The 2016 World Series was won by the long-suffering Cubs, who lost 101, 96 and 89 games from 2012 to ‘14, Theo Epstein’s first three seasons in Chicago. They took Kris Bryant No. 2 in 2013, Kyle Schwarber at No. 4 in 2014. In 2015, the Cubs made the playoffs. In 2016, they won it all for the first time since 1908.
The third great tanker of recent years is one we know well. Under John Coppolella, the Braves dumped every decent player save Freddie Freeman – high-profile departures: Jason Heyward, Evan Gattis, the Upton brothers, Craig Kimbrel, Jose Peraza, Alex Wood and Andrelton Simmons – and flipped Shelby Miller, acquired for Heyward, for Swanson, who’d been MLB’s top draftee five months earlier.
Try as Coppolella might, his Braves never lost enough to land the No. 1 pick, or even the No. 2. Their highest draftee of the era was Ian Anderson, taken No. 3 in 2016. In the 2021 World Series, he yielded no hits over five innings of Game 3. The Braves’ first-round pick in 2017 was Kyle Wright. He started Game 4, working into the fifth and keeping his team close enough that back-to-back homers by Swanson and Jorge Soler would win it.
As awful as tanking is to watch, it can work. From 2011 through 2013, the Astros lost 324 games. From 2017 through 2019, they won 311 games. They were the worst team in baseball until they became the best.
From 2015 through 2017, the Braves were 207-278. Over that span, they acquired Swanson, Anderson, Wright, Max Fried, Mike Soroka and Austin Riley. Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna were holdovers from Frank Wren’s stewardship. They’ve since won the National League East four times in succession. They reached Game 7 of the NLCS in 2020. They won the World Series on Nov. 2, 2021.
No, they wouldn’t have won last fall without Alex Anthopoulos’ deadline acquisitions of Soler, Eddie Rosario, Adam Duvall and Joc Pederson. Still, they wouldn’t have been positioned to reach the pinnacle without three years spent in self-imposed purgatory. The same applied to the Cubs, who reached the playoffs five times over six seasons, and the Astros, who’ve made it six times in seven.
Buying big-ticket free agents might work for a bit, but it’s not a sustainable strategy. Nobody can afford to keep doing it for long. Even the Dodgers offset pricy acquisitions with young players they developed – Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger, Walker Buehler, Julio Urias – and bargain finds Justin Turner, Chris Taylor and Max Muncy.
Though MLB and its players want to make tanking less blatant, the clubs themselves might prefer it remain an available option. Three of the past six World Series champs are proud alums of Tank U. (As in, “Tank U very much.”) The Braves just dispatched their dearly won Commissioner’s Trophy on tour across the South. No tanking, no trophy.