‘Tanks’ a lot: NL teams clearing path for Cubs by following their blueprint

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Theo Epstein’s Cubs are among no more than 10 National League teams with plans to vie for five playoff spots this year.

MESA Ariz. – Cubs team president Theo Epstein isn’t the biggest fan of the term “tanking,” especially as it worms its way into the baseball lexicon after decades of mostly being used as a dirty word in the NBA.

“I prefer ‘long-term planning,’ ” Epstein said. “Or ‘medium-term planning.’ ”

But there’s no denying the success his Cubs and Jeff Luhnow’s Houston Astros have had in recent years employing the general rebuilding strategy traditionally reserved for small-market teams to eventually reach the playoffs last season.

If anything, they proved so good at strip mining their big-league rosters and tanking multiple seasons to gain high draft picks and large signing-bonus pools for amateurs that teams all over the baseball map are starting to follow their lead, regardless of market size and revenue streams.

The immediate added benefit, for the Cubs in particular, is that as many as six of 15 National League teams enter the season with no realistic plans of winning – at least four run by front offices with no intention of trying.

With five NL playoff berths and a ready-to-win roster, the Cubs’ path to the postseason has never looked so gilded.

“I don’t know about that. I know how tough it is to get to the playoffs and how tough it is to win your division,” Epstein said, noting the contenders all play similar schedule strengths. “It becomes a meritocracy at the end, and there’s a lot of hard work ahead and a lot of difficult teams to beat to get where we want to go, regardless of where they are in the long-term planning phase.

“You can’t take anything for granted.”

That doesn’t mean the tanking issue hasn’t become a real concern for major league baseball.

It’s one of the most discussed problems in the game in a year of looming union negotiations to replace the expiring collective bargaining agreement that, by the way, laid much of the groundwork that created the incentive in the first place.

“I don’t personalize it in any way. Rebuilding is as old as baseball itself,” said Epstein, whose 2012-14 Cubs became the first large-revenue MLB team (sans Ponzi scheme) since the advent of free agency to intentionally sacrifice full seasons for the sake of a future competitive window.

“We didn’t set out to lose. That’s not the goal,” he said. “But I think we were accepting of where we were in the success cycle. We recognized the massive talent deficit that we had in the organization, and we understood the different avenues that we could take to fill that void.”

Never mind the competitive-integrity issues for a league in which such practices might become common (the NBA has long battled the issue, resulting in its lottery draft system).

In the sport without salary caps, the incentive isn’t supposed to exist for teams with big resources and — often by definition — demanding fan bases.

But strict spending limits on bonuses for the draft and international amateurs, backed with draconian penalties for overspending, came in with a new CBA in 2012. That created a natural course for aggressive front offices when combined with the already growing acceptance of replacement-level metrics for players that have pushed the value of young talent higher industry-wide than perhaps any other time in history.

“The way the CBA is set up now, it’s not just about the pick anymore, picking up high,” said Jason McLeod, the Cubs’ top player development executive. “It’s really about the pool money they get, and it comes with picking high. … As an organization you certainly always try to take the long view, and then it’s always about acquiring as much young talent as possible.”

In fact, when Kyle Schwarber agreed to sign for less than the assigned value of his No. 4 draft position in 2014, the Cubs were able to spread that money deeper in the draft to select high-value, tougher-to-sign players.

“To develop a strategy you have to understand the landscape,” Epstein said. “And so the next CBA will be a part of that. All teams do long-term planning, and once there’s a collective bargaining agreement, that will certainly define the landscape in which you develop and execute your long-term plan.”

Still, there’s a major part to this whole process that’s easy to overlook after watching the Cubs and Astros.

“I think a little too much has been made of it, like all you have to do is pick in the top 10 or the top five a couple years in a row, and you can rebuild your organization,” Epstein said.

The Cubs’ playoff team, after all, had a $155 million free agent (Jon Lester), a Cy Young winner acquired in a trade (Jake Arrieta) and other key pieces in addition to 2013 No. 2 pick Kris Bryant and Schwarber.

“And then even if you have those picks you have to hit on those picks,” Epstein said. “It’s not a sure thing that you’re going to get a franchise-altering player just by picking in the top 10 in the draft.”

Epstein wasn’t in favor of the changes in the current CBA that helped create the landscape. And even after the changes, tanking wasn’t in the plans until the new baseball regime found out upon taking over that its promised resources were held up by spending restrictions influenced by bank covenants related to the 2009 purchase of the team.

Moving forward, one change for the new CBA Epstein suggests to reduce the incentive to tank is to dictate draft order by a “rolling, cumulative three-year standing so you can’t shoot for the No. 1 pick with one horrific season.”

“I think there’s a healthy recognition of the fact that it’s a fine line in the industry,” he said, “if you have too many teams truly shooting for the No. 1 overall pick. And there’s a chance that might be addressed in the new collective bargaining agreement.

“But I also think to sort of paint with too broad a brush and say that any type of long-term planning that incorporates a fair assessment of where you are as an organization as detrimental is unfair.”

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