By: Brian Chapman
They do it a little bit NHL and they certainly do it in the NBA. In fact, it seems like that's all the 76ers ever do. What am I talking about? I'm talking about tanking. You know. Losing on purpose to get a high draft pick. In the NBA where tanking is most obvious, teams will lose on purpose for a few weeks, a few months or (in the case of the 76ers) for a few years in an effort to get high draft picks that can turn their franchise around. Tanking hasn't worked out for the 76ers yet, but it certainly worked for the Cavaliers in 2003 when they landed LeBron James.
In baseball teams don't tank like that because the draft isn't until the middle of the following year and more importantly, first round draft picks are far less important. They usually take at least two years before they can make an impact at the major league level and they are far from a sure thing. Lots of first round picks never make it to the major leagues and some never even make it to AAA.
That doesn't mean that tanking doesn't exist in baseball. Teams just don't tank for draft picks. Instead they tank for prospects. For years that's what the Houston Astros have done and finally it's paying off as they own the second best record in the American League despite having the second lowest payroll in baseball at just over $70 million. Baseball America also rated the Astros' farm system at 14th in baseball which may not sound impressive, but it fell from 5th in 2014 largely because so many of their best prospects are making an impact at the major league level.
What about the disappointing Detroit Tigers? The team that sits just one game above .500 through 69 games at 35-34. The team that sits just one game above .500 at 98-97 (if you include the playoffs) since their 27-12 start last year. The team that is just 24-32 since their 11-2 start this year and looks nothing like a World Series contender. The team that Baseball America says owned the worst farm system in all of baseball heading into the 2015 season. Should this disappointing Tigers team consider tanking?
If they can't turn it around in the next week or so, they should absolutely tank.
Why give it another week or so? It's not because I believe that they need another week for Victor Martinez's reentrance to the lineup to singlehandedly jumpstart the offense or because I think that's how long it will take for Brad Ausmus' closed door meeting following Saturday's loss to take effect. I don't think anything like that will shake up this team and surge them toward a place that have not been all season: ten games around .500. I'd just give them another week or so because I could be wrong and I'm willing to give this team until about the end of the month to prove that they can turn it around. After that, it's time to tank like a No Limit Solider.
Unlike in the NBA, the Tigers should not tank in order to get the No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft. (The Tigers don't draft well anyway.) The Tigers should tank for three reasons: to acquire high level prospects for David Price and Yoenis Cespedes instead of insignificant draft picks, to get Nick Castellanos's bat on the right track and to ensure that Brad Ausmus doesn't return for the 2016 season.
The last thing the Tigers need is to have history repeat itself by getting nothing but a compensatory draft pick for David Price when he leaves at the end of the year via free agency just like they did with Max Scherzer this past offseason. Notice I didn't say if he leaves. I said when it leaves. If the Tigers were off by $66 million when it came to paying Scherzer, what makes anyone think they'll be in the ballpark to sign Price, especially when Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com recently reported the Tigers "aren't overwhelmingly confident they'll be able to keep him long-term." If the Tigers traded away two solid major leaguers (at the time Austin Jackson was on fire and looked like more than a solid major leaguer) to get Price when he had a year and a third left on his contract, they should definitely be able to get a pair of top 100 Baseball America prospects in return for him this year. I could definitely see winning teams with major starting pitching woes like the Blue Jays, Orioles, Yankees, Angels or Giants getting into a bidding war and driving the prospect price up for Price.
Cespedes won't get the Tigers the same value in prospects, but, especially if Cespedes makes the All-Star team, they will have the chance to get a pair of impactful prospects in return for him and Jon Heyman expects Cespedes to hit free agency as well. If the Tigers really want to tank like the 76ers they could even trade away Joakim Soria's expiring contract, but I think he's more likely to stay.
Tanking by trading away players like Cespedes and Price also prevent the Tigers from adding another gigantic contract to its payroll for a player who will finish the contract in his late thirties. With the 4th highest payroll in baseball, the Tigers just can't keep ballooning their payroll forever. Mike Ilitch has a budget and in order to afford high priced players like Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez and have the money to pay the stars of the future, like Jose Iglesias and JD Martinez, the Tigers need cheap players to offset those big salaries. Tanking for cheap prospects accomplishes that goal.
The Tigers should also tank by sending Nick Castellanos and his struggling bat to Toledo. Some of you probably believe that demoting Castellanos isn't a move to tank. You think it's a move to get better right now because you think he's an overrated bust who will never pan out. I still believe in Castellanos. I just don't believe in the 2015 season and I can't ignore his struggles at the plate any longer. Therefore, send him down to Toledo for as long as it takes for him to get his promising swing back and ensure that he's on track to be a .280 to .300 line drive hitter with power in 2016. They've already sent Shane Greene down to get him right for the future. They may as well tank by sending Castellanos down too.
Perhaps the biggest reason to tank is to ensure that Ausmus doesn't return in 2016. If you're like most hardcore Tigers fans in Metro Detroit, you don't believe in him. You believe that he's in over his head, he doesn't have the answers to turn this team around and/or he is a below average manager who can easily be replaced by someone better. You also probably realize that the Tigers are far too loyal to fire Ausmus during the season unless they fall 10 or 20 games below .500 and you realize that there's no guarantee that he'll be fired this offseason, even if he misses the playoffs.
The road to replacing Ausmus gets a little bit smoother if the Tigers tank by trading David Price and Yoenis Cespedes and demoting Nick Castellanos. It would reduce the Tigers' talent level so that if they continue in the same direction they've been heading since their 11-2 start, they'll undoubtedly finish with a losing record, but would still give the Tigers a chance to compete for a playoff spot if Ausmus actually transforms into a good to great manager in the final 70 to 90 games of the season. After all, trading two players and demoting another can't be considered a fire sale. As great as Price and Cespedes are, at the end of the day, they're just two players and Castellanos owns a .217 batting average.
If tanking in the next week or so seems a bit extreme, a bit early or just flat out ridiculous, I understand where you're coming from. You probably think that if they could just dump Brad Ausmus and hire Ron Gardenhire on the spot, he could wave his magic wand over the team and have the Tigers at 95 wins by the end of the season. Just remember two things when it comes to Gardenhire. First of all, the Twins are far better this year without Gardenhire. Second of all, even if he led the Tigers to the playoffs, his track record suggests he'd be just as successful in the playoffs as Brad Ausmus. With the Twins, Gardenhire never advanced to the World Series, only advanced to the ALCS once and left Minnesota with a 6-21 career record in the playoffs. It seemed like all his teams ever did was win the AL Central and get swept by the Yankees in the ALDS. If the Tigers want a man who knows how to get swept by an AL East team, they have that man in the dugout already.
If you think that tanking in the next week or so seems a bit extreme, a bit early or just flat our ridiculous because there are so many stories of teams that play .500 baseball in the first half of the season and turn it around in the second half, I understand where you're coming from too. After all, the Tigers have done that several times in recent years. The problem is they did under Jim Leyland, a manager with a rock solid track record. What's Ausmus' track record? 98-97 in his last 195 games. Basically .500 baseball.
Tanking is never fun when your team is going through it and if you still believe that this team can win a World Series this year, here is what you're likely to get. A worst case scenario that includes the Tigers staying in contention, but missing the playoffs with about 83 wins, David Price leaving in free agency while the Tigers get nothing but a lowly draft pick in return, Yoenis Cespedes leaving in free agency while the Tigers get nothing but a lowly draft pick in return, Brad Ausmus riding a second winning season into a third season with the Tigers in 2016, a farm system that's as dead as a mummy for the 2016 season and a 2016 regular season that is bleaker and more frustrating than the 2015 regular season. (Yes, it's possible.)
If the Tigers do tank and they do it right, they'll add three or four great players to their farm system who can make a major impact in Detroit in the next two years. They'll have money to sign replacements for Price and Cespedes (and perhaps bring one of them back to Detroit.) And even though many apologists and excuse makers will say that Dave Dombrowski gutted the roster and gave Ausmus nothing to work with at the end of the season, tanking will help to ensure that Ausmus has the record needed to warrant a replacement who could immediately upgrade the team.
Ultimately, the decision to tank is not in my hands or your hands. It's in the hands of Dombrowski and Ilitch and as long as they're in charge, there's no way they'll give up on the 2015 season by tanking for prospects no matter how sensible it may seem and no matter how unrealistic a World Series ring is this year.
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