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Why tanking for the rest of the season may not matter

It won’t have the effect as in past years

Starting pitcher Matt Harvey #33 of the Kansas City Royals pitches during the 1st inning of game two of a doubleheader against the Cincinnati Reds at Kauffman Stadium on August 19, 2020 in Kansas City, Missouri.
Starting pitcher Matt Harvey #33 of the Kansas City Royals pitches during the 1st inning of game two of a doubleheader against the Cincinnati Reds at Kauffman Stadium on August 19, 2020 in Kansas City, Missouri.
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

In a normal season, the Kansas City Royals would be already looking towards next season. September rosters would have expanded—perhaps giving us glimpses of prospects like Kyle Isbel, Daniel Lynch, and Khalil Lee—and winning baseball games become more of what you would call a guideline than actual rule. After all, draft position and signing bonuses are based on win-loss record, and losing more games gets you better loot in the following draft. In other words, in a normal season, it would be tank time, baby!

Of course, it’s not a normal season. The usual September roster expansion isn’t happening, partially because rosters are at an already expanded 28 players. Teams will only play 60 games total on the year. And because of that, the 2021 draft order is up in the air right now.

While sources believe nothing will change in terms of how the draft order is determined, commissioner Rob Manfred has the right to modify the order in a season shorter than 81 games, as agreed to with the players’ union in March. A final decision on the order will likely not be announced any time soon.

Because of that uncertainty, you can expect the Royals and other teams to back that M1 Abrams up right back to the garage. Without a clear benefit to tanking, you might as well try to win as many games as possible. But what would varying draft scenarios look like? Let’s take a look.

Option 1: Draft Based on 2020 Results

Boooooooring. The first option, which is still on the plate, is for the league to simply hold the draft order based on 2020 standings just like every other year. This is not interesting at all, but it makes sense. The league doesn’t automatically change draft order in a shortened season; it simply can do so if it chooses.

While this is the simplest decision, it does have downsides. It disproportionally penalizes teams that are overperforming their talent level and disproportionally rewards teams that have suffered uncharacteristically bad luck; in a 162-game season those factors tend to balance out, but they are a bigger factor in shorter seasons. This would affect teams like the Washington Nationals, who are the fourth worst team in the league by record but have the 12th worst run differential, as well as the Chicago Cubs, who have the seventh best record but the 12th best run differential.

In this scenario, the Royals would have the seventh pick in the draft. Notable recent seventh overall picks include Andrew Benintendi, Aaron Nola, and Matt Harvey. Clayton Kershaw, Troy Tulowitzki, Nick Markakis, and Prince Fielder were also seventh overall picks.

Option 2: Combined 2019 and 2020 Results

In this rather fascinating potential outcome, Major League Baseball would combine the results of the last two seasons into one big Superseason and then seed the draft from there. The downsides here are rather obvious: the results of 2019 would be more heavily weighted than the results of 2020. However, you could also easily argue that this makes it fairer, as every game is weighted equally individually 2020 is considered in its proper place as a truncated season.

So, what would the draft order look like? This season isn’t over yet, so let’s extrapolate out every team’s current winning percentage to 60 games and then add them to last year’s total.

Combined 2019-2020 Draft Order as of 9/3

Draft Position Team Combined Wins Combined Losses Combined Pct
Draft Position Team Combined Wins Combined Losses Combined Pct
1 Detroit Tigers 77 145 0.347
2 Baltimore Orioles 81 141 0.363
3 Kansas City Royals 82 140 0.368
4 Miami Marlins 87 135 0.392
5 Pittsburgh Pirates 88 134 0.396
6 Los Angeles Angels 91 131 0.412
7 Seattle Mariners 92 130 0.416
8 Toronto Blue Jays 100 122 0.449
9 Texas Rangers 100 122 0.449
10 Colorado Rockies 100 122 0.451
11 Cincinnati Reds 101 121 0.455
12 Boston Red Sox 103 119 0.466
13 San Francisco Giants 105 117 0.475
14 San Diego Padres 106 116 0.479
15 Arizona Diamondbacks 108 114 0.485
16 Chicago White Sox 108 114 0.485
17 New York Mets 112 110 0.504
18 Philadelphia Phillies 113 109 0.508
19 Washington Nationals 114 108 0.514
20 Milwaukee Brewers 117 105 0.528
21 Chicago Cubs 120 102 0.539
22 St. Louis Cardinals 121 101 0.545
23 Cleveland Indians 130 92 0.587
24 Atlanta Braves 134 88 0.602
25 Minnesota Twins 136 86 0.611
26 Oakland Athletics 136 86 0.612
27 Tampa Bay Rays 137 85 0.617
28 New York Yankees 137 85 0.618
29 Houston Astros 142 80 0.640
30 Los Angeles Dodgers 150 72 0.677

Though there is some interesting movement in the middle of this draft order, the very top and very bottom of the order is unsurprising. The Royals, who have been consistently bad since 2018, pick third in this scenario, up one from this year’s pick and down one from last year’s.

Option 3: Lottery Time!

If the league decides not to implement either of the previous two options, they could decide to implement a sort of lottery, like the NBA does, in perhaps an attempt to be impartial and let fate decide. There are a lot of different ways to do a draft lottery, and as a result discussing the potential lottery ramifications is an exercise in futility, so I won’t get into it.

Any way you cut it, the 2021 draft is going to be interesting. The Royals will probably pick somewhere between third and eighth. We won’t know for a while what the ramifications are—or if we’ll even have a spring baseball season to sort out draft prospects further—but the Royals are sure to get a very good prospect in the draft when it happens. We’ll just have to wait a little and see.