The Phillies are among a few teams that have come under recent criticism for “tanking”, which is a colloquialism used to describe a team that makes little or no effort to win games. The Phillies are in the middle of rebuilding, having traded away franchise icons Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and Cole Hamels prior or during the 2015 regular season. They have essentially been inactive in the free agent market, which is why no one was surprised they finished with the worst record in baseball last season. Projections have them doing the same in 2016.
Phillies president Andy MacPhail, who was introduced last summer and officially took over after the season, is annoyed by accusations that his team isn’t trying very hard to win games, CSN Philly’s Jim Salisbury reports:
“That annoys me beyond belief,” he said. “I don’t know why it’s been annoying me, but it’s a strategy that’s been employed in other sports, not so much in baseball. Teams have been rebuilding in baseball for 100 years.”
“I don’t know that Matt [Klentak] would have gone out and acquired [Jeremy] Hellickson and [Charlie] Morton if he wanted to lose 120 games,” MacPhail said. “He went through some effort to put stabilizers in the rotation. Yeah, we’re trying to skew young, accrue as much young talent as we can, but we have zero interest in conceding anything when 7:05 rolls around.”
There are two questions here that might aid in communication:
- Are the Phillies, by definition, tanking?
- Is tanking wrong?
There’s no question the Phillies are tanking. If they were truly trying to put a competitive team on the field, they could have tried to sign Ian Desmond to bolster second base at any point in February, when he was searching the classified ads on Craigslist. Desmond, as we saw, signed with the Rangers for much, much less than was expected when the offseason began. Cesar Hernandez holds the position now in Philadephia, but he isn’t a part of the team’s future, and 2015 draftee Scott Kingery is still three or four years away from being ready for the majors. The Phillies could’ve even had Desmond play his natural position at shortstop, pushing Freddy Galvis back to a utility role. The Phillies, in either scenario, could’ve then tried to flip Desmond at the deadline. That’s just one example.
The Phillies also traded young closer Ken Giles to the Astros over the winter. The trade makes a ton of sense for a rebuilding team, but it’s not something a team with an intent to win would do.
But the Phillies aren’t wrong for tanking, not one bit. MacPhail and Klentak are well within their rights to not sign free agents and to trade away young stars. This strategy is clearly setting the team up well for the future, as the Phillies’ minor league system has gone from rock bottom to top-ten in the game.
Perhaps the implication that MacPhail and others hear when people say “The Phillies are tanking!” is a follow-up “And it’s wrong!” By the current rules, it’s not wrong. Philosophically, one could make an argument.
Tony Clark, executive director of the MLB Players Association, recently said that he thinks a draft lottery would be a good idea. It would create less of an incentive for teams to finish with the worst record in baseball. Instead of being awful, teams could just be bad. The product on the field is diminished when teams have a priority other than winning every game. Fans in Philadelphia aren’t interested in outfields consisting of Delmon Young, Jeff Francoeur, and Roger Bermadina. They proved this by showing up at Citizens Bank Park in fewer and fewer numbers. That’s bad for baseball, and there should be some change in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement that attempts to help floundering teams stay competitive without giving them an incentive to concede games before the first pitch. Maybe it’s a draft lottery; maybe it’s something else.