Tanking, superteams, and the conspicuously quiet MLB Winter Meetings

by Paul West

Top-heaviness in professional sports leagues is not a new phenomenon.

From 1980 to 1991, the Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA’s Western Conference an astounding nine times, winning the title five times; the Houston Rockets won the conference two of the remaining times. Meanwhile, in the East, the Boston Celtics won their conference five times and took home three titles. Next, the Detroit Pistons went to the Finals three times in a row, winning twice, and the Houston Rockets won the two titles after that. Then came the Chicago Bulls, and you know what happened there. Also in the 80’s, the Islanders won four Stanley Cups in a row, then Edmonton Oilers won five of the next seven–all roughly generation after the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs combined for nearly every Stanley Cup for over a decade. Oh yeah: the Celtics basically won the 1960s, and they played the Celtics in the final round most of the time. In Major League Baseball, the Braves were actually called the “team of the 90’s” (despite only winning one World Series during that span), and the New York Yankees have strung together dynasties which rival the ones mentioned above.

All of this is to say that all of the muttering about superteams and lack of parity–fueled by the Golden State Warriors in the NBA, and the emergence of the Boston Red Sox and Houston Astros as clearly the most balanced and loaded teams in baseball–is both overblown and contrary to actual sports history. The aforementioned Lakers, Celtics, Bulls, Oilers, and Islanders dynasties were all stacked with future Hall of Famers and/or players who would be remembered as generational greats. In fact, these historical reference points should kill any notion that the ‘superteam’ should be blamed on millennials, free agency, chumminess among professional athletes, or any of the other things which are widely decried in contradiction of a nuanced view of the sports world.

Unfortunately, one phenomenon is somewhat new, at least insofar as it’s done openly and unabashedly by professional sports franchises: “tanking,” i.e. racing to the bottom of the standings in hopes of creating the next superteam via scorched earth policy.

For a while, baseball had some measure of parity, as teams like the Royals and Mets defied expectations to join the leaderboard for a couple of years while every year’s Wild Card races went down to the wire. But the Sox and Astros have become so clearly better than the rest of the field that lots of teams seem to be throwing up their metaphorical hands and saying, why bother? The fact that the Astros got this good on the heels of an astonishing run of miserable seasons only fuels the undertone that playing the long game is the way to the top. Meanwhile, viable arms and bats go unsigned, and the hot stove lies decidedly cold.

Major League Baseball’s current free agency was widely anticipated, given the bumper crop of talent on the open market–but thus far, the marketplace has been resoundingly quiet. Collusion amongst executives certainly has precedent, not to mention countless parallels in the history of both business and politics; but it’s exceedingly hard to prove, and even if it exists, it only addresses part of the problem. Free agency is a threshold which needed crossing, and a genie which can’t be put back in the bottle; and you can’t force teams to employ any particular lineup or keep, players…as such, there might be nothing we can do besides appeal to the franchises’ commercial and competitive integrity.

Short of penalizing gross mismanagement (or, for example, the Marlins post-championship fire sales), MLB executives can’t–and shouldn’t–meddle in the affairs of individual teams solely on account of bad dealmaking or even general incompetence. The problem is, this creates a cover of plausible deniability which can lead to 20-something teams each shrugging their shoulders and waiting each other out, while Andrew Miller, Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, Dallas Keuchel, and lots of corner-fielding sluggers drift in the trade winds.

On one hand, this is somewhat understandable on the part of owners. Machado and Harper both come with questionable intangibles, and there’s an argument that both are grossly overhyped despite the elite aspects of their games–particularly Machado, though he isn’t helping his case by reportedly insisting he wants to play the position at which he’s more average than elite. And I can also understand why a team would ponder the wisdom of attempting a win-now move, when they feel fairly certain they would lose a playoff series to two of the teams they’re liable to face. But on the other hand, franchises bear a real, legitimate, and arguably almost tangible responsibility–to their fan bases, their local tax payers, and arguably even to the game itself. It’s hard to imagine why at least the middle tier of free agents, potential team-changers whose asking price wouldn’t be as astronomical as those of Harper or Machado, aren’t even getting a nibble (aside from recently signed Patrick Corbin, picked up by a Nationals team that sees an NL East in flux).

Many Astros fans will, at this point, say that all those gruesome seasons were worth being elite for the past few; but what of the fans whose formative or final seasons of fandom were sacrificial lambs to the long game gamble? Don’t teams owe it to their supporters, not to mention the sport write large, to at least try to remain competitive even while laying in the cut to build for years to come?

Baseball owners know their hands can’t be forced, but they would do well to remember the interests of those who keep their franchises in business in the first place.

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