What is baseball going to do about teams tanking?
That question, framed in one manner or another, is being posed incessantly by baseball media’s talking heads as Major League Baseball prepares to kick off the 2016 season.
There’s no question that teams like the Washington Nationals, Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs have emerged from prolonged periods of ineptitude to become not only competitive, but, in the case of the Cubs, the odds-on preseason favorite to win the 2016 World Series.
The focus of most discussions seems to be on trying to differentiate between “tanking” – that is, intentionally designing your Major League roster in such a way that it will be all but impossible to lose fewer than 90 games (and likely considerably more) – and “rebuilding,” which is simply attempting to do whatever is deemed necessary, within the rules of the game, to improve talent levels to the point where your team can realistically compete for a championship.
It is, seemingly, a distinction without a difference. Yet, “rebuilding” is almost always viewed as simply a necessary process teams having a bad season or two must undergo, while “tanking” is portrayed as a serious threat to the competitive balance of Major League Baseball.
Tanking, I suppose, is arguably just one method at a general manager’s disposal to accomplish a rebuild. If so, it is quite possibly the most effective method available to teams that are considered middle or small market organizations, without the necessary financial resources to fill every critical roster gap with a top-tier free agent.
While the Astros, Nationals and Cubs have been raised as examples of teams that have tanked their way back into competitiveness, the Oakland Athletics are often cited as an organization that takes a more noble tact. As ESPN’s Buster Olney wrote recently, “Oakland has never taken (the tanking) route since general manager Billy Beane took over the franchise. The Athletics just don’t quit.”
Here’s something else that the Oakland Athletics have never done under Beane’s leadership over the past two decades: win a World Series.
That’s a trait that the A’s share with Theo Epstein’s Cubs, Jeff Luhnow’s Astros and Mike Rizzo’s Nationals, though those GMs took over their respective teams far more recently than Beane took over the helm in Oakland.
It’s also an aspect that each of those teams share with the Minnesota Twins.
If it seems like forever for Twins fans since their team held up a championship trophy at the end of the 1991 season, there’s some small solace to be taken from the fact that Minnesota’s 1991’s success is more recent than anything the other four organizations have experienced.
The Athletics last won it all in the 1989 “Earthquake Series,” and the Cubs last took home the hardware in 1908. Astros fans have never celebrated a World Series title in the club’s fifty-plus years of existence, nor have Nationals fans (even those that can claim allegiance going back to the club’s days as the Montreal Expos).
There seems to be no doubt that the Nationals, Cubs and Astros tanked their way back in to baseball relevance. They fielded teams that were designed to lose so many games that they would consistently benefit from high draft picks and inflated international spending allowances.
Oakland, however, was really never bad enough to fall below middle-of-the-pack status for more than a year at a time. Beane couldn’t retain his big-money stars, so he often traded them for something of current MLB-level value before they would be lost to free agency. His now-famous “moneyball” strategies sought to unearth players with enough hidden value to allow his team to at least be competitive almost every season.
Who did it right? Baseball purists may claim that tanking is ethically wrong and others will claim Beane’s approach does little but perpetuate mediocrity.
However, based on what arguably is the most important criteria, World Series Championships won, it would be difficult to declare one strategy more successful than the other. Then again, the Nationals, Cubs and Astros are all projected to fare much better than the Athletics in 2016, so maybe this will be the year that tanking’s advantage becomes apparent.
But what about the Twins? What exactly was their strategy?
Regardless of what they were thinking at any particular point in time, there’s no question that the Twins have benefited from the high draft positioning that resulted from four consecutive seasons of winning 70 or fewer games (a benefit that could be negated considerably in the future if the anti-tanking crowd gets some of the rule changes they propose).
Miguel Sano was signed out of the Dominican Republic toward the end of the team’s run of qualifying for six postseasons within nine years, but both their top hitting prospect (Byron Buxton) and top pitching prospect (Jose Berrios) were available to be selected by the Twins because their 99 losses in 2011 allowed them to pick in the second position in the 2012 amateur draft. Buxton was chosen with the second overall pick and Berrios with the first pick of the supplemental first round.
Over the following several years, the Twins added a number of highly touted young players due to consistently picking at the top end of the draft. Kohl Stewart, Nick Gordon and Tyler Jay, the team’s first round picks over the following three years, all sit comfortably among the top rated prospects in the Twins organization and each has been ranked among the top 100 prospects in the game at one time or another.
Of course, the Twins also held picks at the top of each successive round of those drafts, enabling them to select from among the cream of the non-elite crop of young players, as well. The fact that the Twins continue to have one of the top rated minor league organizations is due, in no small part, to their draft position over the past four drafts.
In the end, whether by design or otherwise, the Twins have positioned themselves much the same way that the Nationals, Cubs and Astros have. By losing a lot of games for several consecutive seasons, they have amassed considerable young baseball talent, much of which is now positioned to arrive and contribute at the Major League level.
Yet you seldom, if ever, see the Twins mentioned in articles bemoaning (or praising) the practice of tanking.
Of course, you also won’t see writers praising the Twins as an organization that has consistently found ways to rebuild on the fly – remaining competitive, as the Athletics have, even after star players move on via trade or free agency.
The result is that General Manager Terry Ryan and the Twins front office get neither the credit (blame?) for being at the forefront of the tanking strategy that Epstein, Luhnow and Rizzo embody, nor the commendations that Beane continues to get for trying to rebuild while continuing to put a teams on the field that are at least close to being worth the price of a Major League ticket to watch.
So did the Twins really tank, and just do a better job of camouflaging it than other teams did, or was Ryan trying to employ the stay-competitive strategy that Beane did, and simply wasn’t as effective at identifying and acquiring new talent as his counterpart in Oakland was?
It would be a stretch to say that the Twins were tanking in 2011. They were coming off of an American League Central title season and most of the core players from that team were returning. There’s little doubt that then-GM Bill Smith thought he was creating a roster to contend again that season.
Then came the Tsuyoshi Nishioka disaster and very limited game time from Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Denard Span in 2011. The result was a 99-loss team.
Another result was that 2011 also saw the return to Ryan to the GM’s office after the season.
Arguably, Ryan followed the Beane approach in his first partial postseason back on the job as General Manager. While his evaluation process was certainly more scout-based and less analytics-based than Beane’s, his addition of players like Josh Willingham and Ryan Doumit indicated he was trying to add veterans with value, as Beane does, rather than tear the club down and build it back up from scratch.
Whatever he was trying to do, it didn’t work. 2012 was, once again, a disaster on the field. This led to a consistent, “there isn’t any shortcut,” line of quotes out of Ryan the following offseason.
It also led to the trading of two thirds of the Twins’ starting outfield, Denard Span and Ben Revere, for three pitchers, only one of which had any big league experience at all. Was that indicative of Ryan having decided to go the tanking route?
Even if so, you would never have gotten the GM to admit it then, and probably couldn’t drag it out of him now.
Target Field was still relatively new and so were the taxes being imposed in Hennepin County to pay for it. Joe Mauer, though coming off a challenging season, was still in the early stages of an eight-year mega-million contract. It would have been professional suicide for anyone in the Twins front office to come right out and declare an intent to tank.
Can you imagine Ryan telling the media, “We looked at the draft class we were able to put together after losing 99 games in 2011 and, given that we had so many things go wrong in 2012, we should expect to select a similarly strong class this year. We’ve come to realize that if we continue to lose more than 90 games a while longer, as well, we could really put together an organization that would be poised to field very good teams for a decade or more. So we’re not going to try too hard to win for the next couple of years.”
Given some of the comments that Twins owner Jim Pohlad has made the past couple of offseasons about being tired of losing, I’m not sure Ryan would have dared to express those thoughts to Pohlad, even in private.
Then again, maybe he did tell Pohlad that. In fact, maybe he told all of us that he was planning to engage that kind of strategy.
Ryan is a man of few words. He doesn’t believe in giving his competitors a free look into his thinking on any subject related to his strategy for roster building. He’ll answer fan and media questions, but often you need to read between the lines a little bit to decipher exactly what he’s saying.
I wonder if it’s possible that he actually did say, “We’ve come to realize that if we continue to lose 95 games a year for a while longer, we could really put together an organization that would be poised to field very good teams for a decade or more. So we’re not going to try too hard to win for the next couple of years.”
It’s just that, when he said it, all we heard was, “there isn’t any shortcut.”
Truth be told, I don’t believe the Twins intentionally tanked during any part of the past four years. After all, moves like spending several million dollars on the 2014 in-season signing of Kendrys Morales would not be consistent with intentionally trying to lose as many games as possible.
I think Ryan was simply trying to balance current competitiveness with future success. In other words, he was showing the ethical nobility of Beane’s approach, while realizing the same results as those teams who were intentionally assembling losing rosters.
In the end, all that matters is the results and the Twins have a significant number of talented young players about to arrive in the big leagues.
That said, it will be interesting to keep an eye on what anti-tanking steps MLB and/or the Players Union propose be built into the new Collective Bargaining Agreement next year. Specifically, what effect would those proposals have had on, not only teams that made no attempt to disguise their tanking strategies, but also the Twins.