As an inclement spring finally gives way to something warmer, Major League Baseball appears to have a problem in its backyard: The compost pile is already teeming with bad teams.
The surprise locally, of course, is that the Tigers aren’t one of them. Not yet, anyway. Odds are they might be by August or September, after another trade deadline comes and veterans go. For now, though, Ron Gardenhire’s rag-tag bunch is “playing relaxed and it’s a lot of fun.” And despite last summer’s fire sale and a raft of injuries — to say nothing of all those washed-out home games in April — the Tigers are hovering just below the .500 mark and coming off a second straight series win, this time against the division-leading Indians.
Yet even if you’re one of those fans clamoring for less winning and more high-end prospects, maybe this isn’t all bad. Because as the late Yogi Berra once put it, a nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore. Now the same may be true of a 100-loss season.
Over the last decade, no more than two MLB teams have finished the same season with triple-digit totals in the loss column. In fact, it has only happened once in the last four seasons combined. (The Twins lost 103 games in 2016.)
But by the weekend, there could be as many as eight teams on pace to lose 100 games this season. And it’s probably no coincidence that of the six 100-loss seasons in the majors since 2011, four belong to the last two World Series champions — the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs.
The Astros didn’t just bottom out several years ago. They took a backhoe and dug their own grave, piling up 324 losses from 2011-13 while fielding a team that began the ’13 season with a payroll of $24 million — one-tenth of what the New York Yankees were spending in player salaries. The reward for that was a well-stocked farm system that produced the core of last season’s dominant title team.
The Cubs did something similar, albeit at shallower depths, losing 101 games in 2012 and 288 games over that same three-year span the Astros tanked. So while Houston drafted No. 1 overall three years in a row —batting .333 with top picks Carlos Correa, Mark Appel and Brady Aiken — the Cubs had to wait their turn to grab Kris Bryant (second overall in 2013) and Kyle Schwarber (fourth in ’14) — two key pieces that helped Wrigleyville escape a century-old curse in 2016.
Failure to launch
So if there’s a blueprint to be found there, it’s somewhere in the basement. Problem is, the cellar is getting a bit too crowded for comfort this season.
Not everyone’s there for the same reasons, obviously. The Los Angeles Dodgers — fresh off a World Series appearance — certainly don’t want to be where they are. The Miami Marlins — a franchise in a financial mess — clearly do. Others aren’t here by accident, either, whether it’s teams like San Diego and Cincinnati stuck in a losing spin cycle or others — like Baltimore and Kansas City and Texas — realizing their playoff window is now shut, much like Detroit.
It’s not tanking, per se. It’s rebuilding. But the end result is a “race to the bottom” that “threatens the integrity of the game,” according to MLB Players Association chief Tony Clark, who spent much of spring training sounding the alarm after a winter of free-agent discontent, with so many teams sitting idle.
The NBA has been grappling with this issue for years, and Tuesday night the Phoenix Suns were rewarded for their latest tank job, landing the No. 1 pick, which carries far more weight in basketball than it does in baseball. Also rewarded were the Atlanta Hawks and Sacramento Kings, who combined to lose nearly 70 percent of their games this season and found a little lottery luck to land the Nos. 2 and 3 selections in June’s draft.
But what about all the rest? For the first time since the league went to an 82-game schedule 50 years ago, eight NBA teams lost more than 50 games this season. And clearly that was no accident. Was it worth it? That’s a question some of their fans will be asking, just as they will be soon enough in some of these half-empty MLB ballparks.
Back in February, NBA commissioner Adam Silver sent a memo to all 30 teams in the league, warning that coaches and player found guilty of purposely losing games would draw the “swiftest and harshest response possible” from his office. The league also fined Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban $600,000 for his public comments about tanking. Next year, spurred in large part by the Philadelphia 76ers’ years-long “Process”, new draft lottery rules will level the odds for the three worst teams in the league, with gradual reductions from there.
But MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has thus far balked at the notion something needs to change with his league, though the disparity between haves and have-nots — and the bad baseball it’s bound to produce — may force him to reconsider if this trend continues.
“I don’t buy into the concept that when a club adopts a strategy of rebuilding that that should be characterized as tanking,” he told reporters during spring training. “I think that our clubs — all of them — want to win. That’s why owners own. The question is, ‘What strategy are they going to adopt over what period of time to put themselves in position to win?’”
At the moment, though, the more pertinent question seems to be, “What if too many teams are adopting the same strategy at once?” And in the end, that may be the real lesson of 2018: You can’t win for losing.