OK, that's a loaded term, a dirty word in the world of sports.
As we saw this offseason, however, there is a big difference between being the 10th-worst team in baseball and the 11th-worst. The New York Mets needed an outfielder. Actually, they needed three outfielders. As Michael Bourn's free agency dragged into late January and then into February, it became clear the Mets were very interested in the speedy center fielder.
But the Mets hold the 11th pick in the draft. Only the first 10 first-round picks are protected from free agents who were given a qualifying offer from their previous clubs, as the Braves did with Bourn. (The Mets actually had the 10th-worst record last season, but since the Pirates failed to sign Mark Appel, the eighth overall pick in 2012, they received a compensatory ninth pick, pushing the Mets down to 11th overall.)
The Mariners are slotted right after the Mets in the draft, and they too needed an outfielder. They made a push for free agent Josh Hamilton, but were never tied to Bourn or Nick Swisher, perhaps because they didn't want to lose their first-round pick for either of those two.
So the Indians, drafting fifth, swooped in and signed Swisher and Bourn, acquiring two good players and losing only their far less valuable second- and third-round picks.
This system isn't a radical departure from the previous rules of free agency, which classified various free agents as "Type A" and "Type B." Under that system, the first 15 selections were protected when a team signed a Type A free agent, so the new system only removes five teams from the protected list -- still, that's 17 percent, enough to certainly drag down the potential negotiating leverage of guys like Swisher and Bourn, at least a little.
As others like Joe Sheehan have written, the free-agent compensation system isn't so much about creating competitive balance -- although this year, in the case of Cleveland, it worked out that way -- as it is holding down player salaries. Michael Bourn wasn't "free" to negotiate with 30 teams; he was "free" to negotiate with 10 teams; the other 20 all had to balance the money given to Bourn with the loss of a first-round pick.
Of course, the 11th pick is much more valuable than the 30th pick, and that's what makes the current system unfair to teams like the Mets and Mariners that are just on the wrong side of the line. And that's what gets us to the headline on this piece: You'd much rather finish a few games worse and end up with the ninth or 10th pick then get stuck in that no-man's land of not being close to the postseason and yet being punished when it comes to signing free agents. Again, this has always been the case to a certain extent, except if you were previously on that line between the 15th and 16th pick, you were also closer to being a playoff team.
Where is that division now? Here are the last five seasons, with the ninth-worst team's win total listed first, followed by the 10th-, 11th- and 12th-worst.
We're only talking a few wins here and I'd note all these win totals are under that magical .500 barrier that mediocre teams often push for at the end of a season, so no team would have to forgo that goal to "tank" and get a better draft position. But say you're the Cubs and you're five games under .500 in late July, essentially out of the playoff race; getting to that 10th spot certainly provides added incentive to trade away guys like Scott Baker or Scott Feldman or Matt Garza. You may not even be worried so much about the quality of prospect you get in return; you want to lose a couple more games if you can. Publicly, you're just suggesting you need to give some of the younger guys a chance to play (which is probably a good idea anyway).
Maybe teams have always done this and we just never paid attention until the Mets/Bourn case highlighted this. (You would have to study the number of Type A free agents signed by teams drafting, say, 13th through 15th versus those drafting 16th through 18th.)
Anyway, I don't think we're talking about NBA-level tanking here; teams aren't going to make a mockery of the sport, especially since managers and general managers may be fighting to hold on to their jobs and every win may count in that regard. But come August or September, pay close attention to those teams on pace for about 74 or 75 wins.