Shortly into his tenure as the Managing Principal Owner of the Washington Nationals, Ted Lerner shared a conversation with agent Scott Boras. Lerner wanted information about free agents Boras represented, particularly first baseman Mark Teixeira, who loomed in a class to come. Their discussion both surprised Lerner and changed the course of his franchise. “I wanted to give advice that was relevant to having a good team,” Boras recalled.
Boras suggested Lerner consider a different approach than adding talent. First of all, Teixeira wanted to win and wouldn’t play for a rebuilding team like the Nationals. Second of all, Boras told Lerner, the Nationals had so little talent that even top-tier free agents wouldn’t change their lot. To get better, they would first have to get worse.
“That kind of started a process,” Boras said. “I told him, ‘Your objective is, you got to get the top picks, because the top picks that are coming are extraordinary. I would not follow that plan [adding through free agency], because you have too many holes and you don’t have a minor league system. If you really want to do what’s best for your franchise, I would focus on how I’m going to get those draft picks. When I look at this system, I wouldn’t be spending a great deal of money on major league players.’”
The conversation is as relevant to the state of baseball now, nearly 10 years later, as it has ever been. A major conversation swirling around baseball at the start of spring training involves the practice of tanking – a concerted effort to weaken a present major league team and divert resources to lower levels and international signings in an effort to build a future winner. There are arguments about whether there’s a difference between tanking and rebuilding (there is), whether it’s sound strategy (big time) and whether it’s bad for the game’s competitive balance (yup).
The Cubs and Astros are commonly credited, or blamed, with the rise of the practice, as each franchise turned seasons of misery into stables of elite young talent, becoming 2015 playoff teams and contenders poised to contend for the foreseeable future. As many as a half-dozen National League teams, particularly the Phillies, Braves and Brewers, have taken cues from them and plan to field young, overmatched rosters this season in order to yield high draft choices and the hefty bonus pools that come with them.
Chicago and Houston, though, merely learned from the progenitors: The Nationals tanked before tanking was cool. They got as bad as they could get for two seasons under the direction of Team President Stan Kasten and General Manager Jim Bowden, losing 102 games in 2008 and another 103 in 2009. The failure “earned” the Nationals consecutive first overall picks and two of the extraordinary players Boras told Lerner about. Seven years later, it remains the reason their roster includes Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, along with Anthony Rendon, the sixth-overall pick they received from the residual awfulness of their 93-loss 2010 season. The Nationals tanked sooner, harder and perhaps “better” than any franchise had before.
In hindsight, and in a strictly rational sense, it would be impossible to claim the Nationals’ wretchedness in their first seasons at Nationals Park didn’t pay off, postseason disappointments and last year’s flop notwithstanding. Since 2012, Harper’s first season, the Nationals have won more regular-season games than all but the Dodgers and Cardinals. General Manager Mike Rizzo’s shrewd trades and Washington’s player development system helped them out of the abyss, but Harper and Strasburg provided the biggest boost.
The Nationals’ ascent, and the ensuing success of the Cubs and Astros, is an argument for purposeful losing being the clearest path under the current system to World Series contention. And that suggests the current system must be tweaked to ensure to competitive fairness. The Nationals and Mets each play 38 games – nearly a quarter of their schedule – against the Phillies and Braves, two teams with questionable motivation to win. Washington and New York thus receive an artificial edge against teams from other divisions in pursuit of wild card spots. And once teams decide they’re more interested in draft position than their big league record, they trade away anything that isn’t nailed down in late July.
“They can argue they did this to improve their minor league system,” Boras said. “The truth of the matter is, they did it at the expense of divisional races and the teams that are attempting to compete. There has to be a floor where the teams are fighting to reach a certain level.”
Boras proposed two anti-taking measures, one of which is complex, radical and fascinating enough to merit its own space. Boras’s simple anti-tanking pitch: In order to draft in the top five, a team must win at least 68 games. So if the Braves lost 102 games? Sorry, enjoy that sixth pick.
Teams could still exploit such a win-floor system – imagine the goofiness that would ensue if a last-place team notched its 68th win with three games left to play. But it would prevent wholesale tanking, and it would give underperforming teams something to play for, and a reason for their fans to remain invested.
“I don’t want to tell an owner he has to spend,” Boras said. “I do want to tell an owner he has to be competitive, because it has an impact on the integrity of the game. We have to make sure in August and September that there’s a necessity for that club to be competitive. … There has to be a floor where the teams are fighting to reach a certain level. When teams know that, they’re less likely to trade off anything and everything. They have to keep a modicum of major league talent.”
Baseball will have to confront its tanking problem soon, likely in the coming round of collective bargaining talks. The problem is that under the current system, tanking works. And the Nationals are the team that showed the way.