Commentary

Tanking is not the thing that is happening

LastPlaceTrophyI’ve been traveling and spending time with in-laws over the past few days, so I’m a little late to the recent hubbub about the Phillies and “tanking.” The short: Buster Olney wrote that there’s growing concern in baseball that teams like the Phillies, Braves and Brewers are “designing failure” by swapping all established assets for unproven young talent.

He says this approach is the same as what those in basketball call “tanking.” You know, what people think the 76ers are doing.

John Stolnis of The Good Phight responded to this with a straightforward plea for Olney and other national writers to not deride the Phillies for doing exactly what they all wanted them to do in the first place – you know, swap all established assets for unproven young talent.

Olney responded. He said the Phils were doing the right thing “under the current rules,” implying there’s a greater emerging problem within baseball circles about perceived “tanking.”

Now, “current rules” include the worst team in baseball having the top amateur draft pick, the top Rule 5 draft pick, the most money to spend in the amateur draft, a potentially high international draft pool budget, the first waiver wire claiming rights; and in baseball there is no official penalty for keeping a low payroll, and penalty for a high payroll isn’t very substantial. So, according to Olney, the Phillies, Braves, Brewers, and potentially other teams (Rockies, Reds, Tigers) are riling up other executives because they may be “tanking” this year.

First off, they’re not tanking. If they are tanking, that means they’re purposely losing games to ensure all those benefits I listed above. Let’s just say right now that no front office is stupid enough to purposely lose games. They’ll be discovered, then penalized, then ostracized. Stop with the word “tanking.” Not even the 76ers – and yes, it can be hard to believe – are tanking.

The 76ers are taking advantage of the systems in place in the NBA. They’ve noticed that you only need to keep a certain payroll at a certain time, and they’ve noticed that it’s foolish to clog your payroll with bloated contracts, since the next big score can happen at any time. The 76ers are basically gaming a system. That’s not illegal. It’s a way to do things.

The Phillies, Braves, Brewers and others are also doing things a certain way. Just as the Yankees – with their enormous payroll and wealth of resources – can game the system through a deep international scouting system, incentive-based contracts and, yes, a franchise tradition that carries plenty of weight. Same with the Red Sox. Every three years the Sox rebuild completely – much in the way the Phillies are doing now – but because they have highly valuable assets at the top, they can rebuild quicker than other franchises.

Here’s the story of the Phillies:

A franchise run by a close group of investors regularly promoted talent from within. For decades – and many decades, by the way – the franchise had a poor track record, hitting paydirt once every 30 years or so. Still, they promoted talent from within, so in essence, philosophy rarely changed.

Then, like clockwork, the team suddenly struck paydirt with homegrown talent. It acted accordingly, spending tons of money and acting like a first-level franchise for five years. Then it fell apart because, well, it’s like clockwork.

Now, finally – after so many decades – the Phillies stopped hiring talent from within. They brought in an established executive with experience and success outside of Philadelphia. And he hired someone he trusted, who also was from outside of Philadelphia, to be general manager. And together they are starting to forge their own path. That path happens to be this: get rid of the assets, flood the farm system with talent, then use the resources you have in place. Those resources? A lot of money, a major market, and great international scouting success.

In short, the Phillies will be better sooner than you think. They’re not “tanking.” They’re being smart. For once.

Meanwhile the Braves, Brewers and whoever else is swapping assets for young talent aren’t “tanking,” either. They’re simply going through a process that they hope will get them to a championship soon. Just as the Diamondbacks are going through a process of trading young talent for established veterans, and signing high-priced free agents, because they feel they’re closer than most franchises to playoff contention.

Olney’s assertion that the issue is “the current rules” is just a narrow viewpoint espoused by a number of organizations that aren’t doing what the Phillies and other franchises are doing. The rules can and will change frequently, and as they do, teams will game them to whatever advantage they need. There will always be teams like the current Phillies, just as there will be always be teams like the current Yankees or current Diamondbacks. Why the hell does it matter how one team does things?

Maybe the teams expressing their opinion should worry more about how they’re gaming the system. And maybe the national writers reporting on this should attack the issues from all angles.

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