When the Astros clinched the Wild Card spot on the last day of the 2015 season, they made a statement with their young players about how to win in baseball nowadays. Not long ago, the franchise was in complete disrepair after suffering three straight seasons with 100 losses or more, but partly thanks to three straight first overall picks, the team has come alive as one of the most promising teams in baseball. However, many people in see a problem with tanking, saying that it is bad for the game to intentionally lose. Maybe so, but when done right, it is almost a guarantee for long-term success.
Tanking is a pretty simple concept. First, you dump hefty contracts of the “over-the-hill” star players by trades and releases. Then, you use the great draft positions to get new younger star players and the newfound money to pick up other solid players. Once the groundwork is set, the developed young players are brought up, and the stars are born, as seen with Carlos Correa and Kris Bryant. These stars, along with plenty of supporting talents, lead to wins, and eventually playoff success. Tanking is the most secure method to ensure long-term success in almost all leagues, not only baseball. Examples of tanking done right in other sports include the Chicago Blackhawks of the NHL, the Golden State Warriors in the NBA and possibly the Jacksonville Jaguars and Oakland Raiders in the NFL. Tanking in the NFL hasn’t exactly guaranteed success, but circumstances could change if these two teams make the playoffs this year.
In baseball, the Astros are probably the best, most recent example of tanking done right, but the Cubs have also found success venturing into the art of losing. When Theo Epstein took over as president of baseball operations in 2011, the Cubs had just finished 71-91. They would go on to finish 61-101 in 2012. With the great draft picks and the removal of players with large contracts, Theo built up the team that we see today. The team still has a ton of spending money and is expected to be competitive for a long time. While a lot of their success came from good trades, dumping contracts and good draft position have led them to their rise in the National League.
The Philadelphia Phillies are following the model of the two aforementioned teams. This team is expected to be dreadful, and probably won’t start playing better until Ryan Howard is bought out after this year. However, they have made exceptional strides in building up a young elite pitching staff. After drafting Aaron Nola and acquiring Jerad Eickhoff, Alec Asher, Mark Appel and Vincent Velasquez via trade, this team has its staff of the future. In the field, the team has a plethora of young players who will be instrumental in their coming success. Initially, this team was expected to be horrific until at least 2020, but with the great trades that they have made recently, the rebuilding process may have been shortened by a few years.
There are teams out there who pull off “mini-tanking,” or short-term periods of tanking within a period of success. Sometimes, these tanks last a year or two. The St. Louis Cardinals do this often, as did the Detroit Tigers this past year. In 2015, Detroit had a horrible string of injuries to Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera, so they saw an opportunity to retool. They traded Yoenis Cespedes, David Price and Joakim Soria for intriguing pitching prospects Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris and shortstop prospect JaCoby Jones. The team drafts ninth in this year’s stacked prospect draft. The team also signed Francisco Rodriguez, Justin Upton and Jordan Zimmermann this offseason. After this mini-tank, the team currently sits at 7-4 early on in the season and is expected to compete in the stacked AL Central.
Whether or not tanking is good for baseball, it only works if a team fully commits to this form of rebuilding. If there’s one thing I can say about tanking, it certainly helps keep parity out of baseball. After seeing the Cardinals win the NL Central for the past few years, it certainly is good to see Wrigley Field packed in October. Tanking helps churn different teams in and out of the playoffs, and it helps with the ebb and flow of baseball. Contrary to popular belief, tanking might actually be good not only for baseball, but for all sports.