For the most part, “tanking” has been a concept unique to the NBA. The idea that you could deliberately steer a franchise into the cellar of the league in hopes of finding a generational talent in the draft just wasn’t as plausible in other sports with elongated drafts and larger rosters like the MLB or NFL.
Of course, each league has its exceptions (i.e. the Cubs or Astros in recent years), but the degree at which tanking had permeated the culture was menial at best. Much to the chagrin of baseball fans everywhere, last season marked a definitive shift towards tanking as a widely accepted managerial approach. Because of an incredibly lucrative TV contract, teams around the league are enjoying soaring revenues regardless of ticket sales — giving them the freedom to minimize payrolls and field teams that lose constantly and anger fans.
As it pertains to competitive parity, the 2018 MLB season was historically awful. While teams like the Astros, Red Sox, and Yankees enjoyed 100-win seasons, the Orioles, White Sox, and Royals had 100-loss seasons, with the Orioles notching the second-worst record in the MLB since 1962 at 47-115.
The only other time the MLB has had three 100-loss teams in one season was in 2002, and even then there were only three other teams with at least 95 losses compared to five in 2018. Unquestionably, the divide between the top and bottom ends of the competitive spectrum in the MLB is approaching unprecedented territory, but how did we get here?
To answer that question we have to consider the impact of the 2017 collective bargaining agreement, MLB’s current television contract, and the various successful managerial tactics used in the last decade.
Perhaps the most important component of the three, the MLB’s recent television contract is the most lucrative in the sport’s history. With owners pulling in hundreds of millions of dollars each year from TV deals alone, winning games is disincentivized.
Because teams no longer need to stay competitively relevant to remain profitable, pressure has been taken off of GM’s to proactively pursue trades or risky long term investments in big name free agents. Along with gaping flaws in the CBA, this has been one of the main reasons that elite players like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado remain unsigned less than two months before opening day.
Regarding the 2017 CBA, players and owners agreed to introduce a luxury tax that operates as a soft salary cap. In theory, the introduction of a luxury tax should even out the distribution of talent, but the players union failed to consider the need for a reasonable minimum payroll. Consequently, teams decreased roster spending, causing the overall payroll to drop $18 million — the first overall decrease since 2010.
Considering the record amounts of revenue pouring into the sport from TV networks, player salaries should be reaching new heights, not stagnating or dipping. Unfortunately, the players union won’t be able to renegotiate these terms until 2021, indicating continued salary decreases for at least the next two years.
As I referenced earlier, the 2017 Houston Astros and 2016 Chicago Cubs set the standard for tanking to rebuild a franchise in the MLB. Both teams lived comfortably at the bottom of the standings for years, gradually acquiring and incubating talent through their perennially high draft picks.
In doing so, the Astros and Cubs were able to win championships with young, talented, and relatively affordable nuclei of players. Compounded with improved financial stability, the rest of the league has seen the success of tanking and adopted the model.
One of the more obvious examples of tanking is the Marlins under Derek Jeter’s management. In 2017, the Marlins had arguably the best outfield in the MLB with Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna, and Christian Yelich. Before the 2018 season, all three, along with star 2B Dee Gordon, had been traded.
In the span of two months, the franchise went from a few pitching signees away from potential title contention, to completely gutted with underwhelming prospects developing. Even If the Marlins received blue-chip prospects in return or had an extremely promising farm system, trading away one of the best young cores in baseball makes no sense from a competitive standpoint.
It’s tough to predict how far player salaries and parity will dip in the coming years, but the players union clearly needs to negotiate for a minimum payroll in 2021 CBA negotiations. If the owners refuse to accept a reasonable payroll floor, expect either a prolonged lockout in 2022 or the continued steady devaluing of players.