How badly do you have to lose before it starts being worth it?
Major League Baseball's bottom-feeding teams have only recently started struggling with this question in anything resembling an ongoing, serious matter. Until a decade or so ago the idea of tanking, such as it was, restricted itself in scope to a single season. When things went bad enough, usually around the All-Star Break, the team would realize contention was a lost cause, trade the players that wouldn't be coming back the following season for whatever prospects they could get, and let nature take its course. And so the team would lose, a lot, with young players getting seasoning in the big leagues and the club getting a higher overall position in the draft the following spring.
The Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays weren't the first team to have a multi-year development plan, not by a long shot. They were, however, one of the first teams to more or less accept, in something approaching a public-facing way, that being bad for multiple seasons was a prerequisite to becoming good. And when the Rays got good, they got good seemingly overnight: 66-96 in 2007 and then 97-65 in 2008, a season that ended with a trip to the World Series. They even rebranded around the sudden change in fortune, dropping the "Devil" from their name for nebulous Jesus-related reasons and embracing the idea that instead of cool, floppy marine life, they would now demonstrate the properties of both a wave and a particle. Since the change, the only time the Rays have won fewer than 80 games was in 2014. They are sunlight now.
What looked like a sudden turnaround had in fact begun several years earlier. In a way they never quite did during their free-spending, totally backwards expansion years, the Rays had decided to capitalize on being a bad team that had yet to find its feet. The product on the field at the major league level remained terrible, but the front office focused on accumulating talent in the minors, all of which arrived and made good basically at the same time. It was a good strategy given the situation, and it was unique mainly in how little money it cost the people running the Rays to pull off; "developing young players over a long period of time to make the team better" was not particularly a new concept in baseball. Expressly and transparently not caring about the fate of the major league team while waiting for that young talent to arrive, however, was a new twist.
Ten years later, the Moneyball 'revolution,' such as it is or was, is old news. Statistical innovation is an accepted part of baseball orthodoxy, and optimization is in. Last year, two teams made good on a version of the promise the Rays made their ownership interests and fans: the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros, who had both been bad for the preceding half-decade or so more or less on purpose, suddenly both became very good. They did it by anchoring their rosters with homegrown talent, guys fans watched develop during those lean years with ever greater hopes for their futures—while the clubs continued to make big profits at the major league level despite uncompetitive teams.
In the end, everyone got what they wanted, more or less. The owners made a lot of money, the executives were feted as visionaries, the fans got to brag that their team of choice built a competitive roster the Right Way, From Scratch, Instead of Just Buying a Damn Winner, and, most importantly, the teams went deep in the postseason, with the Cubs almost making it to the World Series. Houston has struggled mightily this season, but Chicago seems very much for real. The system works, or can be made to work if executed properly.
When a formula finds success, there will be copycats. There's a problem here, though: if your team's plan is to be cheap and bad for three years while accruing draft picks and signing pool space until the kids are ready to play, you'll very much want to guarantee a top three pick. The elite, can't-miss talent that can change a team's fortune in one pick—the Kris Bryants and Carlos Correas of the world—can generally be found only at the very top of the first round. Teams still have to find and develop everyday contributors in later rounds, but for the tank gambit to work, there needs to be cost-controlled superstar talent at the top of the system.
So good luck with all that. And one other thing: it gets a lot harder if too many other teams have the same idea.
Which brings us to the Cincinnati Reds, Atlanta Braves, Milwaukee Brewers, and Philadelphia Phillies. The first two of these clubs have just started their tear-it-down rebuilds, essentially punting on the season before it began. The Reds got what they could for Mike Leake and Johnny Cueto at the 2015 trade deadline, then dealt Todd Frazier to the White Sox, shopped Jay Bruce around to a number of teams, and sent Aroldis Chapman to literally anyone who would take him off their hands, which turned out to be the Yankees. Atlanta held a full-on fire sale, dumping Shelby Miller, Andrelton Simmons, Alex Wood, Cameron Maybin, Jim Johnson, and, according to reports that were swiftly if not entirely convincingly denied by the team, entertained the notion of trading franchise first baseman Freddie Freeman.
The Brewers are getting in on the action too; payroll dropped by $40 million between 2015 and 2016 and Milwaukee seems committed to getting rid of even more, if the rumors surrounding Jonathan Lucroy's availability are true. Outfielder Khris Davis showed a lot of promise over the last two years for Milwaukee, but was never going to be on the next good Brewers team, and so off he went to Oakland. The Brewers do have some help on the way, but it'll take a couple years to arrive, and after so much futility in recent seasons out of Milwaukee, fans seem ready for a Cubs-style rebuild. Of course, a Cubs-style rebuild requires more than picks; the Brewers (and everyone else) will have to evaluate talent and win some trades. A major piece of the puzzle for Chicago was Jake Arrieta, one of the best pitchers in baseball, falling in their lap thanks to an incompetent pitching development program in Baltimore.
This brings us to Philadelphia. The Phillies cut almost $60 million in payroll this offseason and went into the year with something that could barely be called a major league roster at spots. The Phillies' dirty little secret is their org is absolutely stacked, and they could be good again as soon as next year. Hell, they still haven't ruled out being decent this year, although no team with a bullpen like theirs and an outfield routinely featuring both David Lough and Peter Bourjos can reasonably sustain a winning record like the one the team currently has.
But that's four teams built to lose big, which guarantees that at least one of them will be picking outside of the top three. And they're far from the only bad teams in baseball. The New York Yankees are looking disastrous for a number of reasons, none of them related to a burn-it-all down rebuild; that simply isn't done in the Bronx. The Minnesota Twins remain an institutional mess shackled by bad pitching, and the Astros have started the season looking more like the bad old Houston teams than the breakout squad from last season. Teams like the San Diego Padres and the Miami Marlins, who generally stink for non-strategic reasons, are out there, too. It's crowded at the bottom.
There is, of course, also the moral reason not to tank. Savvy though it may be, it's also directly contrary to the spirit of the game, which is why seldom few teams ever admit that they're doing it. But the "moral" reasons to do or not do things on baseball's business side will always finish far behind the imperative to win, especially for fanbases that haven't had much to cheer for in recent years. The real question is: how many teams can run towards the bottom of the standings before one or more of them is left holding the bag, and forced to do it all again the next year? This year, at least one franchise stands a pretty good chance of finding out.