The Inconvenient Truth About Tanking

This morning, the Cincinnati Reds announced that they were parting ways with manager Bryan Price after the team started with a 3-15 record.

After failing to reach 70 wins for three consecutive seasons, moving on from Price is the smart move. The problem extends far beyond the manager’s bench, though; the Reds are an example of tanking gone bad.

Tanking is the alchemy of major league sports. It’s the art of creating something from nothing, of manufacturing championships from seasons of misery.

Unlike alchemy, the formula for tanking is well known. Take a mediocre team. Sell off everything in a bid to acquire prospects. Lose. A lot. Get more prospects through the draft. Keep losing while those prospects marinate in the minor leagues. Get the prospects up to the big leagues. Add a couple of key free agents. Celebrate a championship.

Astros World Series.jpg
Was it worth all the losing? If tanking leads to this, it’s hard to say no.

Tanking has become more popular because it has worked–baseball, like every sports league, is a copycat league. Theo Epstein took over a mediocre Cubs team, ripped it apart to acquire prospects, and eventually broke the 108-year drought in Wrigleyville in 2016. The Astros were a laughingstock in the early 2010s, posting three consecutive 100-loss seasons. All that losing netted them George Springer, Carlos Correa, and Alex Bregman, players that proved critical to the Astros’ World Series run in 2017.

There are more teams than ever who don’t seem interested in competing in the 2018 season. The White Sox have a strong farm system, but not a strong team. The Braves’ prospects are starting to trickle into the majors. The Marlins and Rays have unabashedly, systematically, destroyed their rosters in an effort to build for the future and cut spending.

When a team tanks, or goes through a rebuild, they sell their fanbase a bill of false goods. They knowingly put a subpar product on the field, throwing in the towel on the season before the snow melts in spring. They convince the fans to stick around by telling them it will all be worth it down the road; that the misery you’re feeling right now will make the eventual championship that much sweeter.

But what if that championship doesn’t come? What if the rebuild, the tanking, is leading to nowhere? This is the biggest lie of the tanking philosophy: all this losing will lead to a championship.

Nothing is guaranteed in baseball. Prospects that get drafted might not sign with the team that drafted them. A pitching prospect may tear their UCL and need Tommy John. An offensive prospect might struggle to hit big league curveballs, and spend his professional career mired in the minors. All the top draft picks in the world won’t guarantee success.

That’s the inconvenient truth the Cincinnati Reds are facing.

Luis Castillo.jpg
One of the Reds’ top young pitchers, Luis Castillo currently sports a 6.75 ERA.

The Reds focused on building a young pitching staff that could lead the team out of the rebuild and into the postseason. In 2015, 7 of their top 10 prospects were pitchers. They figured that if they could build an elite rotation out of their farm system, enough of the young hitters would graduate into the majors as well, and free agency could supply the rest of the offense.

By this stage in a rebuild, a team should make some semblance of progress. At least some of these starting pitchers should show the potential to turn into difference-makers at the major league level.

Many of the Reds pitching prospects have made their way up to Cincinnati, but their results have been underwhelming. Five of the six pitchers that have started a game for Cincinnati are 25-or-under. All five have ERAs above 5.00. The only pitcher that has looked halfway decent as a starter for the Reds is old friend Homer Bailey, who’s on the wrong side of thirty. The pitching staff as a whole have posted a 5.42 ERA on the season, a season in which the team has gone 3-15 with an MLB-worst minus-46 run differential.

Hunter Greene
Can top prospect Hunter Greene make a difference? Maybe, but he’s still down at Single-A Dayton, and is a few years away from the major leagues.

There is still talent in the farm system, including 2017 draft pick Hunter Greene and Triple-A standout Nick Senzel. But the pipeline isn’t deep or skilled enough to compete with the elite teams like the White Sox, Braves, Padres, or Yankees. In short, the current team is terrible, and the quality of the farm system isn’t good enough to give any hope that the Reds could win a championship in a few years.

The sacking of manager Bryan Price is not part of the “master plan” of tanking in Cincinnati; it’s a sign that the plan has gone off the rails. None of their top prospects have made an impact at the big league level, and the rebuild trudges on into its fourth year with negligible results. Maybe a new manager and coaching staff can do a better job of getting the youngsters ready for big-league competition; maybe they can still create something from nothing, create a championship from a pile of losses.

Until they do, Cincinnati’s fans will be left wondering whether all the tanking and promises of future success were just a bridge to nowhere.

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