The Process has arrived in Major League Baseball.
In the offseason, teams look to build a competitive roster. Some try to build a team that can win the World Series. Others have their eyes further down the road, trying to parlay their assets into prospects that can deliver a championship in five to ten years time.
No longer. We still have teams playing for the World Series, but now we have a crop of woeful losers, a group of executives and front offices that are throwing games in more creative ways than the Chicago Black Sox could have ever thought possible.
Send in the Tank(er)s.
First it was the Marlins. The Marlins’ new ownership, fronted by CEO Derek Jeter, was hell-bent on cutting payroll and making the franchise a profitable endeavor. First went Dee Gordon, jettisoned to the Marlins. The biggest fish of all, Giancarlo Stanton, took his 59 home runs and headed north to the Bronx. Ozuna went to the Cardinals; Yelich to the Brewers. JT Realmuto and Justin Bour remain, but for how long? The Marlins Opening Day roster will consist of Who, What, and I Don’t Know.
Not to be outdone by their fellow Floridians, the Tampa Bay Rays also pledged allegiance to “The Process.” Back in December, the Rays traded franchise cornerstone 3B Evan Longoria to San Francisco in exchange for prospects. What began as a slow-burn turned into a fire-storm this week. First, the Rays acquired 1B CJ Cron from the Angels on the cheap, and then designated 2017 All-Star Corey Dickerson for assignment, leaving MLB Twitter to collectively scratch their heads and say “huh”? Starter Jake Odorizzi departed for chillier climes in Minnesota in another cost-cutting measure. Yesterday, the Rays threw another log on the fire by sending Steven Souza, Jr. to the Arizona Diamondbacks in a three-team deal, netting two prospects from the vaunted Yankees farm system. Ace starter Chris Archer is going to start looking over his shoulder like a character in a John Le Carre novel, ever-nervous that Rays GM Erik Neander has come calling for his head.
It’s a race to the bottom, and everyone is invited.
Bad baseball teams are nothing new. I grew up near Detroit. I remember 2003, when the Tigers finished with one of the worst records in history at 43-119 (I was understandably a bit more into hockey then).
Teams have life cycles: the core comes up through the farm system, free agents are added, and (hopefully) the team makes the playoffs, and maybe even wins a World Series, during that core’s prime. Then Father Time takes it’s toll, the core ages past it’s window, and the team has to sell off what it can and rebuild for the next cycle. No team is successful forever–even the Yankees and Dodgers have had rough stretches, though Marlins fans might kill to experience a Yankees rough stretch. Every team loses.
But this crop of losers is different. This isn’t rebuilding. This is tanking. And there’s miles between the two.
Oftentimes teams entering a rebuild have no path to the playoffs. The core is too old to compete for the championship. The older players are on expensive contracts, hindering the front office’s ability to add more talent to the team. They could break the bank, luxury tax be damned, and still miss the playoffs. Rebuilding teams, in short, don’t have a choice–their fastest path to a championship is a total tear-down.
Rebuilding teams are bad–they are, by definition, rebuilding. But they also make an effort to be competitive–or, at least, they make an effort to look competitive. They sign free agents to short-term, cheap contracts–if the players perform well the first half of the season, the team can flip them for prospects to aid the rebuild.
For rebuilding teams, the goal is to build a winner. They get rid of the contracts and players that are no good, and work to replace them with more flexible free-agent signings and younger, team-controllable players that can become the team’s future core. That promise of future success, and the short-term deals that signal a commitment to putting a competent product on the field, keep fans in their seats through leaner years.
Tanking teams aren’t awful, at least at the start. The Marlins finished second in their division. They were 11th in runs scored, and 10th in team OBP. Their lineup was anchored around the 2017 NL MVP and a host of young superstar outfielders on team-friendly contracts. The Rays were just five games back in a crowded AL Wildcard race. Their pitching staff posted an eighth-best ERA of 3.97, with both the starting rotation and the bullpen finishing in the top ten.
The Marlins needed a front-line starter. The Rays needed to re-sign one of their own starters, and add an impact bat. Had they done that, maybe both of them make the 2018 MLB Postseason. Instead, they’ve already thrown up the white flag, and it’s not even March.
Why do we play sports? Why do we watch them? What’s the point? Any answer to those complex questions has to include something about competition. We love to compete, to test ourselves against the best. The pinnacle of that competition in baseball is Major League competition–these teams are made up of the best in the world, all working their tails off to hold the Commissioner’s Trophy at the end of October.
Tanking teams take that idea of competition, spit on it, throw it in the garbage can, and light it on fire like the rest of their rosters. The Rays and the Marlins have no intention of competing this year. Brand it however you want–a “cost-saving measure,” a “rebuild,” whatever–it’s a joke and an affront to the competition that makes baseball great.
The Rays and the Marlins are going to lose this year. But the real losers are their fans, and fans of the sport as a whole. We deserve to see the best in the world competing at the highest level. Fans of Tampa Bay and Miami–if they have any left, after these stunts–deserve to support a team that is at least making an attempt to be competitive, even if fans and executives alike have tempered expectations.
Rob Manfred and the powers that be have decided that pace of play is the number one issue facing MLB. But I’ll leave you with this. Would you rather watch a five hour baseball game like we saw in the World Series, with two elite teams going back and forth and leaving it all on the field, or a three hour snooze-fest between the Marlins and the Rays, two teams that have packed it in before the snow even melts?
I know which game I’d attend.