Never tear down a Major League Baseball team and try to rebuild it from rubble. Not if you have any sane alternative. Especially not now.
A half-dozen teams are trying this approach at this very moment, a number that makes it certain that almost all will fail. By Wednesday’s trade deadline, more teams will decide whether to be “sellers.” Some will be tempted to go from “sellers” to an outright rummage sale while chasing a trend that has left the station.
Nationals fans have avoided this disgraceful display, at least for this season, with their team’s recent rush from disgrace in May to wild-card contention now. But in 2020 or 2021, if the Nats stagger early, you can be sure that, coast to coast, and in D.C., too, you’ll hear wails just like the ones two months ago about how the Nats would be “smart” to consider trading Max Scherzer, Anthony Rendon and others, for kids. By 2022 will it be: What are we offered for Patrick Corbin or Trea Turner?
Snap out of it. Don’t listen. It’s dumb enough to tear down a roster that is already rotten or old or both. But it’s idiotic to rip up a team that has a chance to make the playoffs, even as a wild card, especially in the first era in MLB history when six teams already are trying to race to the bottom. With more to come? What is this, the shameless NBA, where tanking has been the dirty big lie for years?
The idea of trying to lose 100 to 115 games, while claiming it’s a long-term plan for glory, always has been a long-shot notion, seldom born out in actual baseball experience. Of the current 30 clubs, 20 in the past 50 years have not lost more than 200 games over consecutive seasons, at least not after you exclude their early expansion-team days. Yet those 20 teams have won 33 of the past 50 World Series, exactly the ratio you’d expect if there was no difference between having a Horror Era and never being truly awful at all.
With the Orioles (on pace for 111 loses), Tigers (111), Royals (103), Blue Jays (101), Marlins (101) and Mariners (98) all in the same mud hole wrestling to get the same No. 1 draft pick next season, we’re watching a bull market in stupidity. And cupidity, too, since all those teams think they can still make a safe cynical profit, thanks to revenue sharing, no matter how bad they are.
As for trades, all these bottom feeders are fighting over the same ever-smaller pool of available prospects in a sport full of analytics-driven front offices that (correctly) worship young cheap players. What a joke: a sport full of horrid teams who think they’re being smart until they call a good team and try to trade their mediocrities for a nice Class AA prospect. The answer: Do you think we’re fools? We want the same kind of players you do — and we’re not giving you any of ours.
This “Get Awful to Get Great” method has led to a few brilliant successes in the past, such as the 2011 to 2013 Astros, who deliberately lost 106, 107 and 111 games to get No. 1 draft picks while also trading vets for minor league prospects. They won the 2017 World Series.
The worst-to-first trick also has worked, partly by accident, for teams like the 1988 to 1990 Braves, who lost 300 games, then reached the playoff 14 seasons in a row.
But those are the exceptions. In the past 50 years, losing usually leads to more losing — a lot more losing. I’ve watched it up close too often in Baltimore. In 1987-88, the Birds lost 202 games. Full rebuild mode. In the 31 seasons since, the Orioles have won 90 games just three times. At one point, they had 14 straight losing seasons. Why did D.C. get a team? Because the Orioles devalued their brand so much that there was nothing for MLB’s other 29 owners to protect by keeping a team off Baltimore’s doorstep.
Baseball has seldom seen a darker hour for its core concept of maintaining the integrity of the game. Commissioner Rob Manfred is either asleep or complicit.
Too many teams are now breaking their implicit vows to the public. They’re making a profit through the back door as money gushes into the game from revenue streams, many of them generated over the Internet, which are divided 30 ways. For generations, fans have believed that they were “in it together” with their teams. Bad times made everybody miserable — fans, players and owners alike. Now, only the fans take it in the neck.
If a pro sport can have a virtue, a character-building trait, then it is the way towns and teams agree, without ever saying a word, to have a lifetime’s worth of patience with each other. The team is only a winner about half the time and, in bad years, the fans don’t come out in the same numbers. But nobody gets mad.
Everyone waits for the big puzzle to fit together with the right players, manager, chemistry, health and luck. In a 30-team sport, the odds are your team will win, at best, one or two World Series in your lifetime. If you’re just in it for parades, you made a bad choice. Owners who are in it for the buck are sad cases, too. Already rich, they miss the larger point.
Underlying the whole saga is the premise that, as long as it makes any sense, the team always will try to win. Sometimes, like the Phillies of a decade ago, a team is too loyal to most of its stars, and they get old together. But fans can forgive that. Now, the Phils are back in the picture without trying to lose 105 games for years.
There are circumstances when a teardown may be the best of the available rotten options. But it’s rare. As the trade deadline approaches, clubs will be counseled to trade — and trade with a vengeance. Clear the decks. Cut payroll. Guarantee a profit for years. Rebuild in a few seasons — well, maybe . . . if you’re very lucky. But more likely, you’ll just stink for years and pick the public’s pocket.
How do the teams with the most devoted fan bases view losing — and especially horrible demoralizing 100-loss seasons?
The Boston Red Sox have had only one season with more than 93 loses since 1932. Baseball-loving Cincinnati has seen only one Reds team lose 100 games since its inception in 1882. Baseball in Los Angeles draws huge crowds. Sure, it’s sunny. But entertainment competition is huge. The Dodgers and Angels, in a combined 121 seasons in L.A., have had only one team that lost more than 95 games. The Yankees, a special case to be sure, haven’t lost 100 since they were the Highlanders in 1912. The “best fans in baseball?” Maybe St. Louis. The last Cardinals team to lose even 95 games was in — come on, guess — 1913.
There’s a pattern here. You better think twice before following the current greedy, disingenuous fad to tear your team down to the foundations to “rebuild.” No, better think 10 times — at least.