We know full well that entering a season, some teams simply are not going to compete. The Brewers, Reds, and Phillies are certainly rebuilding. The Rockies are locked in mediocrity due to a lack of pitching for the umpteenth year and have discussed trading star outfielder Carlos Gonzalez. Of course, injuries will strike other teams and their seasons will be over before we even reach the All-Star break.
Sometimes teams do build sub-optimal rosters on purpose. We know full well that the Astros from just a couple years ago engaged in an ambitious rebuild in which they didn't just trade away all of their assets, but they burned down the organization as well. It was often criticized and though the city of Houston went through several terrible years, the Astros came out of the wreckage dominating the AL West for most of the season.
After the Astros went through three consecutive 100-loss seasons only to emerge as an AL powerhouse for at least the next few years, MLB owners are now concerned that other teams may follow the same blueprint. Sports have always been a copycat industry and naturally if an organization is stuck in the middle of the pack, it has two options: add some pieces to become contenders, or "tank" like the Astros for a few years and then become a better team later.
This is interesting, the idea of tanking has been around seemingly forever in the NBA. In baseball, we've always called it "rebuilding." Owners are concerned that small-market teams are going to take money from revenue sharing and pocket it rather than using it to improve their competitiveness, which was the intent when revenue sharing was created. I find this humorous because owners are constantly being accused of pocketing money. Anyone around here have a publicly-financed ballpark?
As a result, the owners have discussed turning the first few picks of the MLB draft into a lottery. Here's the thing though. It already is a lottery. No, not in the sense that the NBA draft has ping pong balls and there are constant theories that the whole thing is fixed (seriously, how else did the Cavaliers win the lottery with the fourth-worst record after losing LeBron James?). I mean that every single player taken in any draft ever is already a lottery ticket.
In the NBA especially when only five players can take the court for your team, having one superstar can make a huge difference. The Timberwolves constantly trotted out teams that consisted of Kevin Garnett and role players and yet they found themselves in the middle of the pack every single year. Now try doing that with a baseball team. Mike Trout or Clayton Kershaw aren't going to carry a team to the playoffs on their own for several reasons. One, there's nine players on the field every game. Two, fewer teams make the playoffs. The NBA is built in such a way that drafting a top young player can drastically improve your team.
That is, if you even hit on that player. As I said before, every player taken in any draft is already a lottery ticket. Sure, some are safer bets than others, but every player has some amount of risk when taken. Granted, you do have some years where there are consensus #1 picks like the Nationals getting Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper in consecutive drafts, but that's not always the case. Top picks do bust. If your baseball team wants to punt a season, it's doing so knowing full well that help will not arrive immediately and that the help desired may not even pan out.
Next, do you all remember the 2011 season for the Twins? It's okay if you don't, whether from memory loss suffered from banging your head against the wall or from the blackouts after drinking away another Twins defeat. To quickly recap that terrible, terrible year, it was a team coming off a playoff appearance that was supposed to compete once again. However, injuries and bad decisions struck left and right. Luke Hughes and Matt Tolbert combined for over 500 plate appearances. J.J. Hardy was shipped off for two terrible relievers. Tsuyoshi Nishioka happened. It was awful, utterly unwatchable (except for Jim Thome's 600th home run, then he was shipped off) and the team finished 63-99, which was only good for the second-worst record because the Astros and their scorched-earth rebuild took the bottom spot in the standings.
The best part? The Astros were actually tanking. Meanwhile, that year's Twins team was trying to win. Instead, through bad luck and bad decisions, the organization trotted out the worst performing roster we've seen since the '90s. Now, the MLB owners were discussing a draft lottery to discourage tanking. Imagine if the Twins had gone through all that accidental suffering only to find out they were also cursed by whatever demons haunt Timberwolves drafts. (For the non-basketball fan, excluding the 2015 draft in receiving Karl-Anthony Towns with the #1 overall pick, the Wolves' luck with lottery picks has been putrid). In other words, the Twins stumble to the second-worst record without trying but the lottery kicks them back to the third or fourth pick instead.
Finally, all of this hand-wringing has been caused because of draft slotting in MLB. Fearful of the bonuses teams were handing out to players, slotting was introduced in which teams could only spend a certain amount in the draft or else be penalized. Teams with earlier picks would be allotted more money to spend, since those players would demand a higher bonus. This has created the unintended aftereffect where teams may want to lose more games in order to be able to spend more money on the draft, hence why the owners are against tanking. However, this was a problem that MLB itself created in introducing the slotting system because it felt draft bonuses were getting out of control.
Why is this all possible? Because MLB for years has shown far more favoritism towards the established players in the major leagues rather than the minor league talent. There are many within the industry that feel that an organization's money should be spent on the players that are actually on your TV screen or in your fantasy baseball lineup than those that are donning uniforms at Field of Broken Dreams, Iowa. I guess it makes a little sense, you'd rather have your money going to the proven commodity that can earn you more money and help your team now instead of the guy down on the farm that's several years away. But, that's how the game works now. Teams value the draft more than ever and general managers have different intentions than the owners and players.
I don't think tanking in baseball is a problem. This season, only the Phillies and Brewers appear to be fighting for worst in the league. Everyone else has some semblance of being at least mediocre, whether or not that is beneficial for the team in the long run (I'm looking at you, Rockies). The owners simply appear to be searching for a solution to a problem that doesn't exist, or maybe just a problem that exists only to them.