From 2011-14, the Chicago Cubs went 271-377, averaging 94 losses per year under three different managers. Two years later, they won the 2016 World Series, led in part by Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber, two high draft picks that resulted from the team’s poor performances.
In that same four-year period, the Houston Astros went 232-416, averaging 104 losses per year under four different managers. The year after the Cubs won the World Series, the Astros did the same, with high draft picks Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers Jr., and Alex Bregman playing key roles.
And thus, the Cubs/Astros Method was born.
Of course, it’s not that simple. Not every high draft pick worked out — Mark Appel and Brady Aiken are the worst back-to-back first-overall picks by the same team in baseball history, although their failure to sign Aiken directly led to their drafting of Bregman — and both teams had huge contributions from players like Jose Altuve, Justin Verlander, Jon Lester, Anthony Rizzo, and countless other players who came into their organizations via less tanky means.
But the high draft picks did help, and the money they saved in those years when they didn’t have any good players certainly didn’t hurt them as they signed free agents or traded for higher-priced stars when it was time to try again. So what Major League Baseball is left with is a system in which, if a team considers itself unlikely to make the postseason, it is often in their best interests to be as bad as possible. There is nothing to be gained by winning 84 games.
We can all agree that’s a lousy situation. The question is: What can be done about it? My favorite solution, which I first saw put forth by Cubs broadcaster Len Kasper a couple years ago on Twitter (in a tweet that appears to no longer exist, for some reason), is simple:
Change the draft order.
Instead of the worst team picking first, give the top draft pick to the best non-playoff team. I said before that there’s nothing to be gained by winning 84 games, but it’s undeniably a better fan experience to have a team that wins more games than it loses. What baseball needs to do is align the “best fan experience” with the “smartest baseball move,” and that means giving a tangible baseball benefit to teams trying their best to win as many games as possible.
There are concerns about this method, of course. But I think they’re far from insurmountable. Let’s address a few of them:
A team that wants the first pick more than a Wild Card road game might lose on purpose
This was my primary concern when I first heard the idea. A front office might decide that the first pick is more valuable to them than a road game they have a 37 percent chance of winning. But here’s the thing: Front offices don’t play the games. Even when teams are “tanking” currently, the actual players on the field are doing their best to win every single day. There’s not a player in baseball who would trade a shot at the postseason for a draft pick, so the likelihood of a team deliberately losing is pretty low.
Of course, the front office can have some impact on the results of games, so there are ways to incentivize them, too. Maybe you give the top draft pick to the best non-Division Series team, so the Wild Card loser with the best record ends up with the top pick. But I think that rewards a team too much for losing that game. What I like better would be a system where the postseason teams are sprinkled in with the non-postseason teams. So the draft order for 2019, based on 2018 results, would go something like this:
- Tampa Bay Rays (best record among non-postseason teams)
- Seattle Mariners (second, non-postseason)
- Atlanta Braves (worst record among postseason teams)
- St. Louis Cardinals (third, non-postseason)
- Pittsburgh Pirates (fourth, non-postseason)
- Colorado Rockies (ninth/second-worst, postseason)
- Washington Nationals (fifth, non-postseason)
- Arizona Diamondbacks (sixth, non-postseason)
- Cleveland Indians (eighth, postseason)
- Philadelphia Phillies (seventh, non-postseason)
- Los Angeles Angels (eighth, non-postseason)
- Los Angeles Dodgers (seventh, postseason)
- Minnesota Twins (ninth, non-postseason)
- New York Mets (10th, non-postseason)
- Chicago Cubs (sixth, postseason)
- Toronto Blue Jays (11th, non-postseason)
- San Francisco Giants (12th, non-postseason)
- Milwaukee Brewers (fifth, postseason)
- Cincinnati Reds (13th, non-postseason)
- Texas Rangers (14th, non-postseason)
- Oakland A’s (fourth, postseason)
- San Diego Padres (15th, non-postseason)
- Detroit Tigers (16th, non-postseason)
- New York Yankees (third, postseason)
- Miami Marlins (17th, non-postseason)
- Chicago White Sox (18th, non-postseason)
- Houston Astros (second, postseason)
- Kansas City Royals (19th, non-postseason)
- Baltimore Orioles (worst team we’ve seen in a long time)
- Boston Red Sox (best team we’ve seen in a long time)
It’s not perfect. There are valid concerns. In fact…
Bad teams will be unable to rebuild through the draft
There are other ways to build a competitive team, and if better performance results in higher draft picks, that incentivizes teams to build in those ways.
Every team in baseball can afford to sign free agents. The reason they don’t, currently, is because there’s no reason to pay Adam Jones $8 million when you can pay a lesser player $550,000 unless you think Jones will get you over the hump and into the postseason. For a team that is nowhere near the postseason, that expenditure doesn’t make sense. But if signing a couple free agents could be the difference between the fifth pick in the draft and the 17th pick, suddenly it makes baseball sense to try to win as much as possible. Or, put another way, don’t you think the Royals would have tried to field a more competitive team last year if the “reward” for their awfulness was the 28th pick rather than the second pick?
So, yes, it will make it harder for bad teams to rebuild through the draft. I see that as more of a feature than a bug, because it means teams will try harder to not be bad! What a concept!
Good teams would have incentives to not become great teams
The difference between the Red Sox and the Astros in this scenario is three picks. The Red Sox finished five games ahead of the Astros and eight games ahead of the Yankees. Is it conceivable that the Red Sox might have deliberately won six fewer games in order to get the 27th pick instead of the 30th pick. Sure, lots of things are conceivable. My dad thinks that because he weighs 190 pounds and he can lift 190 pounds, he will someday be able to pick himself up if he can just figure out the right technique. The human mind can conceive a lot of things. But in reality, it seems extraordinarily unlikely that the Red Sox would have opened the door for their arch-rivals to win the AL East just to get a slightly better draft spot.
Ownership will never go for it
This solution would suddenly make free agents more attractive to all 30 teams, which means free agent salaries would start to go back up. As such, ownership would surely resist this. But that’s the thing about collectively bargained agreements: they’re collectively bargained. If ownership doesn’t like it, that’s a good sign that it’s something the players’ union should be fighting for. It might mean making concessions in other ways, as negotiations often do. Maybe the system they agree on isn’t the perfect system I’ve laid out here (ha ha). But the fact that ownership would resist it is in no way a dealbreaker.
If we want front offices to make decisions that provide the best fan experience, we need to align their priorities. Fans want teams that are trying their best to win as many games as possible. This tweak to the draft would create front offices that want the same thing. The time has come.