Marlin Maniac Tackles Tanking In Baseball

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Former Marlin Jake Marisnick taking a dive...much like the Astros did in order to field a competitive team.Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports
Former Marlin Jake Marisnick taking a dive...much like the Astros did in order to field a competitive team.Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports /
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As the calendar turns to February and thoughts start to turn to the upcoming MLB season, Marlin Maniac will start taking a look at issues that impact baseball as a whole, not just the hometown nine in Miami. Naturally, this bit of introspection will be limited to a weekly feature at the most.  This is a Marlins blog, and you come here first and foremost for Marlins content.  But the Marlins are a part of baseball, and if it impacts the league, it will eventually impact the Fish.  So we’re still talking Marlins.  And let’s face it- if you’re reading this, your baseball fix is already insatiable; there’s always room on your plate for more. Highlighting the fact these pieces are a break from the regular action here, this series will be subtitled stepping “Off the Rubber.”

For our first feature, we’ll be talking tanking.  It’s come up a lot this offseason.  From opinions to solutions, it has been the hot topic. Teams like the Astros, Braves, and Cubs have been charged with pursuing this strategy since the last month of the season, with the Astros and Cubbies being accused of having done it to come within arms reach of the mountaintop last October, and the Braves of following the strategy to jumpstart their rebuild in order to field a meaningful team when the new ballpark opens in 2017.  But without further ado, time for Marlin Maniac to weigh in.  It’s time to step off the rubber.

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Tanking- the practice of accepting a terrible season in order to secure a high draft slot.  Is this happening in baseball? Absolutely.  Is this that terrible?  Absolutely not.

For several years running now, ESPN’s Jayson Stark celebrates the Super Bowl by writing an immensely entertaining column lampooning the notion that competitive balance and parity reigns supreme in the NFL.  By the time January rolls around, that myth always does seem to take a couple of body blows.  And while the NBA sends a crazy sixteen teams to the playoffs, consider that only ten different teams per conference have reached the Finals since the end of the 1970s; congratulations to the ’79 Bullets and the ’74 Bucks for breaking their respective conference streaks.

Parity, the notion that the next season can be the season, is the Holy Grail of every sports league.  And baseball does a pretty good job of pulling it off.  But the key to this…well the key is tanking.  Well, at the very least, the key is the current structure of the draft allowing the worst teams to have first dibs on obtaining the best up and coming young talent.  NBA, NFL, NHL, the little brother you make one of the team captains so he feels better…all leagues have this system.  Tom Brady didn’t get to add Amari Cooper to his arsenal just because the Patriots tried harder than Tampa Bay did last season.  Just like how the Packers and Steelers didn’t get to bolster their championship depth with Cam Newton and Von Miller back in 2011.  That would have been the Panthers and Broncos; the Broncos have not missed a playoffs since, and the Panthers just completed their third straight postseason.  What you witnessed this past Sunday was the pinnacle of a very rapid ascent.

A season full of fumbles like this one back in 2010 led to this moment. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
A season full of fumbles like this one back in 2010 led to this moment.Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

The examples could be pulled a dozen times over from any sport, and the only thing more obvious than the fairness of this is the amount of outcry there would be if it wasn’t the case.  But talk about tanking- the deliberate pursuit of putridness- has reached such a fever pitch that there is active talk about changing the way the current system works.

And in general, I would argue that this is absurd.  For a league that just expanded their playoff format back in 2012 in a bid to build up excitement and television ratings, messing with the current draft system seems counterproductive at best and hypocritical at worst. Tanking has allowed for huge markets to see their teams reach heights not seen in years.  The Astros, Cubs, and Mets all just turned in their best performance in a decade.  Cincinnati and Philadelphia might just be ready to follow suit.  Big cities.  Vibrant fan bases. Ready to win.  Of the five teams just mentioned, only one- Philadelphia-  has won a world championship since the ’94 Strike.

Now if the fans were complaining, that would be one thing.  But the loudest complaints seem to be from rival owners and GMs.  And that brings us to the root of the “tanking problem”: money.

Specifically, revenue sharing.  The MLB revenue sharing system exists to help the have-nots compete with the haves.  Basically, it was developed to help teams beat the Yankees.  And rival owners and GMs are getting increasingly amped about having to doll out television dollars and a cut of their gate to teams that aren’t even making a half-hearted effort at competing.  Fans don’t get put out over this…they just simply choose not to tune in or buy tickets to watch a squad assembled to “Suck for Luck.”  The Nationals have been Top 20 in attendance or better every year since the Bryce Harper draft.  Correspondingly the last time before last season either Atlanta or Philadelphia finished outside the Top 20 was 2002; both did in 2015.

One other issue could be simple envy, as not every team in baseball can adopt the tanking plan.  The Braves are cashing in some of the chips earned by decades of relevance; the Cubs figured after a century of futility, they couldn’t be faulted for tacking on a couple more years.  But could the Marlins, popularly perceived to have participated in two very unpopular fire sales and having routinely and criminally underspent on payroll, decide to tank?  Not a chance- that’s why Giancarlo Stanton got his Forever Contract instead of his West Coast walking papers.  Baseball in Miami would die overnight if they gutted the team again…which is ironic considering that the tanking strategy employed in 1998 blazed a direct path to the 2003 title.

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And it’s not just Miami that’s banned.  The Yankees can’t either- too much money.  Even as ample evidence amounts to suggest you can’t just buy the title any more (oh the 90’s), the perception lingers.  It’s a case by case basis, one at this point entirely dependent on what the fan base will tolerate.  Was there recent success?  Eleven of twelve seasons ending in the playoffs made “Sucking for Luck” tolerable to Colts fans; years of losing in the same market as the Lakers makes the Dodgers spend obscenely in free agency.  Has the front office shown they can make the right pick when put in the position?  The Nationals picked in the top 10 from 2008-2011, netting Anthony Rendon, Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, and…Aaron Crow; were three of those four picks busts as opposed to All-Stars, Washington fans would have far less patience for a race for the first pick.

That said, it can go too far.  The 2014 Astros were an embarrassment…as were the 1998 Marlins, the 2003 Mets, the 2008-2010 Nationals, and the 2012-2013 Cubs.  Fans should be able to hope, and owners should be able to feel they aren’t just doling out extra spending money to the fellow members of the 1%.  So the staff here at Marlin Maniac has a solution.

Time for baseball to institute an optional salary floor.

That’s right, optional- only way owners would agree.  And still no cap- only way the Players Association would ever agree.  But an optional floor could fix this issue, if implemented with one key caveat:

Only teams that meet the minimum floor could pick in their allotted slot in the next MLB Draft.

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This eliminates the ’14 Astros approach- eviscerating payroll overnight Rachel Phelps style, leaving fans with nothing to hope for but a real-life Major League campaign to root for that year.  Some trying is still required if you want that payoff.  Fans are happy that bargain basement teams can’t be fielded, rival owners are happy that a greater piece of that revenue sharing pie is being spent where it’s supposed to.  If teams decide to exploit the loophole of signing washed-up 38-yr olds to huge one-year contracts, then the Players Association is happy that players are making more money.  But as going that route would lead to inflated salaries in the league going forward, owners would likely forgo that radical option.

Here’s the idea being pitched here laid out in full:

  • The top 10 picks in the draft are protected by the salary floor measure.
  • Teams in violation fall one spot in the order for every team behind them that is in compliance, up until the 10th pick.
  • The salary floor would be the average of the bottom five to ten payrolls in the league from the previous two seasons.
  • For every spot a team drops in the draft order, they lose 5% of their draft budget, capping off at a 50% hit.

Obviously some markets are smaller than others- asking Houston, Miami, and Oakland to spend with the big boys would be out of the question.  But spending about as much as everyone else in the salary basement? More than fair.  Limiting the free fall to the 10th pick avoids the headlines that would be made when a 60-win club picks last.  Having the draft budget take a hit as well prevents teams from building up reserves to make bigger offers to top talent deeper into the draft, cutting the legs out from another major criticism of tanking.  While a savvy front office could still make tanking work, the proposition becomes far more risky. And introducing even slightly more risk to the equation would likely induce more clubs to hedge their bets by fielding at least moderately competitive squads during their rebuild.

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Forget playing first- try nailing your draft pick. /

For there is quite possibly not a draft in professional sports more prone to risk and disappointment than the MLB Draft.  For every Josh Beckett, there’s a Jeff Allison.  For every Jose Fernandez, a Tyler Kolek.  Giancarlo Stanton was a second round pick in 2007, hearing his name called a mere sixty-nine slots after Milwaukee drafted the first outfielder selected- some guy named Matt LaPorta.  Jason Heyward would be the second outfielder taken, a fact I wouldn’t suggest reminding the Brewers of; that said, they did find a nice consolation prize in the third round in All-Star catcher Jonathan Lucroy.  NFL fans know the legend of Tom Brady being a 6th round pick.  Big deal- four time All-Star Chris Sale was a 21st round pick, and by the second month of his first full season in the majors had already surpassed what would mark the career innings high as of this reading of the pitcher the White Sox drafted twenty rounds earlier.

Then of course there are cases like the aforementioned two-time first round pick Aaron Crow.

The only thing more certain than how unpredictable the MLB Draft can be is my inability to lift my leg that high. Mandatory Credit: Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports
The only thing more certain than how unpredictable the MLB Draft can be is my inability to lift my leg that high. Mandatory Credit: Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports /

Even before players bust, they can elect not to sign with you if you can’t offer enough cash, rendering your pick completely worthless.  Crow told Washington to take a hike in 2008, signing a better deal a year later with Kansas City.  Five years later he was a struggling reliever on his way to the Marlins.

In short, getting the pick right is anything but a sure thing.

And that is a truth that could end up solving the whole “problem” of tanking without any solution being imposed from above.  The Astros and Cubs rocketed out of their division cellars on the strength of some highly successful picks, trades, and signings, making tanking all the rage.  But what happens if the Braves or the Phillies draft a pair of duds, and not the next Harper or Kris Bryant? The league might just police itself.

And if not, there’s always our salary floor.  What do you think?  Sound off in the comments and on Twitter.

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