Not every team that’s rebuilding should be accused of tanking

Phillies GM Matt Klentak is trying to improve the team's pool of young talent.

Matt Rourke/AP

Here’s the thing about "tanking," which the owners reportedly discussed at their recent meetings, and which some will tell you is a scourge on baseball as we know it:

When teams such as the Phillies, Brewers and Braves go young, they are not simply seeking a better draft position and higher bonus pool. No, they are amassing prospects through trades, creating financial flexibility, setting up their franchises for better tomorrows.

What exactly are these clubs supposed to do? For years, the Phillies drew criticism for waiting too long to rebuild. Now, they’re finally showing promise, thanks in part due to a series of trades by former general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. Should they apologize?

The Brewers are an even better example — a reasonable argument can be made that the collective-bargaining agreement should not permit a high-revenue club such as the Phillies to draft No. 1 and receive the highest bonus pool when they already operate at a distinct financial advantage.

Former GM Doug Melvin initiated the Brewers’ rebuilding last July by trading center fielder Carlos Gomez and right-hander Mike Fiers to the Astros for four prospects. New Brewers GM David Stearns has accelerated the process, making nine trades since taking over Sept. 21.

Closer Francisco Rodriguez, first baseman Adam Lind and most recently shortstop Jean Segura and left fielder Khris Davis all have been part of the purge.

And the organization is better for it.

The Brewers ranked an average of 25th in the Baseball America organizational talent rankings the previous five years; this year, they rank ninth. The Phillies ranked an average of 21st over the same span; this year, they rank eighth. The Braves were 29th and 26th the previous two years; this year, they are third.

AROUND THE HORN

Catcher Jonathan Lucroy might be the next Brewer to go, but the idea will be the same — not to maximize losses, but to maximize returns on trades. Stearns has even taken fliers on players such as outfielders Rymer Liriano and Ramon Flores. Maybe one of them can become the Brewers’ version of right-hander Collin McHugh, whom the Astros acquired on a waiver claim.

The Phillies, likewise, are not trying to lose — they traded for right-handers Jeremy Hellickson, Charlie Morton and Vince Velasquez to fortify their rotation. Ditto for the Braves, who kept first baseman Freddie Freeman and acquired shortstop Erick Aybar and outfielder Ender Inciarte in their flurry of deals.

If anything, the teams that warrant greater scrutiny are the ones that cannot decide if they are "in" or "out." The Rockies are perhaps the most egregious offender, but the Padres and even the Reds are caught in the middle as well.

What is the point of the Pads holding on to starting pitchers such as Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross after trading closer Craig Kimbrel? Why are the Reds targeting lesser prospects who are closer to the majors rather than those who possess the highest upside? The Astros and Cubs both demonstrated that the harder a team falls, the quicker it rises — provided, of course, that it evaluates properly.

Listen, no one should pretend the current system is perfect, not when it incentivizes losing. Then again, what draft doesn’t? Drafts are designed to reward the worst clubs.

The union historically has opposed the concept of a payroll "floor," believing teams should be free to go up or down. The problem now is that the weighted bonus pools in the current CBA created an even greater motivation for teams to seek the highest draft position.

If players and owners want to create a draft lottery in the next CBA agreement to prevent teams from blatantly pursuing the No. 1 pick, fine. If the two sides want to diminish the disparity between bonus pools to further disincentivize losing, that would work, too.

Oh, and if big-market teams want greater assurances that small-market teams will use revenue-sharing money to improve their baseball product, they should indeed press for such provisions. The big-market frustration over revenue sharing, in fact, likely is fueling the rumbling about "tanking."

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Keep this in mind, too: Even if teams stumble to the No. 1 pick — even if they stumble to successive No. 1 picks — the baseball draft offers no guarantees.

The Astros, after "earning" three straight No. 1 selections, effectively missed on two of them, choosing Mark Appel over Kris Bryant in 2013 and failing to sign Brady Aiken in ’14. They’ve done a better job manipulating their big bonus pools, using the extra money to secure talent lower in the draft.

The game is cyclical; not every team is assured of success every season. The fans in Milwaukee and Philadelphia know that their respective teams will not be good in ’16. But for the most part, they understand the plan. They know their teams must go backward before they go forward. They want to see young talent, and they are willing to wait.

The system can be tweaked. The system should be tweaked. But let’s not say teams are tanking when they are merely rebuilding — and when rebuilding is the right thing for them to do.

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