One of the recent themes when discussing macro-issues related to MLB are the high number of teams that are ‘tanking’. Basically, teams consciously decide they do not wish to compete for a championship, but rather take several years to draft highly, trade any and all good players for younger, cost-controlled players, and wave the white flag in their division.
Both the Astros and Cubs consciously tanked earlier this decade, and both teams have been success stories since. The Astros’ rapid improvement is particularly remarkable, as the 2011 and 2012 teams combined for 106 wins, four years later, the 2016 squad posted 101 wins and won the World Series. During that time-span, yearly attendance dipped down to 1.6 million and then shot up to just under 3 million in just a few years — talk about a roller coaster!
Undoubtedly there are teams ‘tanking’ today (lest we forget the Marlins traded a reigning MVP champ in Giancarlo Stanton as well as 2018 MVP Christian Yelich), but another downside to the current iteration to the game is teams are passive in their moves, choosing instead to maximize profits.
The current playoff format is partly to blame, after all, the team with the best record of 162-game generally comes up short of a World Series championship. Of the 49 seasons since the introduction of playoff format era in 1969, only 13 World Series champions posted the best regular season record. With more teams making the playoffs and more rounds to play, the playoff format is fun, but more of a short-term tournament then a way to crown the most talented team in baseball.
Looking back a few months ago, most of us were surprised by the lack of transactions and improvement by the Cleveland Indians last offseason. There was a sense that management got fat-and-happy with their clear-cut position as the favorites in the AL Central. The logic being that regardless of whether you win the division by three games or thirty, the Tribe would be subject to a short, five-game ALDS, which means improving the margins would not have a major impact.
The Twins threw a wrench in this plan earlier this season, coming out-of-the-gate strong, and compiling a massive double-digit lead on the Indians. The Twins have come back to earth, and the Indians have been playing as was expected. They are now in a virtual two-way-tie atop the AL Central, not really due to additions of Cleveland, but rather due to the long duration and grind of a 162-game season.
At the trade deadline, the Indians bolstered their outfield by trading for Yasiel Puig but in doing so, they traded away one of their top pitchers in Trevor Bauer. Can you imagine the hot takes if in the early 2000s, the Yankees or Red Sox traded away one of their top starters while sitting in a playoff spot?
The Yankees and Red Sox also stood-pat during the trade deadline, basically asserting they are content entering the last eight weeks of the season with their currently constructed rosters. Both decisions are pretty egregious but for different reasons.
While the Yankees are well-positioned to win the American League East, their starting rotation has major questions. Even if the Yankees did not wish to pay the price required for an impact-starter such as Trevor Bauer or Zack Greinke, they chose to not even upgrade the back-end of the rotation.
In a short series, the bullpen may be as important, if not more important, than the starting rotation. Many people (including former skipper and MLB Analyst Joe Girardi) thought that at the very least, the Yanks should add bullpen depth to shorten games amidst a rotation that rarely gets out of the fifth or sixth inning. Bolstering a bullpen rarely backfires going down the stretch, and with the inconsistent recent track-record of Masahiro Tanaka, J.A. Happ, and James Paxton, doing so made all the sense in the world…but the Yankees chose the status quo.
The Red Sox went all-in on their current roster as well, except they were (and are) continuing to go in the wrong direction. Dave Dombrowski largely brought back the same roster that won a franchise record 108 games in 2018, but it became clear right at the start of the season that the rotation would need bolstering, and the bullpen left much to be desired. Boston ended April with a 13-17 record.
Instead of adding players to make a run at a wild card spot — a wild card spot that was very much within reach at the trade deadline — the Red Sox did nothing, and went all-in on a flawed roster. Unsurprisingly, they have sunk even further out of the wild card race in the last two weeks.
This brings us back to the Astros.
While it may not make us feel great how they went about preparing for this run of success, and they setup the modern playbook for using tanking as a rebuilding tool (we can pretend the Marlins will have the same level of success as the Astros, but who actually believes that?) the reality is that once they sniffed they could win the World Series, Houston was all-in.
The Astros commitment to winning in 2019 is commendable. On July 31st, despite owning an AL-best 69-40 record, and having an eight game divisional lead in front of the Athletics, they still went out and made the biggest acquisition of the deadline by adding Zack Greinke.
Since the trade deadline, Houston has been jockeying with the Yankees for best record in the AL. It would be sweet justice to have the Astros win the American League, demonstrating that if a team really wants to win, they need to continue to improve and strive to put together the best team possible.
Having the Indians or Yankees represent the AL in the World Series will simply add fuel to the narrative that a team should value profits over improvement. While we can and should recognize that organized sports is a business, no fan of any team is done any favors when a team holds back on moderate upgrades in order to increase profit margins.
Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano