite money flowing in baseball, teams can’t spend giant money year in and year out. Not to mention free agents are in a way a zero-sum game and why would a Bryce Harper-esque free agent go to a team like the Royals instead of a team like the Yankees if the money was the same.

It’s likely that you would just keep bad teams down if they couldn’t turn 18th overall picks into above average players consistently. Do you trust the Royals development staff to churn out good players from mid-round picks annually?

A reverse order system could, and I would even go as far as to say it would, just keep the rich rich, and the poor poor. After all, we know that payrolls correlate fairly strongly to wins.

Craig Edwards of FanGraphs
Noah Davis and Michael Lopez of FiveThirtyEight

Isn’t this just a system where a team could essentially just buy draft picks? Is that system we really want?

I think it’s worth looking into something to incentivize winning but you have to be careful about outright punishing losing. Sometimes a team just isn’t as good as they expect. The Red Sox won the World Series last year and were in the discussion for the favorites to repeat it...and it looks like they probably won’t be. But that isn’t because they tried to lose. They didn’t have many holes and what money they did spend it was to keep some of their best talent. You can’t really blame them for that, right? And so their nearly unchanged World Series roster would get to add the #1 or #2 overall pick next year, a year that you could see them as strong playoff contenders again, because they were so good in 2018.

I don’t know what system I would like. I like system I just described (and by the way let’s include international free agents too and have a complete open bidding system) but I also like the way the NPB does things too. But instead of random selection for a nominated player, make it a silent auction/highest bidder system, where teams submit their max bid. Bonus pools then would be set to favor revenue receiving teams (those teams whose market score are <100 in the CBA). That’s probably still an imperfect system, but in a world where there are rich teams and then there are richer teams, but it’s a start.

You want a system that won’t reward teams for losing, but most importantly it won’t punish them for it either. That’s best system, where it is essentially neither good nor bad to lose.