MLB on addressing trend of teams blowing up seasons to rebuild: ‘No tanks’

GLENDALE, Ariz. –Fueled by the recent success of the Cubs and Astros, Major League Baseball clearly has a tanking problem.

It’s impacting player-acquisition markets, becoming an underlying cause of growing labor tension, and some executives talk about the process and its effects openly, even explicitly.

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But the official response of MLB in the face of such a fundamental competitive-integrity issue for the sport is to bury its head in the sand.

Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, left, presented the trophy when the Cubs won the World Series -- but turns a blind eye to the growing tanking methods in the game that helped the Cubs build that champion.

“I don’t buy into a concept that if clubs adopt a strategy of rebuilding that that should be characterized at `tanking,’ “ Commissioner Rob Manfred said during his annual Arizona spring training media address this week. “I think that our clubs, all of them, want to win. The question is what strategy are they going to adopt over what period of time to put themselves in a position to win.”

This is the second time in three years at the same event Manfred dismissed the issue of front offices tanking seasons as a means of rebuilding — a trend that has only grown in that span to levels unprecedented since the start of free agency because of the success the last two World Series winners.

Until the Cubs employed the strategy six years ago in the face of debt-related internal spending restrictions and newly imposed hard caps on amateur spending, no mid- to high-revenue team had chosen to cannibalize its roster and use intentionally non-competitive seasons as vehicles for acquiring young talent and rebuilding (through trades for minor-leaguers, higher draft picks and higher amateur spending allotments for lower finishes).

Now?

“There are a number of teams, let’s call it 10 or 12, in baseball that are tearing down and rebuilding,” Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said last month. “You could argue that you are going to compete with more clubs to try and get the first pick in the draft than you are to try and win the World Series.”

This was part of a conversation with Seattle media regarding some of the causes behind baseball’s slowest free agent market since collusion in the 1980s.

The top hitter on the market, J.D. Martinez, signed only this week. One of the top pitchers, former Cubs ace Jake Arrieta, remains unsigned with exhibition seasons scheduled to open Friday.

This in an industry that sets revenue records annually – reaching $12 billion with last summer’s $1.6 billion deal with Disney to sell a stake in BAMTech, MLB’s digital/streaming enterprise.

A recent statement released by players union chief Tony Clark read in part:

“Spring training has always been associated with hope for a new season. This year a significant number of teams are engaged in a race to the bottom. This conduct is a fundamental breach of the trust between a team and its fans and threatens the very integrity of our game.”

It’s more than that. It’s literally a breach of MLB’s own internal rules of conduct.

According to Rule 21, paragraph (a), under the heading “Misconduct in Playing Baseball” from The Official Professional Baseball Rules Book, “Any player or person connected with a Club … who shall intentionally lose or attempt to lose … shall be declared permanently ineligible.”

But MLB has also created this integrity problem by penalizing middle-of-the-pack finishes to the point of creating a disincentive for any team except those with the most complete, best-positioned rosters to contend.

It’s hard to blame front offices for operating within that climate to create their best chance to win in, say, 2020, even if it means sacrificing 2017-19 (see: White Sox).

“Look, we took over the team and the organization in a certain condition, and we looked at what the different paths were,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said. “If there was a better path we would have chosen it. If we had some more pieces in place and we could have done some things in free agency and some things in trade to compete sooner and allow us to stay in a competitive position for a longer period of time, then we could have done that.

“But given what was here I felt like it was clearly the best move. We were an individual team making decisions in our own best interest, and I think that’s what you see out there.”

That so many teams are doing it now mathematically assures it can’t work for all of them. And if something like that becomes part of the Cubs’ legacy – “I don’t spend two seconds thinking about that,” Epstein said.

“I think you have 30 teams all competing. Some of them are just on different time frames,” Epstein added. “So I think when coincidence strikes and you have a number of them at the same time on a longer time frame, then it can affect markets and things like that. But I don’t think it’s anything sinister. I just think it’s coincidence.”

Said Manfred: “It’s not always transparent to outside observers what the plan is for winning and what the timetable is for winning. Clubs have gone through cycles in an effort to be competitive. I suspect if and when, together with the MLBPA, we reach the conclusion that this is an issue that needs to be addressed it’ll be addressed in collective bargaining.”

 

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Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com