Two kinds of tanking

2019-01-29 miketrout
There are tankers, and then there are the Angels, whose inability to build Mike Trout a winner may yet cost them the future Hall of Famer while he’s still in his prime . . .

So much for the Dodgers dealing Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, and Alex Wood to the Reds for a struggling major league pitcher (Homer Bailey, whom the Dodgers subsequently released*), a pair of prospects, and room to make a run at Bryce Harper. Unless they’re laying in the weeds ready to strike, and team president Stan Kasten played artful Dodger when saying the team’s shrinking payroll doesn’t mean they won’t be playing for another National League West title.

Because right now the only thing the Dodgers reeled in after dumping the Puig-Kemp-Wood salaries on the Reds was, apparently, room to sign . . . A.J. Pollock, who gives the Dodgers the righthanded bat they wanted. He also gives them a track record marred by injuries and showing less than ideal performance for a righthanded hitter against lefthanded pitching. (The slash line for Pollock against portsiders in 2018: .221/.277/.464 in 155 plate appearances.)

If Pollock stays healthy he’s a solid pickup. The key is “if.” He was an MVP candidate until he was injured yet again last year, and staying healthy means the Dodgers get a bargain for as long as he wears the uniform. He’s not Bryce Harper, though. And whomever has eyes for Harper should ponder that right now it looks reasonably certain that—unless outliers are laying in the same weeds ready to pounce—Harper’s liable to be wearing a Phillies uniform for the foreseeable future.

It’s one thing to observe as many in and out of the sporting press do that baseball’s owners seem to be trying to restore a semblance of player salary sanity, never mind that their track record generally suggests the owners may also be looking for new and devious ways to suppress the legitimate players’ market while stuffing their own pockets as deep as possible from baseball’s climbing revenues.

But too many teams still look like they’re tanking. I was skeptical of the idea myself at first but the evidence is just too powerful to overlook anymore. You don’t need only money to compete, of course, and this is no longer the era of small family-or-otherwise baseball ownerships who relied purely on the turnstile take to support their teams. Most of today’s ownerships are corporate and loaded, and too many of them seem indifferent about putting at minimum competitive teams on the field. CBS Sports’s Jonah Keri recently ran it down:

* The Orioles have been reduced by a ten-thumbed management approach to where their postseason appearances in recent seasons seem aberrations. The organisation and enough of their close observers seem to hope new management takes them upward, but coming off the worst season in franchise history since their years as the St. Louis Browns they seem content enough to stay in the tank awhile.

* The Royals’ pennant runs of 2014 and 2015 (and their World Series championship in ’15) now seem distant memories. “They’re hoping,” Keri writes, “they can reload through homegrown talent as they did during those glory years, but they’re going to keep payroll at rock-bottom levels and make fans wait years for results in the meantime. But hey, at least they’re stockpiling cheap speed, and plan to lose entertainingly.” The last team who lost entertainingly that I know of were the 1962 Mets. I just don’t see the Royals-to-be as baseball’s version of the Marx Brothers. Oh, wait: the Marxes usually prevailed at the end of their farcial foulups, bleeps, and blunders.

* The Marlins are in the tank deeper than Flipper ever was. They secured such a depth in 2018 after dumping an entire outfield—two of whom demanded trades away from such a hopeless enterprise (and who could blame them?) and replacing them with dubious prospects. Two thirds of that outfield went to the postseason in 2018 with other clubs and one of them ended up as the National League’s Most Valuable Player. And they’re not even thinking about losing entertainingly, either.

* That was then for the Tigers: Mike Illitch spending whatever he thought he had to spend to put something viable on the field. This is now: his son Chris, who isn’t exactly the Hal Steinbrenner to father George, cutting as close to the bone as he can get away with. Last year the Tigers’ package collapsed thanks to injuries and eroded performance from elderly veterans and less than viable youth. This year, the Tigers may look like a dollar store version. Never mind Miguel Cabrera saying he’s looking forward to having a mashup this year like in the good old days, you have to wonder whether all his injuries have worn him down and out.

* The good news for the Rangers and their fans: They actively and impressively patched up a lot of their pitching cracks and haven’t tried dumping what above-average talent they have. Yet. The bad news: They still have cracks elsewhere around the field. And they haven’t been that brilliant with their recent drafts or international work, while not even thinking about the more prime free agent market. Tanks a lot.

* The Giants’ three Series-in-five-years core got awful old fast enough. They haven’t yet made a move to suggest a tank job just yet, but two things suggest it isn’t impossible: 1) Hiring veteran Dodger front office wheel Farhan Zaidi, whose reputation is that of a budget hawk. 2) Dropping only too many hints that Madison Bumgarner—who hits the free agency market for the first time after the coming season—actually can be had for the right package to begin a rebuild.

* The Diamondbacks let three top of the line players with plenty of upside still inside them escape without so much as a by-your-leave. Paul Goldschmidt stands to solidify what the Cardinals started over after executing manager Mike Matheny during last season. Patrick Corbin pumps the Nationals’ overall pitching picture a little higher. Pollock won’t hurt the Dodgers if he’s healthy, even if the Dodgers might hurt themselves in other ways. And if you think the Snakes won’t flip Zack Greinke at the earliest opportunity, you think the Browns won the 1944 World Series after all.

* The Mariners had their best record in fifteen years in 2018. And they still decided to push the plunger. Goodbye Edwin Diaz, James Paxton, and Jean Segura, among players who still have miles to go before they sleep in baseball terms. I can’t be that critical of them prevailing upon the Mets to take Robinson Cano if they wanted Diaz; if Cano isn’t at the end of the line, he’s at least seeing the wrong light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. But Nelson Cruz was allowed to walk and he didn’t exactly look like he was approaching baseball’s walker age. And the pitching staff—especially with Felix Hernandez showing his age—isn’t exactly stable. As Keri observed, “going straight from a franchise’s best record in 15 years to a total teardown is anything but standard operating procedure in baseball.”

Remember: So far, tanking has worked only for the Astros and the Cubs. The Astros followed a World Series ring with almost getting back to the big dance. The Cubs returned to the postseason twice following their surrealistic World Series conquest, then sputtered down the stretch last year (and scored a measly two runs in the most important 22 innings of baseball they played, first to try to hold their NL Central supremacy and then to sneak into the postseason with a wild card), but they can be restored even if the Series-winning core’s window isn’t going to stay open very long. And their division looks a lot stronger up and down approaching 2019 than in recent seasons.

But the Astros and the Cubs made tanking work because they were smart enough to bring aboard some brains in the front office and deliver a few smart trades each and some equally smart player development. Without that in hand, tanking is an exercise in futility. Keri nails it down quite well:

It’s time to reassess the practice of tanking, though, and recognize it for what it is: cover for profit-hungry owners to line their pockets, at the expense of their own fans’ entertainment . . . [I]t can certainly make sense to trade contributing 30-somethings for untested younger players, since those younger players stand a better chance of being on the roster (and in or near their prime) the next time your favorite rebuilding team climbs back to relevance. But the combination of rich teams suddenly feigning terror at going over the luxury tax, qualifying offers tamping down players’ asking prices, a growing glut of older but still capable players getting ignored, and other factors has made it easier than ever to find useful talent on highly affordable, one-year deals.

For a look at the opposite issue, look to the Angels. They have baseball’s best all-around player and haven’t won a thing with him. And there are now whispers that, rather than the Angels looking to deal Mike Trout for a farm replenishment, Trout himself might be tempted to demand a trade if there doesn’t come a better team around him soon.

Now, it’s not that the Angels didn’t try. The season in which Trout was the no questions asked AL Rookie of the Year was the season in which the Angels extended Jered Weaver for a five-year bargain at a time Weaver approached an open market where he could have earned more. Who knew Weaver would finally wear down from all those innings as their workhorse ace?

Right after Trout’s 2011 cup of coffee the Angels landed Albert Pujols, a certain Hall of Famer still at prime value. Who knew a foot issue would turn into disaster for Pujols’s heels and knees and reduce him to a DH who’s got little left other than pure power? Pujols is still run productive and powerful (he hit career home run numbers 500 and 600 in Angels silks) but nothing much else. You can’t really blame either Pujols or the Angels—no player looks to incur injuries, if you don’t count those like Pete Reiser and Butch Hobson who played the game like physical war and didn’t get a third out of their talent that they could have gotten—but the deal still proved a disaster.

The Angels also threw some large dollars at C.J. Wilson, Josh Hamilton, and Zack Cozart. Who knew at the time they threw the dollars that Wilson would have only a couple of good years before his elbow ended his career? Who knew that Hamilton would struggle through injuries before one substance abuse relapse that drove owner Arte Moreno to run him out of town like a criminal despite facing the relapse like a man and owning up? Who knew that Cozart would struggle as a new Angel in 2018 before losing the final two-thirds of the season with a torn labrum incurred while fielding a grounder?

But a couple of years before Trout came into his own, the Angels gutted their scouting system ridiculously. First, they made international scouting director Clay Daniels the scapegoat for bonus skimming shenanigans by some of his subordinates; then, they pinked overall scouting chief Eddie Bane—one of whose last achievements was urging the Angels to sign a kid named Trout in the first place—as the scapegoat for a series of bad drafts and worse free agency signings and trades.

How often can you remember any team raising a Hall of Famer in the making while being absolutely incapable of putting a winning team around him while he’s in a prime that’s certain to last for a possible seven more seasons? (Trout at this writing is 27 years old.) The Cubs with Ernie Banks come to mind. Banks didn’t even taste a pennant race until he was 38 years old and having his last genuinely good season. Two part-time years later his career was over.

Trout’s at least tasted one or two. But only that. And he’s twenty times the player Banks was at the same age already. Trout is already the seventh-best center fielder ever to play the game by wins above replacement-level measurements; Jay Jaffee, the nonpareil Hall of Fame analyst, shows Trout’s peak value to be almost 20 WAR above the average Hall of Fame center fielder. He could very well pass the average career value Hall of Fame center fielder’s WAR this season.

Any team’s fans would kill for the chance to watch that kind of player in his prime. Angel fans would like to kill not because they have the blessing of watching Trout but because their administration with the best intentions haven’t built a team their best player can be proud of. And they may not blame him one bit, no matter how wrenching the loss, if Trout finally becomes fed up enough to want out even before he hits free agency for the first time.

Tanking teams are bad enough. Teams whose best intentions throw them in the tank time after time are just as bad. If not worse.


* Bailey waived his 10-5 rights to enable his release. Once a promising pitcher, Bailey’s career took a bad turn—from 2012-2014 he turned early-career control issues into a run as one of the National League’s better back-end starters—after he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2015. Entering that season he signed a six-year, $105 million extension to stay with the Reds.

But after recovering and rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, Bailey also underwent surgery to remove elbow bone spurs and incurred assorted knee issues . It’s not unreasonable to think those injuries and surgeries took a toll on his pitching tools; it’s likewise not unreasonable to think he was lucky to get in all or parts of twelve major league seasons at all.

 

 

 

 

 

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