The word of the day around Baseball Twitter on Tuesday was "tanking." People had opinions about tanking, or the idea of teams losing games on purpose to get better draft picks and larger bonus pools. Jayson Stark had thoughts on his timeline. Buster Olney wrote about it here after reporting that owners talked about tanking during their January meetings. There were points and counterpoints. Scott Boras offered a proposal!
Ask teams to submit a list of possible E talents, players they deem to be worth more than the dollars allotted to the top slot in the draft. Any player listed by 15 or more teams as being one of those elite talents would become eligible for a special E draft. "You let the industry decide who those players are in a given year," Boras said.
Here's the catch: Under Boras' proposed system, in order for a team to participate in the special E draft, it would have to win at least 68 games, a threshold that, according to Boras, distinguishes teams that are simply bad from those that are tanking and trying to lose
The system also would ensure that the very best players eligible for the amateur draft would be paid like the players from Cuba and other countries are paid, with offers that reflected their actual value to clubs. Boras believes
Run that last part back for me.
... the very best players eligible for the amateur draft would be paid like the players from Cuba ...
Thanks for your proposal, Scott! It's a fascinating solution to a problem that might not exist, and, oddly enough, it ended with a suggestion of how players could earn more money, but I'm sure that was an ancillary benefit that was mostly a coincidence, ANYWAY, thanks again, really, food for thought.
If you want to stop tanking in baseball -- we're talking in the NBA sense, where teams intentionally set themselves up to lose, allowing them better odds at a top draft pick -- the solution is simple: Make it so that the MLB Draft is an enigmatic mess, where thousands and thousands of working hours from scouts and executives lead to incorrect decisions to draft players who provide absolutely no value to their new franchise. Which is exactly what it is already. Which is why there is no NBA-style tanking in baseball. Maybe, maybe, maybe it makes sense to tank for that first-overall pick if we're talking Bryce Harper or Delmon Young-type talents. Real Ben McDonald kinds of prospects. But even then, it's hard to see.
If you want to stop tanking in baseball -- defined not as losing on purpose, but prioritizing long-term development over short-term wins and losses at the major league level -- I have a proposal for that, too. It's one that Scott Boras will love. Here goes:
Change the collective bargaining agreement to make young players more expensive than they are now. Make them free agents sooner. Pay them market rates after their first full season, and continue paying them market rates for each season after that. Give them two years from the minors to free agency.
Problem solved. Now you won't have teams hoarding prospects. You won't have the Astros stocking up on young players, trying to build their next contending roster. You won't have teams trading away their veterans at the deadline, looking to get younger and more sustainable. What's the point of acquiring young players if they're immediately going to be as expensive as the veterans? Teams wouldn't tank at all. Everyone would scramble for the best players, young or old.
And there would be chaos. Molten chaos. The parity that baseball has enjoyed for years would be ruined, and the large markets would reign. There would be no 2015 Royals, there would be no 2008 Rays. There would be no A's from the early part of the century; there would be no Pirates now. The only reason small-market teams can compete is because young players subsidize them before they reach free agency. It's the imperfect foundation of this era of pleasant parity, and I'm continually feeling weird about the ethical implications. But without cheap, young players who aren't paid what they're worth, the richest teams would monopolize the talent.
Take underpaid young players away, and you don't have organizational philosophies based around underpaid young players. You don't have teams spending their time acquiring and stockpiling prospects for a golden age of the unspecified future. If Carlos Correa and Dallas Keuchel were each paid what they were worth this year -- $25 million or so -- you have a very different Astros team. A $25 million Sonny Gray would certainly change the A's approach, but I'm not sure if there would be a point in trading him for prospects, just on the off chance one of the prospects becomes a star and immediately turns into another $25 million Sonny Gray.
The new market inefficiency would to be to find the players the biggest spenders didn't want, hoping they would break out. Let's say there are two or three super-rich teams, who can build trade-with-the-computer rosters every free agency period, seven or eight regular-rich teams, seven or eight teams with a little money, and so on. The only hope for the small-market teams would have to be panned out at the mouth of the river. where you would have teams scrambling for this year's Matt Duffy or taking a chance on a fast riser like A.J. Pollock to be their franchise player on a contract he's currently a few years away from.
And if they did it, if they built a low-cost roster, this new system would push all of their best players out into free agency almost immediately, and they would have to push the boulder up the hill again. Fans wouldn't get attached to their favorite players, and they would become disinterested in following the team, leading to a vicious cycle of even less money to play with.
But no one would be tanking. No one would be kicking back for a year or three, acquiring prospects for the future, seeing as prospects just wouldn't be as important. Problem solved. We have eliminated tanking.
Ah, but you could fix this all with straight, across-the-board revenue sharing. That splashy TV deal of the Dodgers is now the Padres' too. Just get all 30 owners to agree with that, and you're golden.
Here's the kicker: No matter which system you come up with, no matter how you stack the deck, there will be losers. There will be teams that lose 100 games, even when they're trying not to. Teams will do their very best under this system, and they'll still come up with unwatchable teams beset by injuries and disappointing performances. They'll just do it in a way that's more aesthetically pleasing than tanking during the offseason. Though it would be just as hard to watch during the season, and it would come without the hope of building something sustainable for the future. At least there would be a modicum of hope in the offseason!
Or you could have the status quo, where teams hang back and commit to developing young players, who would subsidize a future title run if everything worked out. All of the other suggestions -- monkeying with the first-overall pick, salary floors, draft lotteries -- seem like snowballs against a tank. Throwing them would feel good, but nothing would be affected, and occasionally a team would get run over. Seems like a good way to force teams to play grizzled veterans in September instead of trying out kids that might help one or two years down the road.
If you want to fix the current system, you would have to make it less necessary to acquire prospects. If you want to make it less necessary to acquire prospects, you'll need to make them more expensive and not under team control for nearly as long. If you make prospects fairly paid, you're going to melt the current system, which is apparently the best way to fix the current system.
Anything else is window dressing, and it's all to fix a problem that just isn't a huge deal. There will always be bad teams. The current system just gives them a chance for long-term hope.