MLB State of the Game Part 3

Tanking and the Possibility (or Probability) of a Strike

Whether it’s the NFL, MLB, or  NBA, tanking permeates professional sports. Other leagues, especially the NBA, have taken steps to dissuade teams from losing on purpose. Under commissioner Adam Silver, tanking is becoming less prevalent in professional basketball because the league reshaped its draft lottery rules. Roger Goodell has spent the majority of his tenure as the commissioner of the NFL focusing on other issues so plenty of teams still tank on a regular basis. But tanking’s place in baseball is remarkable because it’s openly allowed and expected, if not encouraged. 

The power structures in MLB create a vicious cycle that allows the wealthy teams to sign the best talent, through contract extensions, trades, and free agent contracts, while teams confined to smaller markets have to rely on miracles to find success (The Oakland Athletics’ “Moneyball, the Kansas City Royals’ victory in the 2015 World Series and the Tampa Bay Rays’ unorthodox strategies  come to mind). Most clubs, perhaps logically, see these success stories as anomalies; the odds simply aren’t in their favor. Just as a fraction of the league goes all out to winning every year, the majority of other teams waive the white flag at the Winter Meetings, if not earlier. 

This trend has only gotten worse in recent years. The Miami Marlins are the most severe example: under Derek Jeter, the team has gutted itself in the hopes of building a stronger foundation for the future. Giancarlo Stanton, the face of the franchise, was sent to New York in a lopsided trade. Christian Yelich has become one of the brightest stars in baseball since leaving Miami and the list goes on. Consider this unbelievable statistic, courtesy of ESPN’s Sam Miller in his appropriately titled article, “J.T. Realmuto Deal Continues Stunningly Sad Marlins Tradition”: “Of the Marlins’ all-time top 25 players, by WAR…, 23 have now been traded away, rather than held onto until they reached free agency.” In other words, MLB has continually allowed the Marlins to self-destruct. It’d be easy to write off the Marlins as an exception to other teams’ general philosophies but, year after year, many clubs trade away their top stars and strive to lose in order to acquire a higher draft pick. 

While that goal seems like it could pay off in the long run, some teams find themselves stuck on a treadmill of mediocrity and unable to escape the cellar of the standings. The Reds have lost at least 90 games four years in a row, and an unexpected push toward contention this year hasn’t paid off. The Marlins have stripped themselves so bare that it could be a long time until they field a genuinely competitive team. The successes of worst-to-first teams like the recent championship-winning Cubs and Astros continue to inspire teams to follow similar strategies. But, again, rebuilding teams aren’t reaching that light at the end of the tunnel.

Tanking has been plaguing baseball for a few years and there’s a growing concern that the consequences could escalate beyond contained misery for teams like the Marlins. In this series, we’ve looked at how clubs are spending money differently as team-building strategies continue to evolve. It’s easy to focus on massive contracts like the ones Bryce Harper, Mike Trout and Manny Machado signed this offseason and assume that MLB players are making more money than ever. But, just as the teams who successfully tanked their way to championships, these players are exceptions to the tule.

MLB players are quickly realizing that they’re being valued in a starkly different manner. Younger players in the “middle class” of the league typically don’t cost as much money, so they get the contracts while older, more expensive players are put to pasture. This effect is impossible to miss when we look at the past two offseasons. Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel only recently signed deals with the Cubs and Braves respectively, and that might be the most damning sign that the system is indeed broken.

Look no further than Kevin Draper’s “For a Mike Trout, MLB Flaunts Its Wealth. Average Players Reap Austerity,” a concerning article published in the New York Times after the Angels star signed his new contract. Draper quotes a report from the players association, which shows that the average MLB salary went down in 2018. This decline was only the fourth such decrease in the past fifty years. In a league where revenues are rising, something is clearly amiss when the players aren’t reaping the benefits. Draper, plenty of other writers, players, and agents all suggest that baseball owners and executives are gaming the system. For players who continue to grow frustrated, one impactful course of action appears more possible than ever: it could be time for a strike.

The players are putting their bodies on the line and dealing with the tribulations of a 162-game season. They get hurt and risk life-altering injuries every time they step onto the field. They have the right to demand fair treatment. With owners and baseball itself cheating these players out of what’s rightfully theirs, it’s hard to criticize this rampant frustration. According to The Athletic’s Marc Carig via Sports Illustrated’s Michael Shapiro, an infamous story about a championship belt given to the “winner” of the arbitration process led one anonymous player to declare that he’s ready to strike. These players know what they’re worth and they won’t passively accept this mistreatment if it continues. The story of the arbitration belt objectifies the players and further demonstrates the owners’ disrespect for the men on the field. The collective bargaining agreement expires after 2021 and that date could be considered a ticking time bomb. If the league doesn’t take steps to address the players’ concerns, we could be looking at the ugliest strike the sport has ever seen.

Thanks to social media, the tension between players and owners is becoming an open conflict. Stars like Justin Verlander have used Twitter and other outlets to voice their displeasure and it’s easy to see other players taking a similar approach. Dayn Perry of CBS Sports focuses on Verlander, who, on his personal Twitter account, blatantly wrote “[the] system is broken.”  As further outlined by The Week’s David Faris, a growing theory about collusion between the owners exacerbates this dissatisfaction. Worst of all, as Faris explains, these beliefs aren’t as crazy as one might think; owners have colluded in the past and they could easily do it again. At this juncture, we aren’t necessarily rooting for a strike but it might be the best way to make meaningful changes and protect the long-term health of the game. 

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