MLB draft lottery is a good step, but should go further

In the 1992-93 NBA season, the Orlando Magic won 41 games and missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker. Their consolation prize was a spot in the NBA draft lottery, which they unexpectedly won. With their top pick, they chose Chris Webber, whom they then traded for Penny Hardaway and a bucket of future draft picksone of which turned out to be Vince Carter.

Pundits were aghast. The Magic already had Shaquille O’Neal, and adding Hardaway would set them up to contend for multiple championships. The response was to revamp the lottery odds so that truly lousy teams got the best shot at the best picks. This system has been tweaked repeatedly over the ensuing years, to the point where you need a math degree to understand it. None of the solutions that have been tried have dissuaded teams from tanking.

All of which misses the point, which is not that I decided to post a basketball story on a baseball website, despite how it might look. This was 30 years ago, so I can’t say for sure if the teams at the bottom of the standings were tanking or just sucked, but if they were tanking, it didn’t workbecause the original lottery structure created no incentive for tanking.

That brings us to this year’s collective bargaining agreement between Major League Baseball and its players, in which all non-playoff teams have a chance at the first pick in the draft. The agreement also has a mechanism that prevents teams from picking near the top of the draft year after year, which should keep teams from embarking on the dreaded “five-year plans” which are usually designed only to avoid accountability for most of that time span. .

This represents real progress in eliminating the incentive for tanking, at least to the extent that is actually occurring. A few things need to be pointed out, though:

  1. The odds of winning the lottery are tilted toward the worst teams, and the team with the worst record is guaranteed no worse than the seventh pick, unless they are serial lottery participants. Why not give all non-playoff participants the same odds, and subject the first 18 picks to the lottery? You might get an outcome like what happened to the Magic all those years ago, but teams would go into the season knowing that, unless they made the playoffs, they had a one-in-18 shot at the first pick. They would also know that if they slashed payroll to the bone they would not be helping their chances at a top pick, but would just be saving money and upsetting their fans.
  2. It should also be pointed out that only two of the 10 players who posted the highest WARs in 2021 were drafted in the top 10 picks. For all the talk about tanking, it only works if you pick good players, and some teams never seem to get that part right.
  3. Finally, we should define tanking. the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs won World Series in recent years because they stripped their rosters of talent and made no effort to be competitive for several years so they could stockpile picks. That was tanking, and it worked because they could afford to keep that talent once it developed. The Chicago White Sox, on the other hand, traded veterans for prospects because they saw no window to be competitive while those veterans were under contract. That is good roster management, not tanking, even if the end result has been similar. The Tampa Bay Rays, Oakland Athletics, and Cleveland Guardians routinely trade players when they no longer fit the budget, then use the return from those trades to stay competitive. That is being frugal. Maybe they could stand to be a little less frugal from the point of view of their fans and the union, but they aren’t tanking.
  4. Finally, there are the teams in an endless cycle of rebuilding who decide that it makes more sense to lose 100 games with a $50 million payroll than lose 90 games and spend $100 million. While this isn’t technically tanking, it’s the problem the players’ union would most like to address.

An MLB draft lottery probably won’t affect this behavior all that much, because these teams are motivated more by the bottom line than by any long-range strategy.

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