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Why Should MLB Teams Tank Anymore?


Image credit: (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

If the 2010s were the decade of tanking, yesterday’s draft lottery is a perfect example of why the 2020s could be different.

The Oakland A’s have been the worst team in baseball over the past two years. They have gotten rid of almost every player of note to drive their payroll to the bottom of MLB.

After going 110-214 the past two seasons, the A’s would have picked second and first under the old system where teams picked in reverse order of their records.

They could’ve picked Dylan Crews last year in this hypothetical and then entered 2024 knowing they’d have their pick of the 2024 draft’s top tier as well as a massive bonus pool. Losing big would’ve netted the A’s a big payoff. 

But that didn’t happen. Instead, they picked sixth in 2023 and will pick fourth in 2024. The A’s will also pick 10th or lower next year because no team is allowed to have three straight lottery picks. While this development is unlikely to compel A’s owner John Fisher to spend money to make next year’s team better, it does mean that being awful next year will not yield the A’s any significant competitive benefits.

That’s quite the different story from the two winners of the draft lottery. The Reds were quite bad not too long ago, but are now solidly respectable on the field (82-80 with a young team that should be better in 2024) and will pick second overall in 2024. The Guardians will pick No. 1 for the first time in team history after a 76-86 season. In the case of Cincinnati, it can add another top prospect to a young team that is already trending in the right direction.

2024 MLB Mock Draft

Who could the Guardians and Reds target? Here’s our first mock of the year.

Some may decry this as unfair or problematic. I’ll frame it a different way: what’s the point of being truly putrid if it doesn’t bring with it a big payoff?

Owners may still slash their payrolls to save money, but if they do so, they can’t really spin it as having a clear long-term benefit for fans.

Another even bigger anti-tanking measure may be on the horizon. As the regional sports network model dissolves, the new television model is likely to include more direct to consumer sales. If you get your local team on the MLB app in the future, that’s a direct to consumer sale.

There are some benefits to that for teams. There is now no middleman between the fan and the team. That could mean better digital data on customers and better ways to sell to your biggest fans). But there are a ton of downsides.

Under the RSN model, teams knew they were getting a set amount every year for their local TV contract. The money was the same whether a team won 60 games or 110. Any ratings drop became the RSN’s problem until the next time there was a contract renewal.

And because dropping your cable subscription and then re-adding it from time to time was nearly impossible (as anyone who has ever dropped off a cable box can attest) those RSNs had steady subscriber counts as well. A bad year by a baseball team was unlikely to lead to a massive drop in subscriber revenue., 

Now imagine a direct to consumer world. Every year, or even every month, teams will have to convince potential customers to subscribe to watch their games.

If a team is good, subscription numbers will grow. If a team is bad, they’ll likely drop. But if a team is hopelessly bad, those numbers may fall through the floor. A decision to gut a team for a long-term rebuild begins to look a lot less appealing if it is going to lead to a massive reduction in revenue.

This is not all together a good thing, as fluctuations in revenue make it much harder for teams to plan and spend, but it does potentially add yet another reason that teams may not be nearly as willing to tear it all down now compared to a decade ago.

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