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Tankonia: a roundtable discussion on the wisdom of the “stepback” season

To tank or not to tank?

Tee Miller

The Mariners FO has carefully avoided the word “tanking,” instead preferring a series of euphemisms: step-back, re-set, pushing pause on the continuum of winning, we wish we were making the last one up. And while the Mariners did make some moves to attempt to bolster the 2019 club, like bringing in veterans Tim Beckham and Hunter Strickland on one-year deals to patch over some holes and hopefully build trade value, and the club’s performance can’t be separated from the rash of injuries that has bitten every position except catcher (bless the resilient battery of Narvphy), it’s undeniable that this team was not built to contend this year. For the sake of brevity, we’ve decided to roll all the various shades of non-competition into the word “tank,” while recognizing the Mariners’ tank job isn’t on par with, say, the Orioles. While all of us knew this year would provide some painful baseball, we as a staff have been marveling at just how unwatchable this team is, leading some of us to question if tanking is a worthwhile strategy. Will the gains of a stepback year outweigh the absolutely miserable baseball we’re witnessing?

Joe: I don’t think tanking is necessarily a bad thing, especially as it pertains to trading off aging or expensive assets. A rebuild requires a “tank” in a lot of ways, and you should never half-ass a rebuild. There’s one distinction that I think tanking teams should avoid. I don’t believe tanking for a better draft pick is a good idea. Unless it’s a year where there’s a prodigal talent like Bryce Harper or Stephen Strasburg due to go #1 overall, and the team is already ostensibly bad, it doesn’t make sense to crash and burn on purpose. It’s important an organization let its scouts do their job, and coaches do theirs. At the end of the day, a good scouting department will draft the right player and player development will complement those efforts. Placing a competitive team with impact veterans of good influence around young talent during a rebuild is critically important too.

Kate: Two rules of rebuilds: don’t half-ass a rebuild, and don’t start a rebuild too late; I’m curious about what will happen with the Giants, who kind of seem to be in a weird in-between spot on both those points.

Tim: That’s a really interesting point, Joe. We often see teams blasted for saying they’re “trying to win” when we all know how the roster is built--but there’s trying to win from a roster construction standpoint, and there’s trying to win from a “coming to the ballpark every day” standpoint. My intuitive answer is that it’s not inherently “wrong”, whatever that means, to clearly not have maximized your roster for a given season while also sending the message that hey, we’ve spent the resources that we make sense, now we expect a full effort from everyone. It’s a weird dichotomy.

Kate: I will unabashedly say I am queen of the tanks. Tankity-tank away, my tank-babies. Yes, it makes the baseball at the major league level bad and hard to watch. Yes, it makes the Mariners -somehow- even more of laughingstocks of MLB than they’ve already been. Yes, it literally makes my life harder on a daily basis. But this is what I’ve been waiting for, even though I understood the idea of going for it in a very limited window. They’re rebuilding the farm from the ground up, not just with different players, but with different ideas and values in developing players. It’s a chance for a true fresh start. If that means shifting resources away from the major-league team to pay for pitching strategists like Brian DeLunas or minor-league coordinators like Carson Vitale so that you’re able to produce better players from your own system, so be it.

Eric: At this point in the rebuild, with all the many seeds Jerry Dipoto planted during the offseason now budding nicely throughout the farm system, there is no practical point in trying to field a competitive team at the major league level for the rest of the season. Is player morale practical? Maybe. But, if the younger players are 100% on board for the next several seasons and understand they are part of a Winning Team of the Future, then what’s a 100 loss season between new friends? So, hey, go ahead and purposefully misuse the opener like you can just throw any waiver wire riff raff reliever at the beginning of a game and it’ll be fine (it’s not). Who cares? Let’s tank, kiddos. Next year’s first round is full of goodies. Future glory awaits.

Matthew: Not only has tanking recently paid off tremendously for the Astros and Cubs, it is also the clearest path to sustained success, and away from the veteran-laden flashes in the pans the Mariners enjoyed in 2014, 2016, and the first months of 2018. At this current moment, the minor league system is quite literally the only bright spot in the Mariners’ organization, apart from J.P. Crawford, Daniel Vogelbach, Omar Narváez, and Marco Gonzales, who are both young and club-controlled enough to be with the team when this theoretical tanking would be over. Reinforcing the minors with top draft picks for the next two years is truly the only plan that makes sense, and the way to ensure that is to keep losing. During the dying days of this MLB season, I’d love to see the Mariners willingly give playing time to minor league guys (especially Ian Miller), which would both give them a shot at the top level and make the big league product a little worse, thus ensuring entertaining badness. Get two birds stoned at once, if you will.

Eric: Strong point about Ian Miller, Matthew. Give that man his shot, Mariners. Give all longtime minors dwellers a shot in September. Let’s see what Kyle Lewis can do. Let’s see if Ljay Newsome and Sam Delaphane can hang in the majors yet. Seeing young players get their shot that they’ve worked so hard to get is probably the only fun aspect of tanking, at least when you’re witnessing it in the moment. So, as they say, let the kids play? Please?

Amanda: I have been hesitant to jump on the tankathon bandwagon. My feelings on it have been a head vs. heart type of situation. My head recognizes the realities of needing better draft picks while my heart thinks back over all the “rebuilds” and dark, dark seasons and whines, “But I don’t wanna!” I kept thinking the Mariners should field an okay team that’s pleasant to watch and work on the changes they have made to their player development. However, the way the season has played out, it doesn’t make sense to spend money or focus on the major league team outside of using it as a vehicle to give young players experience. I agree with Eric, let the kids play!

John: My fear is less about the Mariners and more about things out of their control. I am encouraged by the farm’s improvements and the young players on the roster, but there’s not enough in this group to be a powerhouse without some serious breakouts. That means money has to be spent, and spent on the right players. So where are those players going to come from? Free agency attracts fewer upgrades every year as extensions become the name of the game thanks to pitiful offers for many ~average players. This team will need pitching. They’ll probably need a third baseman. And what will all this efforts towards being cost-controlled look like after the likely player’s strike at the end of the current CBA in 2021?

Kate: I see things as much more in control for the Mariners than in previous years, simply because having a healthy farm system means less reliance on external factors. I think the target of 2021 is pretty firmly in place with the idea that the core that’s currently at Arkansas will be ready by then, with hopefully some infusions from some of the (ideally) fast-moving college arms they drafted this year. Maybe they’re not a powerhouse—at least not right away, until you get to the Kelenic/J-Rod callups—but I think there’s a strong enough core there that supplementing in free agency will be much less important.

Nick: While I do agree with many of the very fine points here, I am not pro-Tank. It’s hard to talk about Tanking in the general sense because there are so many different ways to tank. It would help me to define it simply as “being bad on purpose now in order to get better later.” So, if that’s the baseline definition, I have two questions: 1) how would being bad on purpose this year help our future? 2) By what method are we being bad? If, like Matthew suggested, we are being bad by playing the young players in order to develop them for the future, that’s understandable. But that only helps the team if it helps the prospect’s development. I don’t think a lot of our prospects are being blocked at the major league level, they simply aren’t ready. What about being bad for a higher draft pick? That’s more attractive but as Joe outlined, that’s extremely risky and we may never be as bad as the Orioles, anyway. Are we being bad to save money by fielding a team of AAAA players? As John mentioned, Free Agency can only get you so much. There is a limit to that strategy: no matter what we save, we won’t outspend the salary cap. At the moment, I don’t think being worse than we are now is going to net us anything particularly useful for the future--maybe it will move our draft position by 1-3 places, maybe it will save us a few more million, but nothing substantial enough that we should risk the PR blowback of outright suckitude. Ultimately, I am with Amanda in that I wanted a fun baseball team at the major league level. Not good, especially, but fun. This hasn’t been a very fun team to watch since about week four and I think “staying the course” of attempting to compete in 2021-22 is the proper direction for my fandom.

Grant: I agree with Nick on those two questions — that’s a helpful way to frame it. Being bad by giving young players opportunities to play, while ensuring that you’re still putting them in a position to succeed, is fine. Being bad by playing Kristopher Negron every day is, uh, not fine. And that gets to balancing badness with funness (which is so totally a word). I want to see Daniel Vogelbach mash dingers until the image of his wacky half follow-through is burned into my retinas. I want to see Ian Miller try to steal bases on major league catchers. But I don’t want to tank just for the sake of tanking.

Kate: I don’t think anyone is tanking for the sake of tanking, but some teams have a lengthier upward trajectory planned. All these clubs that aren’t competitive are looking at rebuilding for the future, at least theoretically. I would be running thin on patience if I were a White Sox fan, I think, who haven’t had a winning season since 2012. Seattle checked in just ahead of them on the farm system valuation FanGraphs just did, having been at this rebuild thing for about a quarter as long. So as long as the upward trajectory promises to be more “brisk mountain hike” and less “winding garden path,” I can stomach some bad baseball.