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Coolican: Examining tanking in baseball

| Wednesday, February 26, 2020

As spring training gets underway, I, like every other fan, am hopeful my team will make it to the World Series. As much as I want to believe that, however, I have to realize that my team, the Detroit Tigers, is “rebuilding” — or in language the team won’t use, tanking.

Tanking — losing games on purpose for a high-draft pick — has been successful in other sports, but baseball is different. The MLB Draft, even for top picks, is a crapshoot, and players won’t reach the MLB for at least two seasons, usually longer. To examine this, I’ve compiled a list of teams who had multiple top-four draft picks in a row, from 2005 to 2015.

No. 1. Kansas City Royals

Selections: Alex Gordon (second pick, 2005), Luke Hochevar, (first, 2006), Mike Moustakas, (second, 2007), Eric Hosmer, (third pick, 2008), Christian Colon, (fourth, 2010)

The Royals were one of the worst teams of the early 2000s, and earned five top-four picks in six years. They drafted very well, as Hosmer, Moustakas and Gordon were all integral contributors to two World Series runs, first losing in 2014 before winning it in 2015. However, they couldn’t replicate their success. In 2017, multiple stars left for free agency, and the Royals are currently in tank mode again. Verdict: Success 

No. 2. Tampa Bay Rays

Selections: Evan Longoria (third, 2006), David Price, (second, 2007), Tim Beckham, (first, 2008)

The Rays were another team that drafted well, ending up with future stars Longoria and Price, and Beckham became a valuable role player. However, due to the small market, they struggled to attract free agents. While they made one World Series in 2008, they fell in five games, and made the playoffs three times over the next four years but failed to advance past the division series. Verdict: Failure 

No. 3. Washington Nationals 

Selections: Stephen Strasburg (first, 2009), Bryce Harper (first, 2010) 

The Nationals, unlike a lot of the teams on this list, only had two top-four draft picks, but both were first overall. Both Strasburg and Harper turned into future stars, with Harper even winning MVP. The Nationals won the World Series in 2019, but it is far removed from their tank, and Harper had already left in free agency. However, Strasburg was World Series MVP. They made the playoffs four times before this year, falling in the division series each time. Verdict: Neutral 

No. 4. Pittsburgh Pirates 

Selections: Daniel Moskos (fourth, 2007), Pedro Alvarez (second, 2008), Tony Sanchez (fourth, 2009), Gerrit Cole (first, 2011) 

The Pirates are a dubious inclusion here, because unlike the other teams on this list, it is not clear they were bad on purpose, and may have been a result of consistently poor front-office decisions. Of their four picks here, only Cole and Alvarez made significant contributions, and Alvarez is a career 0.236 hitter. Cole became a star, but the Pirates couldn’t figure out a way to win around him. Verdict: Failure (if it was a tank)

No. 5. Houston Astros

Selections: Carlos Correa (first, 2012), Mark Appel (first, 2013), Brady Aiken (first, 2013)

Setting aside recent events, the Astros are the team most noted for a successful tank. Only one of their three top picks worked out (Correa), and Aiken didn’t even sign with the team, but other, lower, draft picks were successful, and smart free agent signings gave them a World Series win in 2017 and a perennially contending team. Verdict: Success (although not entirely resulting from tank)

No. 6. Chicago Cubs

Selections: Kris Bryant (second, 2013), Kyle Schwarber (fourth, 2014) 

The Cubs, like the Astros, are always brought up in discussions of tanks. Both these picks turned out to be stars, but much like the Astros, a smart front office was also a major factor for their success. They won one World Series (2016) and made the NLCS for three straight years, but they look to be on the decline after missing the playoffs last year. Verdict: Success

Four of the six teams listed have won a World Series, which points to the conclusion that tanking is effective. However, none of the teams have won more than one championship (the Astros and Nationals could win another with the same core), and based on the trajectory of the Cubs and Royals, tanking does not seem to build long-term contenders.

The teams that won multiple World Series in the last decade (Boston Red Sox and San Francisco Giants) did not employ a tank, and retooled rather than rebuilt. Additionally, for tanking to be successful, it requires a smart front office (something the Pirates lacked) and money to retain free agents (which the Rays didn’t have).

Tanking is very risky in baseball, and other factors are necessary for success, but if all the pieces fall into place, it can be effective. 

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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