Cheap Seats

Baseball doesn’t need a universal DH or a pitch clock. It needs to stop teams from tanking.

If Major League Baseball wants to do something about lagging attendance and general malaise in the attitude of the masses toward the game, it doesn’t need pitch clocks, limits on how relief pitchers are used or the universal designated hitter.

What it needs to do is compel owners to put a more competitive product on the field consistently.

The number of teams that legitimately have a chance to make it to the World Series each year seems to be shrinking every year as owners try to hold the line on costs by searching for windows in which to be competitive as opposed to trying to be competitive all the time. I’d say that no more than 10 teams, a third of the clubs in the majors, really have a chance to win it all this year. Even if they manage to make it to the post season by securing a wildcard spot, they don’t have the horsepower to beat one of the MLB big boys in a short series.

As far as I’m concerned, public enemy number one is “tanking,” the concept of selling off all your decent players in order to enhance your draft pick position by finishing as close to last place as humanly possible.

Why in the world would anyone want to spend any amount of money, much less major league prices, or any amount of time watching a team that’s going to lose two-thirds of its games for five year or more? I know I wouldn’t even think about spending my money on that. It’s fortunate that, as much as I criticize them for being tight with the purse strings, the ownership of the St. Louis Cardinals refuses to take the tanking route.

I believe tanking out to be banned from baseball in a two-step process.

First, it’s pretty obvious that ownership is gunning for a salary cap in the next collective bargaining agreement. They’ve done everything they can to pour water on the free agent market the past two years. Meanwhile, they’re suspiciously dangling the carrot of the designated hitter in the National League, something they’ve resisted for years while the MLB Players Association has asked for it repeatedly, as an olive branch. If there is going to be a salary cap, there ought to be a salary floor, too. When the richest teams in baseball are paying a “luxury tax” that subsidizes their weaker siblings, those siblings ought to have to spend that money on their team, not put it in their pockets.

Second, get rid of the concept that worse teams deserve better draft picks. How often does it turn out that the best players in baseball are the first overall picks? Mike Trout, who just signed the richest deal in MLB history, wasn’t the first pick in the draft. He wasn’t even the first pick of his own team in the draft. That was Randal Grichuk. It seems like a pretty inexact science to me. Still, it’s not fair that the bottom feeders get the best pick because the potential superstars of the game theoretically end up in small markets on bad teams where they don’t create the excitement and exposure baseball craves. Not only should there be a lottery to select the top few draft selections, I think there ought to be a lottery to pick all of them. If a team wins the first pick through a drawing, it shouldn’t be able to have the first pick again for a period of years. Maybe 10. If the incentive is taken away from failure, maybe winning will become more of a priority.

Why do teams really tank? People like to gleefully reply “because it works” as they watch their team embarrass itself on the field. But does it really work?

Let’s examine the Chicago Cubs, a high profile team that tanked, and then won it’s first World Series in more than a century. Did it win because it tanked? I would say no. At least not exclusively because of that, for sure. It had a little something to do with the fact the team had a $183.46 million payroll, fourth-highest in the major leagues. Sure, Kris Bryant was a nice addition to that team. But he accounted for about $600,000 of that payroll. The Cubs wouldn’t have won that World Series had they not spent major bank on Jon Lester, Jason Heyward and others. The only example out there of a tanking team winning the World Series without major free agent spending is the Kansas City Royals team that went to the Fall Classic on back-to-back occasions a couple of years ago. But at what cost? That club did the reverse of tanking to fortify itself for its title run, trading off all of its best prospects for rental help. Fortunately for their fans, they got one moment in the sun after three decades of haplessness. But now they’re back in the dumpster.

Baseball would be a lot more exciting to everyone, including the folks with the short attention spans that call themselves casual fans, if the games meant something. Having a chance to see something magical happen is what compels people to part with a couple hundred bucks to go watch grown men play a child’s game in their pajamas. Again, I have never heard anyone say “Man, that was a great game. I just wish it wasn’t that long.” But I can see where watching the Miami Marlins get clobbered night in and night out might seem as if it’s never going to end.