Fix baseball’s incentive to lose? No ‘tanks,’ says MLB commish Manfred

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Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred addresses media in Phoenix on Monday.

PHOENIX – The Cubs tanked for multiple seasons as a function of their successful rebuilding process. The Houston Astros endured an even longer such stretch to rebuild toward last year’s return to the playoffs.

And despite the fact several more teams of various market sizes – as many as six in the National League alone – are employing similar strategies heading into this season, the commissioner of baseball dismissed the issue when asked about it by the Sun-Times on Monday.

“I am not convinced that this is a problem that needs an answer,” commissioner Rob Manfred said during an annual spring training media session in Phoenix.

“I do not believe that any major league club would adopt the strategy where they would endure 90 or 100 losses in a season in the hope that they’re going to get the top pick in the draft. I just don’t believe that. I’ve never heard a single comment in my 25 years in the game from an owner or general manager that suggests that anyone things that’s a good strategy.”

Of course, that’s ridiculous. It’s a well-recognized strategy in more than one sport And it’s all but assured of being discussed this year during negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement.

Before the current CBA instituted strict bonus-pool limits for amateurs based on draft positions – and severe penalties for overspending – the incentive wasn’t as great for as many teams to include tanking in the rebuild process. Traditionally, that was done only by smaller revenue teams faced with smaller, financially limited, competitive windows.

Under the current system, limits on bonus pools make finishing last worth potentially $1 million or more in spending ability on the draft than third or fourth in a division. In a rebuilding process, that means the potential to mine later rounds for high-talent, tougher-to-sign players and speed the rebuilding process. The bonus-pool system also applies to international amateur signings.

Before the current CBA, which expires after this year, teams could spend whatever they wanted on the draft without penalty.

Negotiations are expected to begin soon on a new CBA.

“I would also point out to you that it is by definition a self-limiting strategy,” Manfred said. “If one club decides, `I’m going to lose a whole bunch of games to get the first pick in the draft,’ they know they’re getting the first pick in the draft. But if five clubs decide that, you may wind up with the fifth or sixth pick in the draft, which is very different from getting the first one.”

Not as significant as winning just enough games to finish, say, 20th out of 30 teams, or 15th.

In 2014, when the Cubs’ drafted fourth (Kyle Schwarber), their draft bonus pool was $3.97 million – $1.05 million less than the Astros, who had the top pick.

The No. 10 position was worth $2.68 million, No. 15 worth $2.32 million, and No. 20 worth 2.03 million.

The Cubs negotiated below-slot signings of their first three picks (saving $1.85 million total) they, in turn, made over-slot picks of more potential impact players in the fourth, fifth and sixth rounds.

That included high-school flamethrower Dylan Cease, whose draft stock fell because of Tommy John surgery and who was expected to hold out for another draft year. The Cubs were able to pay him $1.5 million, and after rehabbing, Cease was hitting 100 mph on the radar gun last year.

No wonder teams tank. Regardless of what Manfred says.

The bigger question is what baseball plans to do about it.

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