Tanks, damned tanks, dollars, and nonsense

Colorado Rockies v Miami Marlins

Marlins Park will be one the projected almost half of major league baseball stadiums without hosting even a cursory effort at winning baseball this season.

You don’t have to run numbers through processors to know two things: 1) Mere spending doesn’t always get you to the Promised Land, a.k.a. winning the World Series. 2) Last year, the team that spent the most in baseball on their payroll and their farm system got to the Promised Land. And they beat a team that’s gone to six straight postseasons and won back-to-back pennants and just so happens to be baseball’s richest at this writing.

Sports Illustrated‘s Jon Tayler took Commissioner Rob Manfred’s press conference bull by the proverbial horns Monday morning. Manfred denies there are such things as tanking teams. The players’ union and every baseball fan with the minimum mental capacity knows there are. “I reject the notion that payroll is a good measure for how much a team is trying or how successful that team is going to be,” Manfred told a group of reporters. Tayler knows Manfred isn’t wrong technically, just disingenuous:

The highest payroll doesn’t guarantee a World Series ring, but teams that don’t spend don’t often reach late October . . . The Marlins, Pirates and several other teams, meanwhile, cut payroll and neglected free agents, barely competing last year and not expected to be much better in 2019. Those teams aren’t trying to be good. In the case of Miami or Seattle or Baltimore, a club made the choice to be bad, hope for a top draft pick, and reap the financial benefits of failing.

It’s bad enough to root for a team rich in resources, unafraid to deploy them, and stuck yet again with coming up short enough. (I’m talking about you, Met and Angel fans.) It’s worse to root for a team making a seemingly conscious decision against deploying their resources and making even a semblance of trying to compete reasonably while in favour of pumping up its profits. (I’m talking about you, Mariners, Marlins, Orioles, Pirates, and Royals fans, among others.)

“Why should Marlins fans believe that yet another teardown—apparently two NL MVPs and the game’s best young catcher wasn’t enough to win—will lead anywhere other than yet another rebuild once the new prospects become expensive major leaguers?” Tayler asks, reasonably. “Why should Mariners fans simply trust that better is on the horizon after the front office—owners of the longest playoff drought in professional sports—dumped all the good players for pennies? What do Orioles and Royals and Pirates fans have to look forward to besides the changing of the seasons?”

Last winter players’ union executive director Tony Clark fingered the Athletics, the Marlins, the Pirates, and the Rays for not spending their revenue sharings. Manfred thinks Clark accused them of tanking. Manfred can’t seem to conjugate the distinction between just having a bad season and pocketing money that other teams would have spent on their parent rosters, their farm systems, or both.

The A’s made it to last year’s wild card game; the Pirates and the Rays had +.500 seasons; all four teams had four out of baseball’s five lowest payrolls, and three (the Marlins, the Pirates, and the Rays) cut payroll this winter. Teams may now be wary of handing out deals longer than five years to players past a certain age, and that wariness is not a terrible thing, but if the commissioner thinks there are no such things as consciously tanking teams, he’s blissfully unaware of things like:

* The Cubs and the Astros consciously tanking on behalf of retooling their parent clubs and their systems toward exactly what they achieved in the past few seasons: winning World Series and breaking ages-old Series championship droughts, and continuing competitiveness toward postseasons to follow.

* Fellow tankers using the Cubs and the Astros plans to justify their own tankings without making half the effort the Cubs and the Astros made to return themselves to actual competitiveness. The Cubs and the Astros said from the beginning of their tanks that they had an actual goal. Call it a kind of analogy to Babe Ruth’s actual or alleged called shot: the Cubs and the Astros pointed their bats to the right field seats and hit the balls right there.

* Baseball Prospectus projecting thirteen teams to finish below .500 in 2019, with the Orioles projected to lose 103 without half the style of the 1962-64 Mets; the Tigers to lose 95; the Marlins to lose 94; and, the Rangers to lose 93. Of the sub-.500 finishers projected, they include four out of five American League West teams and three out of five AL  Central teams. They also include two AL East teams (the Woe-rioles and the Rays), one National League East team (three guesses), two NL Central teams (the Pirates and . . . the Cubs, who haven’t been afraid to spend but didn’t lift much of a finger this winter, either), and two NL West teams (the Padres and the Giants). Almost half of major league baseball.

Does Manfred still believe every team is putting their best feet forward? Is that why he’s not willing to try the players’ union’s best idea yet, a tanking tax that would cost teams judged willing to present bad baseball while still making copious money choice draft positions?

Understood: There must be Goliaths for baseball’s Davids to slay. But without the right  slingshot David hasn’t got a prayer. Understood further: Each team in major league baseball is guaranteed $60 million in its hot little hands before the season’s first pitch is thrown. They don’t have to do one blessed thing to get it. And that’s just from shares of national broadcast money and shares from the profits MLBAdvancedMedia generates. Throw in the $20-$30 million each team gets from local/regional broadcast money and we speak now of each team adding $80-$90 million before Opening Day’s first holler of “Play ball!”

And even baseball’s least contentious superstar is not amused by what he sees.

“Everybody sees it. It’s obviously not good for baseball,” says Mike Trout, a player who is compared to the game’s all-time greats over his first eight seasons and looks to qualify as a no-questions-asked Hall of Famer by the time he reaches his first free agency at the end of the 2020 season.

“You got two of the top guys not signed yet. With teams saying they want to rebuild, why not start with one of the top guys?” Trout asks, not unreasonably. “Manny (Machado), Bryce (Harper), look at the pitchers out there. It’s pretty incredible. It’s disappointing for the players.”

Trout plays for a team that evokes the flip side of the tanking issue: his Angels are unafraid to spend, but they spend with unintended consequences (Albert Pujols, ten years and mostly unforeseen physical issues, to name the most notorious) and can’t seem to find ways to keep half their pitching staffs off the disabled list. (The Angels of the past few seasons are not unlike the 1960s Reds who developed sterling pitching only to watch just about all of it come down with arm and shoulder issues that kept them from greatness.) The good news: the Angels, and any other team “saddled” with gigacontracts involving players who can’t avoid injuries, recover the monies guaranteed those players via insurance. They’re not exactly going broke on them.

Harper and Machado have their particular issues. A plumb deeper than the surface of the dollars they’re believed to want reveals that, for all their talents and for all the evidence of their superior play, well, neither of the pair is Mike Trout. They’re both still young men. But Harper is a contradictory player who can be breathtakingly brilliant one week and breathtakingly ordinary the next, who can hustle himself into injuries one minute and give up the ghost running out ground balls the next.

The least problematic portion of Harper’s position now is his 2018 season. Yes, he finished with a modest .247 batting average, which seems to be the number one strike against him in the eyes of those fans who aren’t entirely seduced by him. But he was still the sixth-best in the National League at reaching base and scoring runs last year. And, just before the All-Star break, Harper stopped worrying about his launch angles and, secondarily, overshifts against him, and started thinking just about putting the bat on the ball. He still got his home runs; he still drove 100 runs home on the season; and, he hit .300 in the second half of the season.

The most problematic remained the perception that for all his achievements Harper is still not a completely sound fundamental player. Thomas Boswell isolated the point in the Washington Post Monday: “When the most famous player on the [Nationals] can’t go ten days without failing to run out a ground ball or overthrowing a cutoff man by fifteen feet or throwing to the wrong base or being caught unprepared in the outfield or on the bases, it’s hard to demand total alertness from the other 24.” Yet the Nats were still said to be willing to pay him $300 million for ten years to come, an offer Harper rejected and is now thought off the table entirely.

Harper at least has never spoken aloud of being a player who doesn’t always put his best effort forth. Machado has. Notoriously. As in, during the National League Championship Series, when he didn’t run a grounder out in Game Two, and slid so half competently in Game Three that one of the two slides helped make a double play against the Dodgers, then admitted to The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal, “Obviously I’m not going to change, I’m not the type of player that’s going to be ‘Johnny Hustle,’ and run down the line and slide to first base and . . . you know, whatever can happen. That’s just not my personality, that’s not my cup of tea, that’s not who I am.”

But Machado went further in the same interview: “Should I have given it a little more effort? One hundred percent. (It’s) my fault like always, I mean that’s just my mentality when I’m in the game. (There are) things that you learn, things that you gotta change. I’ve tried changing it for eight years and I still can’t figure it out but, one of these days I will.” To which Rosenthal added, “Some will see accountability in Machado’s words, viewing him a player who wants to do the right thing, but for whatever reason stumbles at certain times. Others will react to his, ‘I’m not ‘Johnny Hustle’ comment and lambaste him . . . considering anything less than maximum effort unacceptable. Still others might adopt an opinion somewhere in between, appreciating the nuance in Machado’s remarks.”

Those would be legitimate reasons for teams otherwise willing to show them the money to be slow if not hesitant to sign either Harper or Machado. The classic question of whether their best outweighs their worst. Boswell observes a lessening of tension among the Nats, whose clubhouse wasn’t always a model of stability with unquestioned leadership since Jayson Werth’s departure and whose previous managers “rarely said a discouraging word [about Harper, we presume] and owned no whip.” And Machado is often seen as a player who crosses lines into dirty play often enough to provoke questions as to how that might translate in a new clubhouse.

Two teams some suspect of going into the tank otherwise have shown interest in Machado: the Padres, who actually seem trying to win no matter that Baseball Prospectus projects them a sub-.500 team this season; and, the White Sox, projected to lose 92 this year. The Padres have also shown interest in Harper, as have the Giants. And the talk that it’s still going to end up with Harper in a Phillies’ uniform continues apace, the Phillies being projected as a +.500 team in 2019 even if they’re not predicted to win the NL East just yet. And the talk of “mystery” teams ready to pounce on either continues likewise.

But if either or both players sign right now, wherever, it still leaves a number of free agents unsigned who are either top of the line players or have been there and still have quality enough to offer. There seems no legitimate reason why Dallas Keuchel doesn’t yet have a job with a team who could benefit from a veteran established starting pitcher whose Cy Young season now seems an outlier but who still delivers. Or, why Craig Kimbrel doesn’t yet have a job with a team in need of an established closer, unless his skittish gigs last October have contending teams edgy that he’ll give them a lights out regular season and a nightly angina attack this coming October.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox ponder a contract extension for their starter Chris Sale, and the Mets ponder likewise with their defending Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom. Both pitchers, two of the best in the business, seem to want to stay with those teams for a considerable time to come. And Sale’s team’s owner has knocked Manfred’s disingenuity about tanking into the proverbial cocked hat. John Henry says that while there’s no such thing as the perfect correlation between team payroll and winning, “spending money helps.”

Spending wisely helps, and it would be comforting if we could take for granted that all owners really believe in wise over profligate spending. But not spending at all is the wisdom of fools. And there will be too many fools continuing to make money no matter how embarrassing will be the teams they put on the field.

Fans who think all this is nothing more than billionaires refusing to invest in millionaires who just so happen to be the product baseball sells might want to remember two things: You get what you pay for, and you don’t get what you don’t pay for. And a few too many teams are still trying to make money giving you what you don’t pay for—consciously losing baseball.

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