The question of whether some teams are intentionally building bad rosters in order to improve their standing in subsequent drafts -- tanking, to borrow the parlance of the NBA -- was raised at the most recent Major League Baseball owners meetings, according to sources.
The January discussion in Coral Gables, Florida, was not formal, and there haven't been any official steps taken toward exploring the question of whether teams are endeavoring to lose. But some teams have expressed concern about a strategy that is drawing more and more attention among baseball operations officials. Another reason for the discussion at the owners meetings was to bring up to speed anyone who wasn't aware of the conversation about the perceived tactic within the sport.
If Major League Baseball decides to pursue an adjustment to the rules to deter teams from pursuing a tanking strategy, there will be an immediate opportunity, given the ongoing negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement. The current agreement expires in December. "It'll probably be addressed in some way in the collective bargaining agreement," predicted one ownership source.
The Houston Astros are often cited within the sport as the model of a team that has benefited from losing a lot. From 2011 through 2013, the Astros became the first team since the 1962-65 Mets to lose at least 106 games in three consecutive seasons, and as a result, they were positioned at the top of three straight drafts.
Not only did Houston have access to the top picks, but the Astros also have had the largest pools of draft dollars to spend in the first years since Major League Baseball negotiated a slotting system in which teams are assigned spending caps according to what picks they possess. The Astros ascended quickly from their struggles, making the playoffs last season.
The lure of the draft picks and draft dollars is why many club executives believe that a growing number of teams are designing rosters to lose a lot of games and are curbing their spending and bypassing possible upgrades to do so.
In 2013, the Astros' payroll was projected to be about $25 million at the start of the season, and Houston traded away almost every player making more than $1 million. The Astros finished with a record of 51-111 and picked first in the 2014 draft.
Some of the concerned teams link the question of tanking to the ongoing conversation about revenue-sharing, according to sources. Owners of large-market teams believe small-market teams should allocate funds provided to them to improving their on-field product. Instead, in some cases, those dollars have been used for debt and for partner and executive payments. Some small-market owners believe they should be able to use the revenue-sharing funds as they see fit.
The possibility that some teams which get revenue-sharing dollars might be taking the money and still structuring their rosters to lose rather than spending it to improve has inflamed the ire of some big-market clubs.