MLB Draft Not Best Incentive to Curb Tanking

Mega-agent Scott Boras recently shared his thoughts on MLB labor negotations, asserting that the amateur draft should be changed to discourage tanking. While I absolutely agree with Boras that widespread non-competitiveness among teams is a cancer in baseball that is bad for fans and players alike, I take issue with the idea that the draft is the primary cause or solution. One need only look at the 2021 Cubs to see that baseball has a trading problem, not a tanking problem.

After a strong run through May and most of June that culminated in a no-hitter against the Dodgers, the Cubs were in first place and figured to be buyers. Then they dropped 11 straight to fall into fourth place at 42-44, killing any hope of a playoff berth and “forcing” them to pivot to trading off their core. As a result, the Cubs were horrible in the second half and increased their draft position.

But would the Cubs have acted differently if their bad second half hurt, rather than helped, their draft position? No, they would not have.

The trade haul was far more valuable than any impact on draft position, as the prospects obtained improved the Cubs’ farm system significantly (around 10 spots on multiple lists). Yes, a better draft pick is a nice bonus, but I cannot conceive of a system that would have motivated the Cubs to avoid those trades. Add in the cost savings and the unexpected emergence of minimum-salary-earning Frank Schwindel, who would never have gotten playing time otherwise, and you’ve got even more motivation.

I first made this observation in a 2018 post, and I will continue to shout from the rooftops on this subject because baseball will not change for the better if the wrong incentives are tweaked. I suspect that the obsession with the draft is because that is the primary rebuilding mechanism in the other three professional sports. But top NFL, NBA, and NHL prospects are league-ready on draft day, and thereby immediately impact the franchise.

Baseball is different. Even the best prospects usually spend two years in the minors, and most spend far longer. As a result, there is a large pool of post-draft prospects available for trade that simply do not exist in other sports. Moreover, this pool of players is further along in development, which makes these players more projectable — and thus more valuable — than draft picks. They can also be obtained in bulk with sell-offs.

Plus, the practice of trading away veterans is a self-perpetuating cycle. As contenders stockpile stars in trade, other semi-competitive teams see their playoff odds dwindle. Those teams may then trade away their top producers, thereby starting the whole thing over again.

I have no objections to tweaking the draft, perhaps by determining draft position by accumulated wins after playoff elimination. Thus, playoff teams would continue to draft last, but other teams would need to try and win games to improve draft position. This would at least spare fans the cognitive dissonance of rooting for their teams to lose, along with some minor incentives for teams to constrain their tanking.

That said, I continue to maintain the first step must be to de-incentivize the practice of trading off veterans for prospects. The most effective method would be granting prospects and pre-arbitration players a chunk of MLB service time when they are traded. This makes the prospects less valuable in trade, which would decrease the disparity between contenders and non-contenders caused by the barrage of trades between the two groups.

As an added bonus to the player population, boosting service time brings players to free agency younger, increasing their potential earnings. Let’s hope the owners aren’t reading this.

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