Photo by Keith Allison.
Sports / Baseball

Allowing Teams to Trade Draft Picks Would Address MLB’s Tanking Problem

Over and over again, analysts have lamented Major League Baseball’s tanking problem. A tanking team, for those unfamiliar with the term, directs all of its resources toward building for the future. Instead of trying to compete for the playoffs, the team in question jettisons its veteran regulars in exchange for young talent. While this strategy has yielded the past two world champions, it also leaves the teams which engage in it at the bottom of the standings during their rebuilds. Sometimes, that can mean wayyyyy at the bottom.

Yes indeed, there is a reason why tanking is not very popular. According to the head of MLB’s Players’ Union, the practice threatens the integrity of the sport. Some even blame tanking for baseball’s decreasing attendance. These claims have, of course, led to counter-claims that the pennant race is as exciting as ever before, and that most bad teams aren’t even trying to tank. After all, the 47-115 Orioles thought they could compete this year! ‘Tanking,’ ‘rebuilding,’ ‘bad at baseball,’ the terminology doesn’t really matter. Semantics aside, baseball is filled with more horrifically bad teams than ever before. But, for no good reason at all, MLB rules take away an avenue for them to improve. Now more than ever, it is time to let Major League Baseball teams trade draft picks.

In the other major professional sports, teams can use future draft selections to acquire veteran talent. Case in point: last winter, the NBA’s Phoenix Suns traded point guard Eric Bledsoe to the Milwaukee Bucks for, among other things, a first-round pick. This was a great trade! The Suns, who were bad, did not need Eric Bledsoe; they had no shot at the playoffs with or without him. The Bucks, who were good, desperately wanted a starting point guard. At the same time, the Suns are building for the the future–that draft selection could be a part of the next great team in Phoenix. On the flip side, the Bucks are in contention right now, and losing a lottery ticket that might help them in 2021 is an acceptable price to pay for immediate impact on the court.

Of course, baseball is different than basketball. Every MLB team controls a handful of farm teams and hundreds of minor league players. This means that a framework similar to the Bledsoe trade is still possible in MLB, but the baseball version of the Suns would receive a ‘prospect’ instead of a draft pick for their veteran player. Trades just like this happen all the time. For instance, when the Chicago Cubs dealt for White Sox pitcher Jose Quintana last summer, they sent elite prospect Eloy Jimenez to their Chicago counterpart.

So, if prospect-for-player trades are easy in MLB, then why does it matter that teams can’t trade draft selections? Simply put, limiting the pool of resources makes a trade more difficult to execute. There aren’t that many high-end prospects available at any one time; not every team has an Eloy Jimenez to trade, even if they wanted to make a blockbuster deal. If every team’s future draft pick is on the table, the trade possibilities increase exponentially. Teams that once had few resources would be able compete in trade-deadline bidding wars. In turn, more bidders would mean a higher price for the selling team’s veteran player.

Furthermore, teams would be much more likely to trade draft selections than prospects. Teams grow emotionally attached to prospects; most minor leaguers were closely scouted, specifically selected, and carefully nurtured by the team that employs them. Through this process, general managers become invested in the success of particular players in their system. Consequently, prospects are held more tightly than a draft pick, even if the assets are of similar objective value. If contending teams give up valuable resources more freely, rebuilds will proceed better and faster.

For rebuilding teams, though, there is another benefit to freeing draft picks up for trade. In the MLB draft, picks are attached to bonus allotments, the amount the drafting team can pay its selected  players. Summing the allotments for all of a team’s picks yields its bonus pool, which cannot be exceeded in the draft. This system forces teams to make difficult decisions. If a club offers a higher bonus, they may attract a better player, but will weaken the rest of their draft haul. On the other hand, selecting ‘cheaper’ players in the early rounds allows teams to find talent in the later ones.

Additional draft picks, especially high draft picks, would give much more flexibility to rebuilding teams. With stocked bonus pools, teams could advise players they favored to hold out for big money, then pay up for them in the latter portion of the draft. Getting second-round talent in the fifth round is a good way to accelerate a rebuild.

Of course, one could argue that these juicier returns for veteran players would just make teardowns more appealing in the first place. Aren’t we trying to stop tanking, not incentivize it? The problem with this logic is that the motivation to rebuild is already enormous. This change would hardly make a difference. The Cubs and Astros just tanked their ways to the freaking World Series–there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. Meanwhile, my proposal solves one of baseball’s thorniest problems: rebuilding teams stuck in perpetual badness. If rebuilds are going to be a part of the game, we want to them as effective as possible. Otherwise you get a team like the Cincinnati Reds, who’ve had a losing record in five consecutive seasons and remain nowhere near contention.

Allowing MLB teams to trade draft picks is not a silver bullet; teardowns will continue, and there will always be a team or two that gets stuck in the cellar. The proposed change, however, is a step in the right direction, and one that comes at no cost. By adding an arrow to rebuilding teams’ quivers, MLB can alleviate some of the ills of tanking and score a victory for competitive baseball.