Tony Clark thinks a draft lottery may be a good idea

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With all of the chatter about “tanking” lately, I suppose this was inevitable: someone suggesting an NBA/NHL-style draft lottery for baseball. That, in theory, would make finishing with the absolute worst, or near the worst, record in the game less important than it is now and could put a little more weight on the scale when it comes to a team deciding if it should try to win some games or merely punt for next year. Or punt for three years.

MLBPA head Tony Clark was asked about a lottery last week. Here’s what he said:

“It will be beneficial to look at that,” Clark said, “and not look at it in a vacuum but appreciate whatever it is that we attempt to negotiate there or propose there, that it ties into the other moving pieces and doesn’t create an imbalance.”

As I and others have noted — most recently Ken Rosenthal, who notes it today — “tanking” is something of an invented problem. It’s rebuilding, basically, and it’s hard to point out any team which has been accused of tanking in the past couple of years who would’ve been better served signing a veteran or two rather than just burning it down and starting from scratch. To this end, a lottery is something of a solution in search of a problem.

But if you accept that tanking is real and that it’s a big problem, implementing a lottery is no panacea. Indeed, it could even be counterproductive depending on how you do it. The NBA’s original lottery system, which was a straight “everyone who missed the playoffs had an equal shot at the first pick” thing was a fairly useful when it came to eliminating tanking. The problem, however, was that it also served, some years, to not benefit teams truly in need of top talent to compete.

Look at those late-90s San Antonio Spurs for an example of this. They were a strong team, then they were a lottery team for one year by virtue of a freak injury to David Robinson, got Tim Duncan in the lottery, Robinson came back and the rest is history. To combat that and other anomalies, the NBA went to a weighted lottery, which made the worst teams more likely to win the lottery. That brought tanking right back into things. Indeed, the NBA, despite its lottery, is where the term “tanking” was invented in sports.

All of which is to say that, as with most things, the devil is in the details. And, with as something as complicated as building a winning baseball club, which has a lot more moving parts than building a winning NBA team, there are many, many more variables in play, such as revenue sharing, draft money and slotting, rules restricting free agents, which could then impact the ability of a team to make a quick-turnaround and a half dozen other things I’m not even thinking of.

So, yes, I welcome Clark talking about lotteries. I just hope that he and Major League Baseball talk about a lot of other stuff too.