Grant & Danny: Tanking works, but has it hurt baseball?

Ben Krimmel
February 16, 2019 - 12:33 pm

Is tanking bad for sports? Is it hurting baseball?

The question has dominated the conversation in the NBA since Sam Hinkie and the Philadelphia 76ers' turned deliberate losing into a mantra and lifestyle with "Trust the Process." The conversation has made its way to baseball after the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros won World Series titles after spending several years as happy cellar dwellers with rosters populated by inexpensive veterans to accumulate prospects packed with potential. 

However, unlike the NBA where a health market for free agent talent remains, baseball is suffering through its second consecutive offseason of stagnation in the free agent marketplace. Many media members and ballplayers are blaming the strategy of intentional losing for the slowdown.

This week it was Washington Nationals starting pitcher Max Scherzer accusing tanking of causing the market inactivity.

“The one fundamental that’s just unacceptable is the amount of acceptability there is to lose — to not play to win as a whole,” he said.

Scherzer's comments are similar to what Sean Doolittle told Grant & Danny in January, that teams not trying to win risks the integrity of the game.

"(There are) more teams heading into spring training that are competing for the first draft pick... the next season than there are... trying to make a run at the World Series," Doolittle said. "We're three years out from the bargaining agreement expiring and, hopefully, we can start to have some productive discussions on how we can fix it."

Scherzer took it a step further and raised the issue of how tanking can hurt fandom.

“When there’s too many teams that are not trying to win that poisons the game, poisons the fan experience, and it creates bandwagon fans,” Scherzer said. “If you’re constantly just trying to go in this win-loss cycle that MLB is pushing you are creating bandwagon fans and that’s not the type of fans you want to create."

"You want to create the fans that are following the team, year-in, year-out. It’s put on the fans, honestly, to demand that from the league," he said.

While a proponent of strategic losing, Grant Paulsen admitted on 106.7 The Fan that Scherzer had a point. 

"I think he's right about this, too. And I'm admitting this as someone who helped create the problem," Paulsen said Friday. "My adage and axiom on baseball for years has been: If you're not going to win, you need to be a loser. You need to draft in the top 5."

"This is how it should work, if you're going to get good," he said.

The worst thing you can do, Paulsen contends, is be a middling team that overestimates their chances and wrongfully believes it can compete for a title. (Think Ernie Grunfeld's Washington Wizards.) 

"The teams that actually bottom out are the teams that get very good much faster," Paulsen said. "So it's proven it works, there's no arguing anymore about whether or not it works." 

Danny Rouhier agrees Scherzer is right about the situation, but argued this is not a new phenomena.

"That's always been the case, but now (the teams are) transparent about it," he said.

The problem for the league, fans, and the players becomes: What can be done when 10 or 12 (or even more) of baseball's 30 teams do not care about competing in a given year? 

Grant & Danny's solution: A salary floor.

While MLB doesn't have a salary cap, owners have begun to view the luxury tax threshold ($206 million for the 2019 season) as a de facto cap on spending. Rouhier and Paulsen maintain a floor would force even rebuilding teams to commit some resources to quality players.

"Now, basically the goal is, let's spend as little as humanly possible, lose as many games as possible, and get the No. 1 pick," Paulsen said. "I don't think we should punish teams for building (through tanking)... but I think this would be a nice little common ground where we can meet in the middle. Which is, you have to spend at least 'x' amount of dollars." 

A floor on spending would still allow teams the option of rebuilding through bottoming out and could also fix the current situation in free agency, Rouhier argued.

"I think that's the most no-brainer, obvious thing that should happen," he said. "'Cause the Nationals are spending more just on starting pitching than, I think, a handful of teams are spending on their entire payroll. That's a problem." 

The Nationals are one of the handful of teams spending this offseason, signing several new players in an attempt to compete in 2019. But a handful of teams in win-now mode won't sustain a healthy free agent marketplace.

While several teams competing for a title is good for the game, player discontent is still on the rise. And if MLB doesn't do something to fix the current situation, baseball may be heading back toward the dangerous waters of a work stoppage.

Bookmark for the latest Nationals news throughout the 2019 season.

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