- If you consider tanking in MLB to be a problem, then the Mariners are the latest plague in an issue that the game can't seem to solve.
The 2019 Mariners won’t look anything like last year’s edition, and not for the better. James Paxton won’t be on the mound; Nelson Cruz, Robinson Canó and Jean Segura will be missing from the lineup; saves won’t belong to Edwin Díaz. Over the last two weeks, general manager Jerry Dipoto has systematically dismantled his roster, scattering his best players across the league. Instead, Mariners fans next season will be subjected to the first year of a rebuild, a process with no visible end but one inescapable reality: The team is going to be trash.
That’s neither avoidable nor a surprise. Rebuilds are all about making your team worse in the short-term to bloom again in the future. And in the last five years, tanking—and that’s what this is; don’t let Rob Manfred’s distaste for the word change that—has become all the rage in MLB. Look at 2018’s standings, and you’ll find at least half a dozen teams that came into the year with no intent to compete, plus several more who slid without resistance into a losing record while dumping veterans for prospects over the course of the season.
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When the teardown blitz started a few years ago—you can probably point to the Astros’ 2011 season, when they lost 106 games with a terrible roster a year after going 76–86, as the unofficial start of the trend; it was the first of three straight 100-plus loss years for Houston—there was a cruel if understandable logic to it. If you’re not first, you’re last, so why not be the worst you can be to reap the rewards of a brutal season: top draft picks, prospects accumulated for trading away your stars, consequence-free at-bats and innings for young players to develop. By embracing the suck, the Astros began collecting the pieces that would be instrumental in the franchise’s turn of fortunes, culminating in a 2017 World Series title.
The Astros weren’t alone. Around the same time, the Cubs stopped trying to win. After Theo Epstein took over following the 2011 season, they lost 101 games after punting on the offseason. Three years later, they won 97; the following season, they captured their first championship in a century. The prospects developed during those lean years were at the center of that win. Instead of treading water as a .500 team and cycling through expensive free agents, Chicago and Houston bottomed out and come out on top. In a copycat league like MLB, it wasn’t long before more front offices tried to walk that same path to success.
Unspoken throughout, though, was how much awful baseball Houston and Chicago fans had to sit through. The 2013 Astros set a franchise record with 111 losses, scored the second-fewest runs in the AL and had the worst ERA in the majors (4.79). The most memorable moment of the entire season was Jonathan Villar sliding headfirst into Brandon Phillips’ ass. Not that many fans even noticed: Houston had the fourth-lowest total and average attendance in the game that year, and that September, CSN Houston drew a 0.0 TV rating on a game against the Indians. Things never got that bad in terms of viewership or tickets on Chicago’s North Side—the Cubs could get 20,000 people to come to a totally empty Wrigley on a Friday afternoon—but I doubt the last-place 2012 team was much fun to watch regardless.
Things might not be that dire for the Mariners in 2019, but it’s not going to be much better. That’s been the case for the Reds (four straight years of 94 or more losses since beginning their rebuild), White Sox (195 combined losses over the last two years), Tigers (back-to-back 98-loss seasons) and Padres (96 losses last year after 91 in 2017 and 94 in ’16). To them, you can add the Marlins (98 losses last year after trading away three All-Stars, including the NL MVP), Royals (104 losses three years removed from a World Series title), and Orioles (a staggering 115 losses and a roster so devoid of talent that it would probably struggle in Triple A). And all the fans in those cities can do is grin and bear it, hoping that better days are coming.
Maybe they will, but not all teams will see them. Lost in how the Astros and Cubs turned into world-stomping behemoths is how lucky they got. Those two teams are universally recognized as having some of the smartest, most forward-thinking front offices in the game to go with elite player development and scouting, yet even they needed things to break their way en route to titles. Houston botched two No. 1 draft picks and let J.D. Martinez go for nothing. Chicago got absolutely nothing out of the 2012 draft, had Kris Bryant fall into their laps in ’13 after the Astros took Mark Appel with the No. 1 pick, then fell into another funk in ’14, landing Kyle Schwarber but little else. Yet each team survived and thrived—something that can’t be said of several other teams aiming for the same goal.
Tanking is easy; getting out of that self-created hole is brutally hard. It’s even tougher now that everyone is trying the same strategy—one that was no guarantee to succeed even when you were the only one zagging while everyone else zigged. Nearly a third of the league won’t be trying next year, and with fewer contenders to deal with, the game’s elite have neither the need nor the drive to sacrifice prospects for stars, especially given how aligned in terms of valuation front offices are now. Teams hoard their cheap talent; it’s never been a worse time to try to tank.
Yet that’s what the Mariners will do, joining the sad club of other bummer teams and consigning fans to a long stretch of pointless, awful baseball. And while those dedicated folks who make the trip to Safeco will be rewarded with some truly uninspired play, Seattle will sell them on better days ahead while counting up the money saved by tanking. Because in the end, that’s what rebuilds are all about: cutting costs. The Astros skated by with the game’s lowest payrolls during their worst years; the Cubs went from spending $146 million in 2010, third highest in baseball, to $88 million two seasons later.
When you don’t try, you don’t have to spend. But that’s true only of owners. Fans will still be plunking down their hard-earned cash for tickets, hot dogs and beers. Maybe they’ll get some fun games, but more likely than not, their reward will be a season thrown away before it began. Fans deserve better than that. So does the game. Tanking is a cancer—the biggest long-term threat to MLB’s health that exists. What could be more harmful to baseball than teams not spending, years spent at the bottom piling up losses, all-but-open announcements that the front office doesn’t care about winning?
Hopefully things change, and tanking and rebuilding become another fad that fades away. It’ll be too late for Mariners fans, along with so many others. But it’s what the future of MLB needs.