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Tanking is complicated, and it’s not always the best option

The Royals have not tanked. That’s not a problem.

Carlos Santana #41 of the Cleveland Indians celebrates a home run while running the bases during the game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Progressive Field on September 27, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio.
Carlos Santana #41 of the Cleveland Indians celebrates a home run while running the bases during the game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Progressive Field on September 27, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio.
Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

What should the ultimate goal of a professional sports team be? It should be an easily answerable question, but it is not. The answer you get will depend on who you ask. Owners want a profitable organization. Front office staff want a sustainable talent pipeline. And fans want to root for stars, to root for a winning team, and to have pride in their team.

Equally important to who you ask is where you ask it. Different franchises have different standards based on their history and their talent level. It’s impossible to win a championship every year, but there are teams that can reasonably expect to compete for a championship and teams that can’t. The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox have greater expectations than the Seattle Mariners or the Miami Marlins, for instance.

Further complicating who you ask the question and where you ask the question is when you ask the question. The harsh realities of aging and contracts mean that, for most teams, there exists what is termed a “competitive window,” or period of time where that team’s championship probability is highest. The competitive window can be as short as a few years or longer than half a decade, but it nearly always closes for baseball teams who cannot rely on a single key superstar like NBA or NFL teams can.

This leads, of course, to tanking. While many would probably define tanking as purposefully not trying to win, that’s a misrepresentation. Tanking is, ultimately, about trying to win later at the expense of winning now. Teams that tank desperately want to win, but they understand that the value of a win matters more in the future than it does in the present. These teams will trade stars away for younger prospects, and will rack up the losses in order to get a more advantageous spot in the draft order.

And, whether fortunately or unfortunately, tanking works. The Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs are the most famous recent examples; both organizations purposely bottomed out, shedding payroll and acquiring prospects in the process. With a new wave of young talent borne out of the process, both franchises won a World Series, and both franchises remain contenders year after year.

Tanking, therefore, is an oft-suggested policy for fans, even though it inverts the fan experience from actively rooting for your team to actively rooting against your team, and becoming aggravated when your team wins. We don’t have to look very far to see this in action. The New York Jets were winless after 13 games, on track for the first overall pick in the NFL draft in a year where there is a clear first overall available talent at the most important position on the field. Two weeks later, the Jets slipped to the second overall pick, with ardent Jets supporters bemoaning the organization’s incompetence even as they watched their team win gutsy games in back-to-back weeks against playoff-bound squads.

But tanking is complicated, especially when you factor the people that matter most into the equation: the players. Professional athletes aren’t just extraordinarily talented—they are some of the most driven individuals on the planet. They are highly competitive and aren’t in the business of professional sports to lose games for future teams. No tanking or min-max pursuit will change that. In Whit Merrifield’s words—from a guy who has never seen a winning season in the big leagues—it’s championship or bust for them every year, regardless if “winning a World Series isn’t a reasonable goal for a baseball team” is true or not.

A few weeks after Merrifield’s tweet, Jason Kelce, center for the Philadelphia Eagles and brother to the Kansas City Chiefs’ Travis Kelce, discussed at length from the players’ point of view why they are always trying to win games.

You see a lot of losing teams sustain losses for a number of years when they have bad cultures. They have cultures where you don’t try and win every week. Where you’re trying to finish: ‘What are we going to do in the draft? What are we going to do in free agency? What can we do over here?’ In football, this isn’t basketball. One draft pick isn’t going to make us a Super Bowl champion. It might be a big start to a Super Bowl championship, but it’s always going to be about the team. That’s the greatest thing about this sport. And culture, and the way guys fight and the way guys prepare and the way guys go about their business, is a huge reason for success in this league and in this sport. So nothing takes precedence over trying to win a football game.

...I don’t care who you’re trying to evaluate, I don’t care if you’ve lost every game, you’re 0-15 and it’s the last one you got. Everything is about winning. I know that won’t appease a lot of people out there who always want to talk about getting better draft position or getting looks at certain guys to see what you’ve got for the future.

But the moment a team feels like you as an organization aren’t doing your job for me to go out there and win, you’ve shown who you are. You don’t care about me or this team. You care about the future. That’s not what the focus is here and that’s not what the focus is on any winning organization’s team.

Major League Baseball isn’t the NFL, but in some ways it is even more reliant on team culture and even less reliant on the draft. You can slap Mike Trout on the worst team in baseball and they aren’t going to make the playoffs. And while a majority of draft picks play games in the NFL, a majority of MLB draft picks don’t even make it to the big leagues. Tanking usually works, yes, but it does not always work, and tanking does not effect the other, more important parts of rebuilding such as talent evaluation, player development, and free agency.

For better or for worse, the Kansas City Royals have steadfastly refused to tank. Under general manager Dayton Moore, they have repeatedly declined to trade their big trade assets—Merrifield, Salvador Perez, Danny Duffy, and Jorge Soler, for instance—even when the team was clearly years away from anything resembling competitiveness. And under Moore, the Royals have repeatedly sought MLB-ready talent rather than long-term upside when trading guys like Mike Moustakas, Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera, and Martin Maldonado.

It is inarguable that the Royals would have been better long-term if they had gone full scorched earth and offloaded what few working parts they had for long-term pieces. Since 2018, the Royals have played at a .372 clip, barely better than the .362 winning percentage they had from 2004 through 2006, despite holding onto their trade assets.

And yet, while the Royals would have been better off in the long-term, it is not clear they would be significantly, or even appreciably, so. In 2018, the Baltimore Orioles were so bad that no amount of team evisceration would have catapulted the Royals to the first spot in the MLB draft, and in 2019 the Royals could have, at best, perhaps moved up one spot, where they would have likely selected the exact guy they got—Asa Lacy—anyway.

All this comes to Kansas City’s signing of free agents Mike Minor and Carlos Santana. The pair were both offered two-year deals for a combined $35.5 million. In 2020, the Royals were a bad team. Though their underlying runs scored and opponent-adjusted data was good, they were, at best, a 75-win team over a shortened season. And with their top position player prospects a year or so away, the aggressive approach to make the team better was not universally met with praise. As Ben Clemens at Fangraphs put it after the Santana deal (emphasis mine):

There’s a lot to like about Carlos Santana the player. He’s a low-variance bat at a price that makes sense, particularly for a team without much else going on in the first base department. Despite those positive characteristics, though, I don’t quite get the fit in Kansas City. He’s theoretically a useful piece, but the timeline feels all wrong, and they’re not at a place where adding a few wins to their 2021 total figures to be useful.

...From a pure production-for-pay standpoint, Santana is likely to provide Kansas City a good return on investment. Their efforts to supplement their young core with veterans a year too soon rather than a year too late are admirable. In this case, however, I think the idea is better than the actual enactment thereof. Santana’s a good player, and the Royals are right to be thinking of ways to improve, but the pieces still don’t all fit.

Certainly, not every signing is the correct one. Not every trade is a good one. Yes, every transaction has logic and reasoning behind it, but you do not have to agree with it, and the presence of thoughtfulness does not inherently signify the quality of that thoughtfulness. The facts remain the facts, and during the Moore era, the facts are this: the Royals have had three times as many 90-loss seasons as they’ve had playoff appearances, and Moore’s Royals are still in search of their fourth winning season despite a front office regime dating back to the George W. Bush administration. The opportunity for criticism is wide open.

And yet, I cannot fault Moore, the rest of the front office, and the coaching staff for trying to win games. Baseball is played by real human beings, not groupings of characters in an Excel spreadsheet, and those human beings put their blood, sweat, and tears into winning every single game to the best of their ability. It’s easy to sit at your desk and type away on an online message board or social media platform, raging into the night that your team didn’t purposefully try to lose in an industry where winning is everything.

The reality of tanking is more complicated than that. You can certainly fault those in charge for not winning enough, for not doing their jobs well. But you cannot and should not fault those in charge for trying to win. After all, the ultimate goal of a sports team is to win games, in one way or another, at one time or another. That’s why we’re all here.