The Phillies aren’t tanking. Ok, let me clarify: If any team in baseball is tanking, it’s the Phillies. But baseball tanking isn’t the brazen strategy seen in the NBA and on Sam Hinkie’s greatest hits reel. Andy MacPhail doesn’t like the word, whereas Sam Hinkie might have it tattooed across his chest. It’s not something the Phillies are advertising they’re doing. They’re playing their young guys, solidifying their core, and seeing who is part of their future. In baseball, it’s a lot harder to build a full, winning team. A star or two just doesn’t do it. So “tanking,” on principle, is just a fact-finding mission about the guys you have, before moving onto the acquisition phase.
“In part, this is because of the nature of the two sports: Most years the payoff of the top pick in MLB isn’t as grand as it is in the NBA. Consider, just one top overall pick since 1965 (Ken Griffey, Jr.) has made Baseball’s Hall of Fame. By contrast, 11 NBA No. 1’s since then are in Springfield, with Shaquille O’Neal, Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan and Lebron James guaranteed entry.”
Consider: The Phillies’ last five top-five draft picks were Gavin Floyd, Pat Burrell, J.D. Drew, Wayne Gomes, and Mike Lieberthal. All-Stars in our hearts, some. Hall of Famers on paper, none.
That doesn’t mean tanking is not an issue in the eyes of baseball people. According to Jayson Stark, though it’s being tip-toed around now, it’ll likely be brought up the next time the MLBPA has contract discussions. But another way it differs from the NBA version of the same strategy, Stark says, is it’s more likely to work here:
“But are the Phillies putting together a team designed to contend this year? Of course not. Are four or five or six other particular teams? Of course not. And is that a problem for this sport? What do you think?
As Buster Olney and I have both written, the current system in this sport makes that an excellent strategy — at least for the long haul. The Houston Astros could tell you all about it. The Chicago Cubs engaged in at least a variation of it. And you know what? Why wouldn’t they?”
It just works in baseball. Players are less likely to chase large markets and want to team up with other stars. Plus, with a roster of 25-men and players who don’t play every day, you have to be good enough outside of your star-power to win anyway. You can’t just chase draft picks and win. In the NBA, agents reportedly try to position their clients away from tanking teams. In the MLB, Scott Boras encouraged it.
Even Peter Gammons, one of the oldest and wisest baseball minds in the game, doesn’t see the big deal. “The draft does not immediately impact the balance of power,” Gammons wrote. “It’s whom you buy, why you spent and what you do with whom you spent your investment.”
So where does that leave the Phillies?
When it comes to win total, I wouldn’t be surprised if they surpass last year, but not by much. Experts predict them to be last in baseball. But as someone who has watched way more Sixers games than any mental health professional would suggest, I’m already trained in how to watch the Phils.
Here’s what you do: Ignore the record. Ignore the sports yelling. Ignore Ryan Howard. Watch the young guys, see how they develop, and see how they play in certain situations. Don’t look at it as “Aaron Altherr stinks.” Look at it as “Altherr needs to get better jumps on the ball in the outfield. He needs to see the break of the pitch better, etc.” Be a smarter viewer. Now, you can still be mad at the team for being bad all you want, but at least you’ll be able to see the sunny side of things, wherever they may be.
It’ll actually be fun (frustrating too). It’s amazing what not caring about a final score can do for your enjoyment and analysis of a team. I highly recommend it, but only for a year or so. I can’t take it from more than one franchise.
Post Script: On the issue of Howard: I asked Kyle what he’d have to do not to disappoint or make people mad. His answer was 30 home runs. I think mine is that he just stay out-of-the-way. Many look at him holding Darin Ruf back, but Ruf is already 30, and unless he goes off he may not be the answer at first base either.