FOR MONTHS DURING the lockout, Major League Baseball players had a consistent gripe about the system they were attempting to change — a gripe to which fans, too, could relate. At issue is a strategy that has become commonplace in baseball: Tanking.
Popularized during World Series title runs first by the Chicago Cubs and then the Houston Astros, tanking has become an often-imitated way to rebuild. Instead of risking mediocre play that keeps a team stuck in the middle, a team will trade away veteran players and bottom out. The club will then start over with small payrolls, load up on prospects and sell fans on the future, even as the present likely consists of 100-loss seasons.
« There have been rebuilds in the past, but the cycles were much shorter, » MLBPA union subcommittee member Andrew Miller said in February. « Teams are announcing it now, telling their fans that we’re not going to compete because we’ve all come to the realization that draft picks are valuable. »
On Opening Day in Baltimore on Monday, the CEO of the Orioles said as much in a message to fans.
« Beginning in 2019, we devoted our entire company to building through the farm system in the « Oriole Way » of past eras, recently emulated successfully by other MLB clubs, » the statement from John Angelos read. « As a result, we now boast the No. 1 rated player talent pool and scouting and development system in all of Major League Baseball…When we began this journey in 2019, we expected our Minor League rebuild to take four to five years … »
It’s this admitting to not even trying to win for a period of years that has upset players during this era of rebuilding. Throughout the work stoppage, the t-word was raised in heated conversations between players and owners about the sport’s future. But how much the changes implemented in the new CBA will actually curb tanking remains to be seen.
The most significant addition is a new draft lottery system directed at making sure that clubs starting over do so in a timely manner. Guardrails were put in place so a « race to the bottom, » as agent Scott Boras put it last November, is no longer a yearly occurrence.
For the next five years, the first six picks in the draft will be decided by a lottery system that will give the three teams with the worst record the same odds of drafting No. 1.
Additionally, revenue sharing recipients (small-market teams) will not be able to receive a lottery pick more than two years in a row, and teams that pay revenue sharing (big-market teams) will not receive a lottery pick in consecutive years.
But is that enough?
« If you look at the breakdown of payrolls, that bottom half compared to the top, you’re not seeing all teams compete, » White Sox ace and MLBPA player rep Lucas Giolito said after the deal was signed. « I would have liked to see a little more impacting behavior type of thing when it comes to the tanking. »
LAST MONTH, while all of baseball was scrambling to put rosters together and start spring training once the lockout ended, two teams quickly brought the conversation about the negative implications of trading away high-paid veteran players back to the forefront.
Three days after the lockout ended on March 10, the Cincinnati Reds traded starter Sonny Gray to the Minnesota Twins. A day later, the Reds moved All-Star outfielder Jesse Winker and infielder Eugenio Suarez to Seattle. Later that same day, the Oakland Athletics dealt an All-Star of their own, first baseman Matt Olson, to the Atlanta Braves and soon after moved third baseman Matt Chapman to the Toronto Blue Jays. The Sunday before Opening Day, the A’s made another move to slash payroll for prospects, moving Sean Manaea and his $9.75 million contract to the San Diego Padres.
After all of their moves, the Reds’ projected payroll sits at about $126 million — even before their cuts, they had never been close to approaching a competitive balance tax penalty. The A’s, always low spenders, are down near the bottom of the league at $50 million.
When the lockout ended, the Reds were projected for 82 wins this season and the Athletics 76, according to ESPN MLB writer Bradford Doolittle’s projection formula. During negotiations, the league argued that the two additional teams added to the playoff field would have given teams in similar spots more incentive to try to win now. Instead, Cincinnati and Oakland went the other way. By Opening Day, the Reds had lost five wins in Doolittle’s projections — and the A’s had lost 10.
« It’s just a classic example of ownership using organizations as profit, » former Reds and current Phillies outfielder Nick Castellanos said recently. « When … there are no consequences for losing, you’re not held accountable for your performance. »
Defenders of the system will point out that teams have always « operated cyclically, » as commissioner Rob Manfred told ESPN the day the lockout ended. « It’s part of the nature of the game. You get a group that comes together, they age out, and clubs start over. That’s always been the way. »
But to many MLB players, it’s not just about winning and losing. It’s about trying.
« I’m held accountable to be the best I can be otherwise I’m sent down or released, » said Michael Lorenzen, another former Reds player who joined the Angels during the offseason. « There should be something for teams, too.
« The standard should be the best in the world, not to be the best of the worst. »
To this point, being the best at being the worst has actually benefited teams by giving them the No. 1 overall pick in the next year’s draft. Even with the addition of the lottery, some wonder how much the new process will actually matter to the teams at the bottom of the standings.
« The Pirates probably don’t even care about getting the No. 1 pick, » one agent said. « It means they have to pay him more. »
THOUGH FANS AND players in places like Cincinnati and Oakland feel the most obvious impact of rebuilding, these actions have a tangible effect on the rest of free agency.
The Mariners met with then-free agent Kris Bryant about joining their up-and-coming team during the offseason. Once Seattle traded for Winker and Suarez, that door closed on Bryant. The same scenario went down with free-agent first basemen, including Freddie Freeman and Anthony Rizzo, once the Braves were able to trade for Olson.
« I don’t know everyone’s farm system, but I’ll guess that the Reds don’t have someone at Triple-A as good as Jesse Winker, » said Jared Walsh, the Angels’ player rep with the MLBPA, with a half -smile.
In essence, the trades took four teams out of the mix for top free agents.
« It’s the same thing that happened years ago [in 1997] with the Marlins, » Cubs outfielder and player rep Ian Happ said. « They traded the entire outfield and it crippled the free-agent market. Those are things we all need to look at and address. »
The Marlins’ general manager at the time was Dave Dombrowski, now in charge of the Philadelphia Phillies. Known as a win-now executive, he has been involved in both full rebuilds and quicker retools. A few weeks ago, he reiterated what small-market executives often whisper: Under the current economic system, rebuilds are necessary.
« I personally don’t know how some clubs can’t go through cycles, » Dombrowski said. « At times you just have to run into a cycle where you need to reset. That can take you to a place where you’re not winning as many games as you want, and you’re trading veteran players for young guys.
« When you run a club, you’re almost not doing justice if you don’t face the reality of where you are. That’s one of your jobs as a head of baseball ops. »
But whether or not it is in the best long-term interest of a franchise for the front office to take this approach, critics believe any team not going for it in a given year alters the competitive nature of the sport.
« Having teams trying to win every year at all costs impacts things in a positive way all over, » Lorenzen said. « You might not win it all, but you belong in this league competing against the rest of these teams.
« Thesis [tanking] teams don’t. They don’t belong. »
FOR THE FIRST time, tanking was front and center in labor talks — even if the issue wasn’t completely solved in this labor agreement.
« We have to take five years and determine those steps weren’t anywhere near sufficient to establish the intended result of the initial rule we put in, » Boras said after the deal was struck. « That seems to be how we work in CBAs. It takes 10 years — not five — to get an idea of improvement properly in place. »
Attempts to change the revenue-sharing system were rejected by the league, and players also rejected at least one idea to curb tanking.
In its first proposal for a new CBA, the league offered a salary floor of $100 million for all teams, but the union turned it down. Of course, the caveat was the floor would come with a lower competitive balance tax ceiling — the league offered a $180 million CBT.
That number was nowhere near the $230 million 2022 CBT threshold that was eventually agreed upon, but several agents believed the concept should have been examined further.
« Once the league was open to the idea of a floor, we should have at least explored it, » one agent said.
But anything that resembled a hard floor and cap was rejected nearly out of hand. So, instead, the draft lottery was implemented, and players are willing to see its consequences over the next five years.
« Any abandonment of competition by even a few clubs remains a significant concern for players, » MLBPA negotiator Bruce Meyer said via text. « We made numerous proposals in bargaining to address the issue that were rejected by the league. Although we’re hopeful that changes to the draft order and other changes in the new CBA will have a positive effect over time, it’s too early to draw any firm conclusions. We’ll continue to watch the situation closely and it will undoubtedly continue to be a subject of future bargaining. »
Happ added: « As the lottery comes into play, with some of those rules, we’ll see how that affects it. If it isn’t the impact we’re looking for, then we have more things to address. »
For now, the wait for competitive baseball continues in places where teams in different stages of rebuilds are still shedding talent and payroll: from Oakland to Baltimore, to Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.
« What sucks is in a great city like Cincinnati where the fan base is impeccable, it’s suffocating, » Castellanos said, « because of ownership. I’m not saying that they are bad people. The system is bad. »