Tank You Very Little: MLB Owners Have Discussed Sucking Out Loud

In some of best advice ever used in a cheesy auto-insurance commercial, the great American poet Kenny Rogers crooned, “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em. Know when to walk away, know when to run.” Ah, yes, the theme of the gambler. And while the cosmetic work he’s had done over the years is all kinds of wrong, Rogers’ words ring true across a number of different aspects of life.

How many of us would have fatter wallets if we’d just stepped away from the table when the chip stack was at its peak? How many would have felt better in the morning had we just turned down that last beer or three? Timing and discretion are often the only things separating the really good decisions from the really bad ones, the perfect strategies from the plans that end up as so much tinder in the dumpster fire.

Then again, there are times when the flames cleanse, when we puke and rally and move forward stronger than ever. That’s the case in Chicago and Houston. where the Cubs and Astros are flush with high-end prospects, both in terms of players and their teams’ respective competitive outlooks. In order to get there, all they had to do was suffer through historically bad runs that made some fans feel as though they’d never see the light again.

I think we all know how that turned out for both of them, and results of late have proven the merit of the tanking gambit. Well, maybe instead of “tanking,” we can just call it the “intentional suppression of competitiveness.” Either way, The Plan, as many have labeled the Cubs’ strategy, was pretty sound from the start. When you think about it, it’s not very different from restricting your household budget despite having a significant income.

When you’re trying to get out of debt and establish a more secure financial footing, the best course of action is to cut the extraneous items from the budget. Limit extravagances, buy generic, cook more of your own meals, etc. In an effort to rebuild their organization, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer operated on a budget by signing cheap free agents, flipping them for low-cost long-term assets, and focusing on the amateur draft and international free agency.

And wouldn’t you know it, a few years of being thrifty allowed the Cubs to burst back onto the scene last season. All good, right? Well, not quite. You’ve still got the (now much quieter) segment of the fanbase that decries this strategy and claims that the same thing could have been accomplished by acting like the big-market team the Cubs clearly are (for what it’s worth, Chicago is 3rd in the US in terms of population, while Houston is 4th). While those fans are ignorant, often willfully, of the economics of the team and sports, their gripe is one that may yet end up having merit.

The potential for change comes not from a few disgruntled devotees, however, but from the owners across baseball who have been spending consistently only to see teams maintain low payrolls with the promise of larger revenue and draft pool shares. As Buster Olney wrote Tuesday, the owners have discussed the idea of tanking and could look to tweak the rules — perhaps even as early as December, when the new CBA is negotiated — in order to deter such strategies in the future.

The good news for the Cubs in all of this is that they’ve already leveraged the market inefficiency and aren’t going to need to do so again, at least not in the foreseeable future. The real aim of any changes, however, would be more to force the bottom feeders to spend eventually. The Cubs used their own dumpster fire to clear out old growth in order to allow them to start fresh. As it stands now, some smaller teams could choose to keep throwing gasoline on the flames.

So go ahead, owners, tweak away. I’m generally against rules that seek to legislated intent, but I’ll make an exception in this case. After all, it’d just be more insulation for the Cubs and perhaps less money they’ve got to give up through revenue sharing. They sat down at the low-limit table for a while, built up a big stack, then walked away to play with the high rollers once more. Fun times.

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