The Art Of The Tank, Part 1: The Promise and Peril of Baltimore Going Scorched Earth.
In sports today, one four letter word can generate more arguments, controversy, and hot takes than any other, and that word is tank. For the uninitiated, the phrase is shorthand for a struggling team that, in the hopes of rebuilding its roster to championship quality, intentionally becomes as bad as possible, in the hopes of stockpiling top draft picks that will eventually rejuvenate the franchise. These teams gamble that the fans who stayed away from the team during the lean years will return after the years of pain have paid off with new stars drafted by the high picks the team accrued while “tanking.”
Although the term has existed in the American sports lexicon for decades, the term gained new prominence this decade thanks to the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers. Taking over a franchise mired in mediocrity for years following the departure of iconic star Allen Iverson, Sixers General Manager Sam Hinkie traded away nearly every veteran player on his roster at the beginning of his tenure. Over the next several years, the Sixers would accrue one high draft pick after another as critics lambased Hinkie for putting out a historically poor on-court product that alienated fans and embarassed the sport, while his defenders viewed his moves as painful but necessary, adopting the mantra “Trust The Process.” Although the critics won out when the Sixers dismissed Hinkie under pressure from other league owners and Commissioner Adam Silver in 2016, the team has since returned to playoff contention, led by stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, both drafted with top five draft picks accrued under Hinkie’s tenure.
At the same time, baseball found its own analogues to Sam Hinkie in the front offices of the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros. Under the leadership of Theo Epstein and Jeff Luhnow, respectively, both teams accumulated terrible records and correspondingly good draft picks between 2011 and 2015; the Astros in particular held top 2 draft picks in each of those years save one. The approach paid off handsomely, as both teams turned several of those draft picks into superstars such as Chicago’s Kris Bryant and Javier Baez, and Houston’s Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman.With the help of those players, the two franchises won the World Series back to back in 2016 and 2017, to the jubilation of their long-suffering fans. Now several struggling MLB franchises are confronted with a choice. They can pursue the Astros and Cubs route of burning everything to the ground to rebuild from the ashes, or find a new way to reestablish themselves at the top of the game.
For the Baltimore Orioles, the choice to follow in Houston’s footsteps has already been eagerly made. The once-proud franchise boasted the American League’s best record between 2012 and 2016, led by veteran manager Buck Showalter and star hitters like Manny Machado. But the success could not last, thanks to the team’s inability to develop young starting pitching and a historically bad contract extension to slugging first baseman Chris Davis. In 2018 the team finished with 47 wins and 115 losses, one of the worst records in MLB history. With Manny Machado’s departure in free agency looming, he was dealt at the trade deadline to the Los Angeles Dodgers for several minor leaguers, of whom only one, outfielder Yusniel Diaz, was ranked on top 100 prospect lists.
After the season, Showalter and general manager Dan Duquette were fired and replaced with Mike Elias, who had served as the Astros’ Assistant General Manager and Director of Scouting. In his lengthy introductory press conference Elias repeatedly referenced how Houston’s tanking “process” would serve as a model for the approach Baltimore would take going forward.
In 2019, the first year of Baltimore “tanking” in earnest under Elias, the team’s record actually improved, albeit only a little. Baltimore only had the second worst record in the majors, behind the Detroit Tigers (more on them in Part 2) If Baltimore’s offseason are to be judged, losing out on that first overall draft pick was a major source of frustration for the front office, as Elias’ moves seem designed to ensure that doesn’t happen again in 2020.
Foremost was his controversial decision to non-tender infielder Jonathan Villar. Villar, a career journeyman who had been a part of the Astros during their tanking years, had a breakout offensive season in 2019, setting career highs in numbers both conventional (home runs and RBI) and advanced (Wins Above Replacement), leading the team in the latter category. However, Villar was projected to earn $10 million in salary arbitration, and letting him go offered the Orioles a chance to save money by releasing their best player. The move was panned in several quarters, both among journalists covering the team and fans. Even for a tanking team, letting their best player go for no return save short term savings seemed to be a bridge too far. Furthermore, Villar was quickly picked up by the Miami Marlins, another rebuilding team whose record had been baseball’s third worst, just behind Baltimore.
In baseball at least, tanking can leave wounds that are difficult to heal even with winning. The Cubs’ famously loyal fans stuck with the team through the bad times, and Houston now ranks in the top 10 in attendance. But other teams that have tanked have not been so lucky. The Marlins’ fanbase has never returned in significant numbers following the infamous “fire sale” after winning the World Series in 1997. The team’s acquisition of Villar in part seems to be a gesture towards restoring some kind of fan goodwill after all the years of penny-pinching.
Orioles fans were once among baseball’s most loyal, rarely ranking in the bottom five of MLB’s attendance rankings even during their previous playoff drought, which lasted between 1998 and 2011. But in 2019 Orioles attendance collapsed down to MLB’s third worst, barely ahead of Miami. If the team gets even worse in 2020, Baltimore may fall even further down the list, with no guarantee that the team’s fans will return once the team is back to winning ways on the field.
None of these potential pitfalls have deterred Mike Elias so far. Undeterred by the reaction to the Villar non-tendering, he traded pitcher Dylan Bundy, one of the team’s better starters, to the Los Angeles Angels for four prospects, the best of whom projects as a long term reliever. Elias has made some moves that give fans cause for optimism in the future- most importantly, he has revamped Baltimore’s pitcher development, once the team’s Achilles heel. Young left-hander John Means was a Rookie of the Year candidate, and several of the team’s minor leaguers such as Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall have risen up prospect rankings. And catcher Adley Rutschman, drafted first overall out of Oregon State in 2019, has potential to be a true superstar. But one gets the sense that the man who once was at the cutting edge of baseball in Houston may now be mired in the past, sticking solely to what worked before with little heed paid to risk. In Part 2, we will examine how other MLB teams are trying different tactics in the hopes of a rebuild that will lessen the pain that their fans will have to endure before their teams are great again.