Tanking isn’t pretty, but it works. Ask the World Series-champion Braves

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Pitchers and catchers aren’t reporting. Baseball remains on hold. Most of the lockout involves quibbles over money, but one of the players’ planks is halfway high-minded.

Players want to make it harder to tank. As Mariners pitcher Paul Sewald told a Seattle radio station: “It’s very disappointing for fans to buy season tickets, to go to games, when you know that their owner (and) their general manager are not putting out the best product they possibly can because they want to – we’ll use the word ‘tank’ – for a couple years so they can get a top-five draft pick and they can accumulate these draft picks.”

Commissioner Rob Manfred noted last week that players and owners, who don’t agree on much, have agreed to turn the MLB draft into a lottery, same as the NBA did after the Houston Rockets snagged Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon No. 1 overall in consecutive drafts. (Conspiracy theorists insist the first lottery was rigged to put Patrick Ewing in Madison Square Garden.)

Not to be outdone, the Astros – Houston is the capital of tanking – positioned themselves to have the first pick for three drafts running. Shortstop Carlos Correa was the 1-1 choice in 2012. Pitcher Mark Appel was in 2013. Brady Aiken, also a pitcher, was in 2014. Appel was a flop. Aiken refused to sign with the Astros. Correa, though, became the cornerstone of a team that has reached the World Series three times in five years.

Because Aiken didn’t sign, Houston was awarded the No. 2 pick in 2015. That became third baseman Alex Bregman, another franchise-type player. The No. 1 pick that year was Dansby Swanson. He landed, albeit briefly, with Arizona. Then another tanker pried him away.

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.