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On the Brewers and "tanking"

I've come to have a great disdain for the term "tanking."

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Yesterday ESPN's Jasyon Stark came out with an article titled "The odd and troubling state of the National League" that I found pretty funny and kind of stupid. The whole article is essentially bagging on the teams in the NL that are considered to be tanking--clearly four with a weak argument for an extra two. More than that, the article treats this like a new phenomenon even though it admits within it's own confines that it isn't. The cognitive dissonance is impressive.

There are some quotes from anonymous AL execs and one NL Exec that essentially paint baseball as "messed up" right now. The supposed problem being teams that are "tanking" are somehow ruining baseball. All of the problems are said to stem from the draft system that incentivizes losing. Here's where I start to get annoyed.

Yes, the system does incentivize losing in that the teams with the worst record get the highest draft picks. I'm all for changing the system, but let's be honest. The teams and owners don't want to make it fair. If they wanted to make it fair they wouldn't have a draft system at all. They'd allot X dollars to signing amateur players and let them negotiate with all teams. That's a fair system. Or at least a fairer system. A draft is always inherently going to screw someone over. Even a draft lottery has the chance of keeping teams at the back end of a draft indefinitely, albeit unintentionally.

But here's the thing, what the Astros and Cubs did, and now what the Reds, Phillies, and Brewers are doing isn't solely designed to net them draft picks. That's just a side effect much the same way lowering payroll is a side effect of rebuilding. Rebuilding teams trade their veteran players--not for salary relief but for prospects to help them win in the future. Rebuilding teams also don't spend much in free agency--not necessarily to keep payroll down but because they know they can't win so it doesn't make sense to spend money. As a result of all this, they're going to lose a lot of games and have the chance at getting higher draft picks. But it's not the end goal of a rebuild.

The end goal is simply to become competitive at a later date. That's what all teams want--to become competitive. It's naive to believe the Brewers--before their trades--had a chance at doing so. Their payroll would have remained near $100 million meaning they couldn't have added much talent via free agency. And we saw the last few years that, try as they might, they just didn't have the talent to make the postseason.

So what were they supposed to do? Spend as much as they could and help balance out the competition for the teams that could win? Make the NL tougher so the AL could feel better about having more teams competing? How does this benefit the Brewers in any way? Of course the answer is that it doesn't. So of course they realized it was time to rebuild--which is not a new concept as Stark would have you believe.

Commissioner Rob Manfred says as much in the article.

"Obviously, you don't want to have too many teams in a rebuilding cycle at one time in one league, and I accept that. But the fact of the matter is, when you have 30 teams, it's not unusual that you have five or six in a rebuilding cycle. I think if you look back historically, that would not be a number that's out of line....It's the way things have always been. ...So I don't see what's going on now as being some big break with history in that regard."

Of course there have been bad teams every year. That's baseball. I really don't understand how Stark misses this, unless it's intentional for the sake of the article. One of his huge complaints is that so many of the bad teams are in the NL. The Brewers are projected to have the third worst record in baseball with 71 wins, the Reds and Padres next with 73 wins. You have to go ALL THE WAY BACK to the 2014 season to find five teams in the AL with no more than 73 wins. Guess Stark's memory doesn't go very far back.

Here's the quote from the article where Manfred is talking about SO MANY TEAMS--four--TANKING:

"This is the system actually self-correcting," the commissioner said. "If too many teams try to follow this strategy, the effectiveness of that strategy will be naturally undermined."

It's not hard to understand this as an accurate statement. If you have four teams that project to lose a lot of games, it's going to be that much harder to get that top draft pick. So the idea that these teams are definitely benefiting from tanking isn't entirely accurate right. The Brewers very likely will benefit more from the trades they've made and will make, than they will from their draft picks.

My favorite part of Stark's article is when he quotes an AL exec's opinion of the four "tanking" teams. He says of the four, he doesn't view the Braves as tanking and thinks their rebuilding plan is the most understandable. Why? They're not doing anything different than the other teams. Literally nothing different. Oh but they have a new ballpark opening soon, so that means it's okay. By the way, they're projected to win 67 games which is the second lowest. Um, sure thing pal.

In fact, let's compare some of the moves the two teams have made. The last two years the Braves traded Shelby Miller--3 years of control--and Andrelton Simmons--5 years of team control--and Craig Kimbrel--four years of control. The Brewers traded Yovani Gallardo--one year of control--and Carlos Gomez--one year of control--and Mike Fiers--four years of control--and K-Rod--two years of control--and Adam Lind--one year of control. The Brewers only traded one player with long term team control. The Braves traded three. So I reiterate: Um, sure thing pal.

If you're curious here's what he had to say about the Brewers:

"I think Milwaukee is tanking. They're basically trying the Houston approach. They spent a lot of money trying to win. It didn't work. So now they're prepared to go through three or four years of losing, and going the Houston route."

Thanks for the incredibly lacking and non-specific opinion mystery exec. Real informative take. Also, he seems to understand that what the Brewers were doing wasn't working. So...they were supposed to continue doing what wasn't working? Um, sure thing pal.

Here's what David Stearns had to say on the matter:

"It's funny, I lived the Houston route, and I don't know exactly what that means, to be going the Houston route. But here's how I see it. ... Every organization needs to be cognizant of where it is ... and we're no different. That's true whether you're in the smallest market in baseball or the biggest market in baseball. You have to understand where you are as an organization and where your priorities are as an organization. And our priorities right now are to obtain and develop the best young talent we can, to allow us to grow as an organization and compete for years to come."

Mmmm, that's some good GM-speak. But really, what is he supposed to say? He can't be honest and say, "Yeah we're going to lose a lot of games until we don't and hopefully when we stop losing we stop losing for a long time." Because this article is clearly not looking to listen to that point of view.

My two main problems with this anti-tanking perspective are 1) it misses the point that "tanking" teams aren't solely doing it to net draft picks, and 2) these teams are somehow doing something wrong which I disagree with. It's not new, what they're doing. And the end goal is to become a highly competitive team. It worked for the Cubs and the Astros. And no one is complaining about them right now. Except for the fanbase of rival teams.