Rebuilding, Tanking, and the Art of Baseball

There have been a lot of things written and said lately about teams “tanking” or “rebuilding,” and a lot of it is pretty mean-spirited. I’m here to suggest it’s also misguided. In his article “Not Every Team That’s Rebuilding Should be Accused of Tanking,” Ken Rosenthall very clearly points out that there are a number of teams in smaller markets that have no other option if they want to remain competitive. He also explains (an explanation that as a Cubs fan I understand only too well) that rebuilding, or having a lot of early draft picks doesn’t guarantee success. Yes, the current Chicago Cubs team is the product of a rebuild, and draft picks acquired during horrible seasons, and yes – this time it worked. That’s part of the art of the game. Having the picks is only a tool – using that tool properly, getting the right people, and finding a little luck along the way are also things required for a rebuild to make the kind of difference fans hope for.

I’d like to add a bit to this, and again, the Cubs fan perspective is helpful. There are a lot of aspects to baseball. One of the reasons it’s my favorite sport is the complexity, the statistical angles, and the big-picture thinking it requires. You can’t win without a conjunction of talent, starting with ownership, and working its way down through the front office, general manager, coaches, and the system that supports them. The challenge of keeping track of a baseball organization on all of those levels is immense, and not everyone is going to handle it as well as others do. You can’t think of just today’s team, you have to also be aware of what you hope it will look like in a year, two years, or even ten.

Credit: Rob Foldy / Getty Images North America

Credit: Rob Foldy / Getty Images North America

It’s an art form. Rosenthall points out that there seem, at times, to be teams that are not using the system properly, like the 2016 Colorado Rockies, who are holding onto players in a year they will clearly not compete. Evidence indicates that a successful rebuild has to be an all-in decision. Jonathan Lucroy is still with the Milwaukee Brewers, despite being clearly unhappy with that decision, and is stuck on a team that is not even considering a run at the postseason. If they are serious about their rebuild, he should be dealt for players that will assist in that process. Are the Brewers and Rockies abusing the system, or are they just not doing a good job? It would not be the first time a front office, or a general manager, simply blew it. Google the “College of Coaches” if you doubt me.

My point in all of this is a sort of call to baseball writers and fans alike to take a moment and view this through a different perspective. I know that it’s a thrill to see your team winning, to follow the pennant race and the postseason with your heart racing because your team is in. Along with that, to fully appreciate this game, you should be able to embrace the leaner times. When your team is rebuilding, you get to see a lot of young talent that would probably not have made it to the big leagues as soon if all of the veterans had not moved on. You see stars born, rookies rise – and fall – spectacularly. You see the birth of the next generation of players that will carry your team from inception to maturity.

You can learn more about your team’s farm system by following who will be part of the new magic. You can second-guess your managers and owners on the decisions that frame the future. Not every team has the funding to go big in free agency, or spend at the trade deadline and make a run for the playoffs every year, and those gambles and trades and purchases are no more a guarantee of success than the rebuild. Patching together a sinking ship is never preferable to building a newer, faster, sexier model. Only a few teams win every year – that’s part of what makes it special when it happens.

So, to conclude, I understand the frustration of watching your team dismantled and sent off to win World Series rings on other teams. I understand it’s not easy to try and figure out who all these new guys are, why they were chosen, and what they will become. We all want to see home runs, lead our divisions, and win that championship. I really do understand. I also understand that there is a vast difference between purposely losing games – which is what tanking means – and fielding the team that you can afford, and that you have built, because it will bring you back to the promised land in a few years. Those guys aren’t trying to lose – they are trying to prove themselves. Those owners and general managers are banking on their knowledge and experience to build something special, and nothing special is built overnight.

It’s a game of numbers and statistics. It’s also a game of patience. There are a lot of ways to build a winning team, and it’s a good thing that the only one is not a huge pocketbook and a go-for broke spending spree, because the two or three teams that would be in the series every year if that was true would grow boring very quickly, and the seasons leading to those championships would be lifeless and boring. I’ve waited since I started watching the Cubs back in 1965 or so. I had my heart broken in 1969, and repeated that experience several times since.  We have rebuilt, tried every trick in the book, and finally, I think we’re getting it right… I wouldn’t change a minute of it, because I simply love the game.

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