February 10, 2016

Baseball Teams Don’t Tank but Sometimes They Rebuild

There’s been a lot written lately about baseball teams tanking and what should be done about it.  What most people mean by tanking is teams losing on purpose so that they are better positioned to win in the future (or perhaps losing to lower payroll and to increase profits).  The Cubs and Astros are the latest success stories when it comes to losing in the present to win in the future and are examples given as to franchises rewarded for tanking.  The Braves, since the beginning of last offseason, are one of the teams accused of tanking.

Maybe I’m naive but I don’t think any team tanks in the sense that they want to lose to jockey for a higher draft pick or more draft picks.  Think about it, do you think the Braves can do much to control or do you think they care whether they get the first pick or the third pick?  (I think maybe only one team habitually positions itself to lose for the purposes of profit: the Miami Marlins.) Many teams just get to a point where they need to be more concerned with the future than the present, so they make moves to infuse their organizations with cheap, young talent that is controlled for a number of years.  This is usually going to lead to losing. But if a team could infuse their organization with talent without it leading to losing, they would gladly do it.

The Braves, for instance, needed to trade present assets for future assets to better position themselves for the future.  They could have probably kept going trying to make moves to be mediocre for the next few years but what’s the point?  Why not trade whatever valuable present assets in order to build something better than mediocre?  The Braves would rather not have lost as much as they did in 2015 and would rather not lose as much as they likely will in 2016.  If there were any way to build for the future without the losing, they would do it.  They don’t want to lose nor is profit the primary driver for the front office.

The Braves clearly made moves that resulted in slashing payroll.  When a team makes moves that result in a drop in player payroll, the natural reaction of fans is skepticism.  And there is a valid reason for this.  All teams want to make profits.  Baseball is a business as well as a sport.  So one of the goals in making moves that result in slashing the player payroll is, in fact, to slash the player payroll.

But all teams and their owners also want to win.  Winning also drives profits.  So there is a balancing act all teams are trying to play between keeping payroll as low as possible while winning as many games as possible.  For some teams, keeping payroll low is not all that necessary because they are bringing in a ton of revenue.  So those teams can pay more for players.  For other teams, like the Braves, keeping payroll low is important.  Otherwise the profit goes away, the team doesn’t have money to build a very deep roster, and they don’t win nor do they make a profit.

In the past teams were more fearful of making moves to lower payroll in order to infuse their organizations with cheap, young talent.  The thought was that if they let go or failed to keep or acquire names and fan favorites, they would alienate the fan base and it would take a long time to earn the trust of fans and be profitable.  But what more and more teams have realized over the past decade or so is that fans show up when teams win.  Better to avoid hanging on to fan favorites or avoid acquiring names when doing so is going to set the franchise back.

Teams have always rebuilt but in the past it was typically after they were forced to.  For teams in the past, it wasn’t so much a rebuilding strategy as rebuilding for survival.  But teams have now realized that it’s counterproductive to keep players around to stay mediocre and hope to be competitive by some miracle.  It’s better to bit the bullet and rid yourself of any and all players that could help you stay mediocre but will also set you back for the future.  It’s better to make moves to improve your future prospects and lose 90-100 games than to try and stay relevant and hope that the franchise turns around.

The idea is so simple that it’s easy to be skeptical.  But it really is that simple.  If a team makes moves and if fully committed to acquiring young, cheap talent with lots of years of team control, they will turn things around.  Yes, prospects are just prospects until they do something in the majors.  Yes, plenty of the best prospects will fail.  But when a team if fully committed to loading up on prospects, they will have enough players who actualize their prospect potential to make up for those who fail. This is why it’s important for a team to decide to go all in on a rebuild once the future looks bleak with their current major league roster.  If the team is trying to hang on with that roster and hoping for the best with only a few prospects, the margin of error is low.  Loading up on prospects means the margin of error is much higher.  If one prospect fails, you just cycle in another then another until you have enough players realizing their potential at one time.

Every team has a plan, now more than ever.  Teams realize now more than ever that payroll is not as big a hindrance to winning as they once thought.  Rebuilding is a better strategy than trying to stay relevant by being mediocre and hoping to get lucky.  Still, Braves or any other rebuilding team would be thrilled if their major league team miraculously contended or even stayed relevant. But they are also going to continue to make moves to increase their odds of greatness in the future rather than mediocrity in the present.  And they aren’t going to make moves in the present to hinder their chance for greatness in the future.



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