The frozen free agency of last winter provoked suggestions that Major League Baseball has a tanking problem. The word ‘tanking’ was used as much as any other during the offseason, perhaps with the exception of ‘Stanton’ and ‘Ohtani’.
The real reasons for the free agency stand-off are for another time, but to put it down to teams ‘tanking’ was misguided. Sure, a few teams were entering a rebuild, but there is quite a difference between a rebuild and deliberate tanking. These teams are not intending to lose 140 games, they are simply managing their budget while they invest playing time in talented youngsters.
A few of the teams vilified most for ‘tanking’ have actually started well. Pittsburgh got off to a flyer despite no free agent addition, Tampa Bay bounced back from an awful start to put together one of the franchise’s best ever streaks and Detroit hold a better record than the Minnesota Twins, who were/are expected to contend for the wildcard.
Only so much can be read from the first 30 games, though the early signs are that the 2018 Major League Baseball season will be a competitive one. The prospect of teams winning or losing 110 games remains remote, and one of the few teams on that sort of the pace, the Arizona Diamondbacks, are a surprise story themselves even after an excellent 2017.
Each National League division remains immensely competitive. Just a handful of games separate the top four teams in the West, Central and East. The Miami Marlins, Cincinnati Reds and San Diego Padres are the only clubs who look without a sniff of playoff baseball, even though the Padres are just a few games behind the National League champion Los Angeles Dodgers.
The Pirates were criticised for trading away stars Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen without making free agent signings. They have a winning record at the time of writing. This great start might just be a hot streak, and they remain outsiders for a postseason berth, but they are hardly no hopers. Not to mention what the prospects they received from those trades could offer in the coming seasons.
Major League Trades aren’t all bad
Trading players away might have benefitted some of the teams that are really struggling. The Reds, for instance, have been in a rut for several seasons, and could have found some prospect reward had they moved pieces this offseason. Instead, they sacked their manager just a few weeks into the season and sit at an abysmal eight wins.
The Baltimore Orioles – also on eight wins – did not face the same criticism as the Pirates, Rays or others. Baltimore retained Manny Machado, despite his impending free agency, and added Alex Cobb on a questionable free agent contract.
The Royals, too, opted not to trade away any of their players, despite the obvious beginning of a rebuild. The result? Well, let’s just say the number one overall pick is more likely than a wildcard spot.
Someone has to lose. That’s sort of the nature of sport. It doesn’t have to be tanking for a team to be bad, and at the moment, the teams struggling the most are not the ones flipping key players for prospects. Win-loss projections for the year will always look exaggerated at this time of year. In reality, it still seems unlikely multiple teams will lose over 100 games.
The Kids’ll be alright
Maybe, just maybe, playing young, gifted players instead of overpaying for declining veterans in free agency isn’t the worst thing after all. The players who were being suggested as signings for teams like Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and Oakland were not going to make them contenders. Their signing may have provided leadership, sure, but taking up a 25-man spot with a veteran earning millions a year limits the opportunities to learn about other players.
Not every team can have a decent World Series chance in every given year, particularly in the smaller markets. Owners opting to cut payroll and increase future probability of winning is understandable, if a little frustrating.
The health of MLB is of no concern in 2018. Each division looks well-balanced. The teams least likely to compete are not the ones who overlooked aged veterans, but those who just aren’t very good. Sports teams are sometimes bad, that’s okay.
We could yet see three or four teams per division with a realistic chance of playoff baseball by the time September rolls around. That’ll be just fine.