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Sometimes, the Major League Baseball (MLB) team that you root for just isn’t great. They’re not terrible by any means, they’ve got some talented players who are in the prime of their careers, but they’re a long way off winning a championship. That’s fine, the majority of teams don’t win a championship every year, that’s just how it works. Some people would say that the best way to transform this not great team into a real contender is to spend some money, sign some free agents to big contracts. For many years, this is how the New York Yankees were so successful. But spending isn’t possible for every team, especially for the “small market” teams who aren’t getting the big bucks through massive TV deals. And so, a new strategy was thought up of how to take a bad team and make it a great team: Tanking.
In simple terms, tanking is when you’re bad for a few years so that you can acquire young players who all reach the major leagues at once and become great. This is done through a two-step process (three if you count the end result). The first step is to trade away every player on your team with even a slight amount of value, in return for prospects. Baseball is very different to other sports because when a young player gets drafted, they aren’t expected to play in the MLB straight away. Instead they are sent to the affiliated minor leagues. In these lower levels, the minor league teams polish raw talent into major league skill. The amount of time it takes a player to progress through the minors varies, but the very best young players can do it in about two years. This means that these trades for prospects are trading away current production for future production. As prospects are never a certain thing, they are usually swapped in so the tanking team gets a few prospects in return for one current MLB player. The team also benefits because it’s able to slash its payroll. This means that it can save money for a few years and then spend what it saved on signing new players once the team is actually good.
A great example of a team doing this is the Chicago White Sox trading with the Boston Red Sox in 2016. The Red Sox were ready to win and had an abundance of high level prospects. The White Sox had one of the best starting pitchers in baseball who also happened to be on a team-friendly contract in Chris Sale. So they did a deal, Chris Sale for 4 prospects, including the best ranked prospect in the world, Yoan Moncada. The deal works for both sides, the Red Sox won the 2018 World Series with a huge help from Sale, and the White Sox have developed these prospects into players poised to be stars at the major leagues.
The other step in a rebuild is the amateur draft. The draft is the main reason why tanking and rebuilding is possible in most American sports and not in other sports such as football. In American professional leagues the teams are fixed and not under threat from relegation. Instead the team with the worst record at the end of the season gets the first pick in the amateur draft next year. This means they have first crack at signing more young players, in addition to the players acquired through trades. Tanking teams always have the first picks because they traded away all of their good players, so aren’t competitive at the major-league level.
Hopefully it has become pretty clear why teams tank. It’s about recognising that you won’t win in the short term and looking ahead to the future in the cheapest possible way. In baseball tanking is the ‘next big thing’ and it’s been used by the last three World Series champions to some extent. Because of this, fans are more willing to accept the long stretches of losing as long as the end is in sight. Of course, not all rebuilds are successful, often poor scouting or injuries are able to totally derail a rebuilding team and delay or destroy the future winning years. However, most teams recognise the risk as worth the reward.
So, if you see your favourite team start to lose on a daily basis just remember, they probably know what they’re doing (unless you’re the Orioles).