The Tao of Tanking, Redux

The Tao of Tanking, Redux

Over the past couple days, there have been articles and tweets posted about the Houston Astros’ very progressive plan to build their franchise from the ground up since they blew up the system upon Jeff Luhnow’s hiring as general manager.  Here’s a particularly poignant set of tweets:



It is a sad state of events that allows teams that fail the most to secure the best draft picks that indirectly lead to the best talent (you still need good scouting and development due to the high attrition rate of baseball prospects, even though with high ceilings), so in the back of their minds, GMs like Luhnow are going to have less incentive to pick up extra wins.  Both MLBTR and HardballTalk picked up on the article by Evan Drellich of the Houston Chronicle that outlined the Luhnow plan and the criticisms of said plan if you’re interested.  The gist is that while the plan is a very sound approach and has helped Houston shore up their farm system to one of the best in baseball, it’s frustrated a lot of former and current Astros players due to how impersonal Luhnow and crew have acted in executing said plan.  It’s also worth noting that the Astros are trying to lock down players on the cheap as they did earlier with Jose Altuve and were trying to do with George Springer in a much-publicized bruhaha this spring.

In a way, the beef about the Astros’ current franchise building plan is translatable to what’s going on with the Cubs right now.  Nearly two years ago, I wrote about the Tao of Tanking for our mother ship in order to explain why the Cubs were stripping the franchise down in order to get all their ducks in a row.  Apparently Gordon Wittenmeyer had an article that suggested the MLB Players Union is concerned about the Cubs’ spending.  (Note I’m linking to the MLBTR summary rather than the actual article because I usually don’t like giving Gordo traffic because I think he sucks.)  The gist here is that the MLBPA is monitoring the situation but isn’t taking any action as of yet.  Also note that both the Astros’ and Cubs’ plans have been given quasi-official approval by soon-to-be-retired commissioner Bud Selig, though the caveat here is that Selig usually acts on behalf of the owners and doesn’t have as much of an interest in the players’ welfare.

It is true that the Astros and Cubs have similar plans in shedding the old (both player-wise and payroll-wise) while building from within.  With the skyrocketing free agent costs and less elite free agents hitting the market now, teams have put more of a premium on home-grown talent and thus are trying to stockpile draft picks and hoard their own impact talent.  Due to their competitive windows, the Cubs and Astros are less inclined to give out exorbitant contracts to free agents who are at the end of their prime years.  This of course will discourage elite free agents from signing with those clubs, and considering the plan, it makes sense since neither Chicago-North nor the Astros want to lock in a free agent during years that they may not be competitive while bloating payroll and surrendering draft picks.

The repercussions can be felt immediately as media and players alike will bash the so-called “progressive” organizations for daring to put the future first while allowing a substandard major league product to hit the field.  Reading between the lines, current Cubs players like Jeff Samardzija are not long for the organization because they have no guarantee of when the Cubs’ winning window will open next.  Players like Masahiro Tanaka would not sign because the Cubs have a hard line against no-trade clauses and opt-outs, which make sense in the larger context of a rebuilding club waiting for the next wave of prospects to hit the show.

Here’s what the Astros’ GM had to say about the perception of his plan:

Ultimately, Luhnow stresses that “there’s a process we’re going through to get to a winning ball club,” and “we’re doing it for the right reasons.” He said that the club is cognizant of perception, but will act in those interests. “I would expect [some unhappiness] to be out there, and yes, of course we care about it,” he said. “But is it going to change what were doing if we believe we’re doing the right thing? Not, it’s not going to. … We’re sensitive to it. If it starts to affect us in a meaningful way that we can’t sign players, or players quit, or players don’t give us their best effort, then we’ll have to address it. As of now, that hasn’t happened.”

The thing with clubs like Houston and Chicago-North is that they play in attractive cities and in the case of the Astros, a very nice stadium.  The Cubs will hopefully get their stuff together and begin the renovations/expansion soon, and then they have another feather in their cap to attract free agents for when they are ready to turn out their pockets.  But like Luhnow, Theo Epstein has made no qualms about sticking to his guns to see the plan through.  With lots of positives in the minors and encouraging signs from the core players currently at the MLB level (despite current slumps), we have reason to be hopeful.

I think we have to appreciate that level of steadfastness.  Sometimes you have to drown out the outside noise and do what you think is right.  I hope the plan works and I’m glad that they’re seeing it through despite the negative perceptions.

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  • Theo is following the same plan that worked for him in Boston. Who could argue with something that is a proven success?

  • In reply to toboyle9:

    You'd be surprised ;)

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    Uh, no, he isn't.

  • When the Miami Marlins decided to tank after conning the taxpayers into building a new stadium for them, MLB said essentially the same thing--it wasn't a salary dump but they were rebuilding, apparently at the expense of the Toronto farm system.

    Obviously, the 28 teams other than NYY and LAD can't simultaneously tank. The league as a whole still must be .500.

    And, in this division, I don't see StL constantly tanking.

    toboyle says it worked for Boston, but in another league where tanking is apparently encouraged, it hasn't yet worked for the LA Clippers. They, Houston, and the Cubs indicate that unless it is turned around, free agents of any type will not stay around, and like Carmelo and Jay in Denver, and Jeff with the Cubs, those under control are still going to demand trades.

  • In reply to jack:

    Problem with NBA is that their tanking gives them a shot at the lottery which means they're not absolutely guaranteed the top pick. I don't think the Cubs and Astros plan to tank forever, but then again, you don't plan to suck for generations, it just kind of happens due to mismanagement. I don't think that's the case here. The Cubs have been bad since before they had the draft as well.

  • In reply to Rice Cube:

    Clippers, and especially the Cleveland Cavs have been tanking for the longest time, and since LeBron left, the Cavs have been getting the first picks and still stink. On the other hand, when people said the Bulls should tank after D Rose's second knee injury, the Eastern Conference was so bad that the Bulls couldn't tank, which was essentially my point.

    Tony La Russa was just appointed the Theo of the Diamondbacks, which are 2 games ahead of the Cubs in the W/L record. Is Tony's first task to tank, too? Like I said, everybody can't, and if they all try, MLBPA probably has another collusion suit, as you implied in your post.

  • In reply to jack:

    The problem with tanking is in trying to snag all the top picks but not reinforcing the foundation after you acquire the pieces. I think that's the main problem with the Cavs and part of the reason why LeBron eventually left. The Clippers are starting to build a winner and were close to making it to the conference finals. But building a basketball team is so far different from building a baseball team that I don't think you can compare the two.

    Most teams don't have the cash reserves or built-in fan base that the Cubs have, or an owner who is willing to take a short-term hit like the Astros. That is fortuitous for the Cubs' (re)building plan right now, not so much for the fans. I do think they will make a more conscious effort to spend this coming offseason because many of the first wave of prospects are on the cusp. For now, they are tanking both by necessity and by choice and I'm in support of that plan even if I don't like all the losing. I don't think this plan will be as bad as what the Royals have been trying to do for the past decade; it'll probably be closer to the success stories we saw with last year's Pirates and the Washington Nationals of a couple years ago, but you definitely need some luck along the way. Such is sport.

  • Great article.. I am fully on board with the re build and when it comes to doing from a business sense.. it makes the most sense to re-build the way Theo and other teams like the Astros are doing it

  • In reply to CubfanInUT:

    Eventually they will have to add on much more than they have, but for now I think they're going about things the right way. Not everyone agrees but how much fun would we have if everything was agreed upon? ;)

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