Keeping an eye on baseball’s race to the bottom

(Photo by Quinn Harris/Icon Sportswire)

With the season entering its final stretch, playoff positioning fully on the line and the outcome of every individual game more important now than ever before (narratively, not mathematically), we turn our minds to the one question on the minds of every Major League Baseball fan:

How are the tankers doing?

It’s inevitable that every year, some teams simply don’t have what it takes to compete for a World Series championship. Barring unforeseeable cascades of good or bad luck, that group fairly includes not just teams that finish fourth or fifth in their division, but a good chunk of the wild card contenders as well — the Baltimore Orioles, for instance, have no business going for a title this year and never did, even though there are sequences of outcomes even now that could lead to such a thing.

We are firmly ensconced, however, in a fairly brave new era for professional sports: Teams will actively try not to win games, and even announce their intentions beforehand — generally to widespread fan approval.

Tanking might be completely contrary to the spirit of sport, but the game of baseball has become increasingly less important to the public perception of the sport than the metagame of baseball: stacking the rules of the game itself as much as you can to your advantage. Since professional sports are about money, and tanking is effective at maximizing revenue while minimizing costs not just for the years when the team is bad but when the team is also good, it is going to occur.

Enter the 2017 National League, a grouping of teams almost entirely without a middle class.

The Philadelphia Phillies, Atlanta Braves, Cincinnati Reds and San Diego Padres all decided to some extent that this was not the year to allocate resources with the intention of winning games. To the extent the Braves (the least tanky of these teams) acquired competitive players, they did so with an eye toward trading them at the deadline for prospects who would help them in years in which they were trying to win baseball games. They kept other players because they would be more valuable to the team in a future season. Along with the Chicago White Sox in the American League, that makes five of 30 MLB teams which more or less declared they were going to be bad before the season began and acknowledged they would not take any available steps to mitigate this.

ANAHEIM, CA - AUGUST 02: Philadelphia Phillies center fielder Odubel Herrera (37) calls for the ball during the sixth inning of a game against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, on August 2, 2017, played at Angel Stadium of Anaheim in Anaheim, CA. (Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire)

(Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire)

That would be fine, if those five teams were the only five bad teams in the league. Instead, the New York Mets and San Francisco Giants collapsed to levels that any tanking team would envy, while the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates took less severe but just as important steps back. The main beneficiaries of this? The Milwaukee Brewers, a previously bottom-feeding team that made a bunch of interesting low-risk moves this offseason, most of which have paid off, and the Arizona Diamondbacks, a team that people who like tanking were screaming at to tank last winter. So it goes.

The imbalance of leagues with tanking teams, along with interleague play, has led to a situation where only three teams have been realistically involved in the NL wild card race for months, while half the American League is still mathematically viable for the second wild card berth — but then, that’s not the concern of the tankers. How have they fared over the course of the 2017 season?

Philadelphia Phillies: I was a big believer coming into this season that given the budget their market can sustain, Philadelphia could have been a contender next year, but the last five months have put a damper on that. To call this season a disappointment for Maikel Franco is an understatement; almost no one on the pitching staff outside of Aaron Nola has impressed; and even Nola’s season is still a work in progress. At least Rhys Hoskins is allowing Phillie fans to focus on something else for the moment.

Chicago White Sox: The White Sox also had some underwhelming developments — in particular, it’s starting to look like Carlos Rodon should be written into any future plans with very light pencil, which is not what the ChiSox were hoping for from 2017. On the other hand, Jose Abreu has quietly reversed the trendline in his triple slash over the past few years, while Avisail Garcia might now be a legitimately good major league starter. While Yoan Moncada and Tim Anderson haven’t been world-beaters, they’ve held their own while developing into major leaguers. If Nick Delmonico is for real, their 2018 roster might already be cooking… and they have one of the top two farms in baseball.

Atlanta Braves: I’m not sure what Kurt Suzuki and Tyler Flowers are both still doing on this roster, but then the catcher market wasn’t amazing at the deadline. The Braves have the other top farm system in the majors and are clearly waiting for it to catch up, using veterans as trade chips when they can. The biggest disappointment from this season is that Dansby Swanson’s bat is not quite where it needs to be for a starter in the bigs, but he has time to work on that.

Cincinnati Reds: Zack Cozart still being a Red is a disappointment for this tank, since this is an unexpected gift of a career year from him. But given his quad injury and the lack of a distinct need at shortstop among the playoff contenders, it’s not the most surprising thing in the world. The big story for Cincinnati is that pitching prospect Luis Castillo looks electric on the mound, but he still hasn’t thrown 100 innings this year for various reasons. The White Sox and Braves have the best overall farms in the league, and while Philly is a tier below those two, they also have a bunch of guys who are closer to graduating than Atlanta and Chicago. The Reds, though, are treading water… but no team with Joey Votto is ever truly out of it.

San Diego Padres: If the Padres aren’t even going to pretend to improve their team — either for now or for the future — I will treat them with the depth and seriousness to which they’re committed. With the departure of Jeff Loria from organized baseball, this franchise becomes the most disappointing one in the game.

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