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“Built to lose.” That’s a phrase you hear far too often in baseball these days, especially if you’re a fan of a team going through a lengthy rebuild. ‘Rebuilding’ in baseball used to entail maximizing draft value, developing young players and spending wisely on free agents. Those tenets still hold true for organizations, but ever since the Astros successfully tanked their way to a stacked top-to-bottom organization in the mid-2010s, teams, especially the less wealthy ones, have found an additional way to rebuild: intentionally fielding less-competitive teams.
This isn’t fun for fans of tanking teams and it isn’t good for baseball. Players know this, which is why players such as Andrew Miller and Players Association officials such as Union Head Tony Clark have proposed anti-tanking measures. Suggestions have ranged from mandatory minimum payrolls to a 14-team playoff format, but I believe one of the most compelling possibilities would be an end to the reverse-order draft.
Before the era of tanking, the reverse-order draft made sense. In theory, granting the highest draft picks to the worst teams in the league evens out the competition and prevents teams from going decades without seeing a core of home-grown stars. The problem is, as the Astros proved, this system is easily exploited by teams who are willing to lose intentionally for a number of years in order to hoard top draft picks.
In addition to hurting baseball’s competitive balance and condemning fans to years of misery, tanking isn’t even guaranteed to make bad teams better -- the Pirates have been tanking for the last three seasons and the Orioles the last four, yet both still are at least a few years away from contention. This is largely because drafting players in baseball is even more of a crapshoot than it can be in other sports -- Mike Trout, the best player of his generation and arguably one of the best ever, was passed over by 26 teams before being picked 27th by the Angels.
I propose a draft where the top picks go not to the worst teams, but to the best of the teams that didn’t make the playoffs, thus incentivizing front offices to squeeze as many wins as possible out of their rosters rather than field non-competitive teams in a race to the bottom. This is exactly what players like Miller have been arguing for, because regardless of whether or not their team is playoff-bound, players love the game and play to win every single day. Changing the draft to award picks to the best of the non-playoff teams first would make the game better for the players while still allowing teams to prioritize high draft picks.
This could also help marginal veterans stay in the game longer, as non-competitive teams would have more reason to sign people like Adam Jones (of a couple years ago) to try to squeeze as many wins out of their roster as possible.
This won’t completely legislate uncompetitive rosters out of baseball, but with this one simple change, every team, regardless of their chances of making the playoffs, would fight for each individual win. Stretch run games in late August and September would take on a heightened atmosphere. If this led to a boost in ticket sales, teams would have more money to spend on free agents in the future, further strengthening the game’s competitive balance.
With the current collective bargaining agreement expiring in December, changes (hopefully not including a lockout) are looming on the horizon. If Major League Baseball wants tanking to end as badly as players and fans do, the league must be open to the possibility of restructuring the draft.