The other day, Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated and the MLB Network weighed in on the stagnant winter market, citing seven forces that have manifested this winter, and among those was “The Empty Middle Lane.” He wrote:
It’s become mostly a bifurcated game: Teams are either all-in as far as World Series aspirations or all-out. That’s not “tanking.” That’s smart business sense.
Of course it’s tanking, and it’s been going on in professional sports for decades, and it’s also smart baseball business under the current rules for the teams that choose this course. Front offices are structuring their major league rosters and budgets to lose, to move higher in the draft order and access the best possible talent.
This is how the Astros got to pick from the top of the draft board and nabbed Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman and Lance McCullers Jr. and how the Cubs landed Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Albert Almora Jr.
But it’s also not great for the baseball product because a quarter to a third of the 30 teams in Major League Baseball are not competitive. With negotiated caps on spending for amateur players, teams are not devoting the additional money saved on the big league payroll to international talent or stockpiling cash for the draft or slashing ticket prices; they’re pocketing the money in profit (which is their prerogative, under the current rules). If you want to be polite, you can call it rebuilding, but to suggest it’s anything other than designed failure by front offices is disingenuous.
The practice, more pervasive than ever, nudges the sport to the edge of an ethical abyss. With front offices increasingly involved in the building of lineups and daily pitching plans, the chances are greater than ever that one executive or another will attempt to micromanage their teams into losses on specific days — by choosing, for example, a starting pitcher who is more likely to lose.
There was once a manager who made similar choices, betting day to day on whether one of his own pitchers would fail. This is why Pete Rose is serving a lifetime ban.
If you think that concept is ridiculous, then you probably didn’t believe any organization would seek a competitive advantage by hacking the computer system of another (hello, Cardinals) or through watch technology (Red Sox) or under-the-table negotiations (Braves).
Tanking is good business for individual teams, under the current rules. But it’s dangerous for Major League Baseball to have teams battling to be the absolute worst, to jockey for draft position to land the next Strasburg, Harper, Correa or Bryant.
Last year, there were three teams with more than 100 victories and four teams with 97 or more. ESPN’s Paul Hembekides sent along these notes: There have been six instances in which at least four teams won 97 games — 1977, 1985, 1998, 1999, 2002 and 2017.
If you go a couple of layers deeper: Last year, there were five teams with a run differential of +150 or better (the Indians, Yankees, Astros, Dodgers and Diamondbacks). That has happened only once before in the modern era, in 1931. Last year, four teams had run differentials of 190+ or better. The last time that happened was 1890.
Meanwhile, as that not insubstantial group of teams decline to spend in their race to the bottom of the standings, league-wide spending has stalled.
MLB payroll increase by season:
The polarized nature of baseball is reflected in the top 10 unit rankings below, with a lot of teams appearing on most or all of the lists. Because in 2018, a lot of front offices are working to build super teams or super bad teams — this is where the rewards can be found. And that’s a problem.
The lists are based on the input of MLB evaluators and executed with the help of Hembekides, Mark Simon and Sarah Langs.